Tag Archive for equity

Talk-ED: An ode to semantics

Stuart Middleton
23 February 2012

One of my favourite cartoons is a Jules Feiffer (NY Times) in which an old man sits in his chair and reflects.

“I used to think to think I was poor.

Then they told me I wasn’t poor, I was needy.

Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived.

Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged.

Then they told me underprivileged was over-used. I was disadvantaged.

I still don’t have a dime.

But I have a great vocabulary!”

I thought of this on several recent occasions when I have got involved in discussions about words to use when describing the groups of students who enjoy little success in education systems. It’s an international issue – what you refer to them as. So too is the fact that such groups exist!

We have a range of words at our disposal that includes underserved, underrepresented, disadvantaged, special needs, and so on. Each captures something of the essence of the groups we are talking about but each also carries with it, like all words, certain linguistic baggage.

Special Needs

Often this is used to refer to students who require different or enhanced approaches. In New Zealand it seems largely to have been applied to students with disabilities of some kind or another and there is a reluctance, appropriate I think, to apply it to students who are largely without disability but who are not making progress.

This has some difficulties. For instance, if a student enters a system with a language background that is different from the lingua franca of the system then clearly they have “a special need”. If a student is gifted in mathematics, they have “a special need.”  There might even be a case to be made that each and every student has a special need but…


This word usefully describes a phenomenon – disadvantage – and is less precise about its target. Disadvantage can be the result of a number of things which do not produce a positive outcome and leave an individual not able to enjoy benefits that others can. Being hard of hearing in a meeting in a noisy setting produces disadvantage. So disadvantage is a useful word but has limitations when applied to a student. The disadvantage is usually a set of factors that are outside the student or wrapped up in the inability of the education system to work effectively with students from a diverse range of backgrounds or social settings. It is not a useful description because it blurs the sources of disadvantage.


Now this is a factual description. In the US there is no doubt about who is being referred to when the term “traditionally underrepresented” is used. Take the winners in examinations – who is not there in the numbers they should be? Take the NCEA results – why is there discrepant figures for different groups? I like “underrepresented” as a word that draws attention to flaws in statements and results and analyses. Take the PISA results – yes we do brilliantly but which groups are underrepresented in sharing that brilliant performance. Conversely, take the NEETs group and which groups are “overrepresented”?


This is a trickier word. Does it imply blame? Does it picture the relationships between teachers and students, schools and communities, education systems and groups within the population as ones in which one party are responsible for “serving” the other? Well yes it does and so it should. But one can “serve” without any hint of “subservience”.

If in the queue for breakfast the kitchen runs out of food before everyone has their food, some will not be served. If this repeatedly happens to the same group, they are most certainly “underserved” by the kitchen and, frankly, only the kitchen can solve it.

So “underserved” means something different from the others, it is based on a pattern and in education systems that pattern is pretty clear for some groups. So too is it in health systems, housing provision, the employment stakes and so on. It is not peculiar to education. Where there are systems there are generally individuals and groups that are underserved.

All this is a difficult issue because people bring meaning to words that might differ from the intended meaning of those who write or speak them. Do we call those we teach “students” or “pupils” – they are not exactly synonymous but both are better than the ubiquitously used “kids”, this makes us seem like goats!

There are discussions often about teaching and learning – that’s an easy one.

Of course we could simply refer accurately to the groups who generally do not benefit from education systems to the same extent as other groups. These are clear across different countries – Maori and Pasifika in New Zealand, Aboriginal communities in Australia, First Nations groups in Canada, Hispanic and African American in the USA and in the UK, children from immigrant groups. Across all these countries those who bring English as an additional language to the system will have some uphill paths to tread, it doesn’t pay to be of low socio-economic status (i.e. poor) and students with special needs will require strong advocacy to get the help they need and are entitled to.

We know all this, we know that we are not getting the results we should and must. Doing something about it requires us not to talk about it but to act on it. It is the results students get not the way they are described that will make a difference. It is what we do not what we say that will lead to more equitable outcomes.

“Priority learners” is gaining ground in New Zealand lately. I worry about how that word attracts “high” and “low” so easily.


Pathway-ED: It takes more than a village; it takes a country

Stuart Middleton
30 June 2011

In both Australia and New Zealand currently there is increased discussion about the need to engage young people especially but more people generally in  vocational and technical education.

In New Zealand the Government is pursuing a policy it calls Youth Guarantee which is an umbrella under which a variety of initiative aimed at keeping students in education and directing increased numbers into vocation and technical courses are being encouraged. In Australia, a recent report[1] makes explicit the valuable role that VET is playing in Australia in a wide range of programmes. It also makes clear the role VET is playing in bringing a semblance of equity into the Australian postsecondary provision.

The performance of education systems in both countries would look pretty sad if only the contribution of the universities was the measure of equitable access to qualifications and the benefits that come with them. A critical mass of students from traditionally under-represented groups find positive pathways through programmes offered at a sub-degree level and which lead them to those highly valued technical and middle level qualifications of which both countries are very short.

There is no evidence that there is a shortage of degree graduates in either country and when there are such shortages it is often in areas that have declared the need for a degree level qualification despite the proven worth of diploma qualification over many years – I think of various levels of teaching, nursing, town planning and so on. In New Zealand IPENZ the professional body for engineers has recently completed a survey that shows that the pressures in that sector come not from a shortage of degree-qualified people but from a serious shortage of those qualified with middle level and technical qualifications.

Therefore the setting of targets related to proportions of the population who should have degrees is simply a silly exercise. Australia and the UK with their 40% targets are ignoring the importance of having a spread of qualifications across levels to maintain industry and commerce. Even the credibility of such targets has been attacked in Britain where, it is claimed, the government would be stretched beyond their limit by the capital expenditure if this were to be the goal and even if they could, where would the teachers come from? It simply wouldn’t happen.

In the US, the even higher targets mean even less when so many of their indicators are headed to the frozen south at a great speed. Of course the broadening of the goal that every one should go to “college” was achieved through the development of community colleges in the US – this adding of opportunity underneath the conventional “higher education” happened also in New Zealand.

New Zealand used to have a clear “higher education” sector which required the University Entrance qualification and generally five years at secondary school. This was a track favoured by about 10% of each cohort. Others left earlier to enter employment or vocational education and often both. But the removal of pathways through the mid-1970s to thje mid-1990s saw many young people stranded with nowhere to go – the only choice was to remain at schools in which the curriculum had become comprehensive and markedly academic.

But we are seeing our way out of that now and a renewed focus on pathways and linked learning that both sets students in a direction but with options is likely to see a reversal in the worrying trends of disengagement, low qualification, poor preparation and the other facts that weight so heavily in terms of equitable access to further and higher education and the rewards that go with it. Who knows, one day our system might even develop some of the flexibility of the Scandinavians and other and students with credible middle level qualifications gained in a vocational area will be able to transfer with ease into higher level qualifications should they wish to.

But if New Zealand and Australia want to make real, the professed commitments to equitable access to further and higher education and to meaningful qualifications it will require changes in policy settings (that is happening), investment of resources where it will make an impact (that must be at the senior secondary / lower tertiary levels) and a different level of parity of esteem between those meeting the needs of the countries through different pathways by different provision with different sets of people.

[1] Wheelahan, Leesa; & Moodie, Gavin (2010) The quality of teaching in VET: Final report and recommendations produced for the Quality of Teaching in VET project, Australian College of Educators

Pathways-ED: Access isn't a doorway, it's a pathway

Stuart Middleton
16 July 2011

I have just finished attending a conference in San Diego that looked at success and retention in higher education. It was a good collection of folk from a number of countries and the presentations were a mix of the earnest through to the thought provoking. I did a couple of things including taking part in a panel. I got called to account by a fellow by focussing on “access” in one of my comments.

“In our country we have excellent access to higher education. It is just that a number of young people are not sufficiently prepared academically to get into the institutions.” I just had to firmly but nicely point out that this hardly constituted good access. The old problem is still there – access is thought of in terms of getting in the door.

I much prefer, and I commented along the lines (and received support) that “access” is best thought of as an outcome of education. What does your education give you access to? That is the key question and the only measure of access.

To pick up again that little three dot theme from the last couple of weeks – I promise to give it a rest after this – it is worth  thinking of access and early childhood education as a starting point and therefore appropriately useful to retain an “access into” concept. That is why it is so crucial that this access is not allowed to become simply an accident of birth or where your Mum happens to live. That would be a cruel punishment to visit on a child.

But schooling is another matter. Primary and secondary schooling is surely based on an assumption that both will give to a young person access into something else. If a young person cannot progress through the system because they have not been taught in primary school to read or to do sums then their access to secondary education will have been severely curtailed by their primary school experience.

The point to which a young person is taken by their secondary schooling will in fact be their access to whatever is to follow. Access to postsecondary education, a career, a family sustaining income, to the skills of being able to contribute as a positive and productive citizen will in large measure be a direct reflection of access accruing from secondary schooling.

Then success at a postsecondary level and all that follows will again be a matter of access, to a profession, to a career, to being able to earn money and much more money and so on.

Placing “access” into the position of being a measure of education success rather than simply saying that they have had good access if they can walk through the school gates and later into the hallowed halls regardless of the success at each stage is a much more productive way if thinking about it.

Less controversial is thinking of “equity” in much that same way. Equity is an outcome and a measure of how fair and effective has each person’s education been. It is not equity if having given a diverse range of people the same opportunity but with uneven levels of successful outcomes. Equity is when all members of our community, whether they be rich or poor, of whatever ethnicity….Wait a minute, someone else said all this in New Zealand.

They were right.

“Access” and “equity”, still the biggest challenges we face.

Talk-ED: Big issues in the world of the little ones

Stuart Middleton
13 June 2011

From San Francisco

I’m over in the USA catching up with colleagues working in the secondary / tertiary interface area. California is experiencing pretty tough times politically and economically with budgets under real pressure and education budgets taking a hit. It’s worse here than it is at home.

It always surprises me when we get chatting how much we share in common with our American colleagues. But it wasn’t in the area of secondary / tertiary interfaces that we found an item of shared interest that dropped out of a conversation. It was with regard to the little ones under five years of age. We concluded that both our systems were under some pressure due to much the same issue – confusion between day care and early childhood education.

Childcare is where a young little one is looked after with care and to a high standard by people qualified to provide such care. They attend to their creature needs and see that they are happy and relaxed and getting along well with their peers and with adults. Of course some learning takes place – no-one has yet discovered how to stop little ones learning thank goodness, but it is not the structured teaching and learning of an early childhood education programme. These childcare centres require people with the requisite skills and they need to be closely regulated and controlled. But that are not early childhood education centres.

Early childhood education is structured teaching in ways that are appropriate to 3 and 4 year olds in areas that are appropriate and methods that reflect the critical concern for non-cognitive behaviours. There is an element of school-readiness in this and it is in addition to the care of little ones who remain very much in need of a safe environment under the watch of highly trained teachers.

Our current 1-5 system is seriously confused about these distinctions and the boundaries are so blurred that “care” and “education” mean much the same thing.

Over the past 10 days in this blog we have dealt with the three dots of a successful start to lifelong learning – two years of quality early childhood education, graduating from high school and gaining a postsecondary qualification. Currently New Zealand is doing quite well with the first of these until the provisions of quality early childhood education (two years of 15 hours per week) is scrutinized in urban areas of high Maori and Pasifika populations. Access is unacceptably low in many of these areas and until we get all three and four year olds into quality early childhood education for 15 hours a week over two years, the resources for pre-school care and education should be directed to that end.

I applaud the scrapping of the twenty hours on non-means tested care/education and applaud the scrutiny that the resources are now going to be put under. Yes, I have sympathy for those who need the twenty free hours to work in order to supplement their incomes but that is another issue. The ECE resource must be used according to principles of access for little ones not the size of their parents mortgages and rationed according to rules around universal ECE access. All three and four year olds must be in an early childhood centre for two days a week for the two years prior to their starting school. When that is achieved and cemented in place a more liberal approach might be able to be taken.

Of course there is nothing to stop centres both private and state offering child care for those younger but this must not be at the expense of 3 and 4 year olds getting their early childhood education and therefore this becomes the priority for state funding. There is probably enough to go around.

I have had final responsibility for early childhood centres as a secondary principal, as a senior manager in a teachers college, at a polytechnic and most recently as Chairman of Directors of a company that ran among its many activities, five early childhood centres. I know how the funding levers work and how they act in a perverse manner to achieve objectives that are not those of offering quality early childhood education to all three and four year olds for the two years before school. I know what the levels of trained staff do to the income streams. It all needs looking at.

The early years have become the last bastion of funding by volume and the results have been no more acceptable than they ever proved to be at other levels.

Talk-ED: Episode 3 – The Destiny of Destination

Stuart Middleton
7 June 2011

Folks, today we wrap up the continuing story of the three dots. Those critical markers in education. The milestones along the educational journey to a bright future in which there are jobs and income, and civic participation, and better health and housing and happiness. Not just for some, but for all.


Dot 3: Postsecondary Qualification

The first step achieved, two years of quality early childhood education, and then the second knocked off, NCEA Level 2 in the bag. There remains only one more step to ensure a life of relative success in education and all that flows from that – the gaining of a postsecondary qualification

Of course, in the long run, the level of qualification that is obtained will have a relative benefit in terms of money. Certificate, diploma, degree, postgraduate qualification and doctorate will all brings rewards but the highest has some relationship to the level of the qualification. But the biggest gap is between those who do not have a post secondary qualification and those who do.

And from the countries point of view, any postsecondary qualification will be of benefit to the country. Most importantly, getting one postsecondary qualification could lead to getting a higher qualification. A surprising fact is that if young school leavers have no gap between getting their school leaving qualification and success with a postsecondary qualification at any level they are very likely to go on to a high qualification.

Why is it beyond us to take note of these simple facts and make them our goals. This country has the best teachers in the world, something obscured a bit by the whingers and those frightened of change, but the fact remains – when New Zealand teachers get it right they get it better than anyone else.

So let’s go for it and make sure that each and every young person gets to the postsecondary qualification. Then it is over to the tertiary sector. But don’t underestimate the challenge that this would be. The most robust education statistic over the last sixty years is the fact that in English speaking countries a little under half of those who start a postsecondary qualification actually finish it. That is, remember, only half of those who start a qualification!

So we had better start acting in tertiary education thinking more about the student and more about how a co-ordinated network of provision could provide success for each and every student. This will require a step change in tertiary institutions – it is, folk, all about the students not about the institutions. We need concerted action to see that students are in the right course and flexibility to react professionally when they are not. Parity of esteem should be about not how we see each other but how we see each student.

Until New Zealand catches up, the greatest need will be for low level programmes and institutions that specialise at that level, being allowed to grow to cater for this. Over time – 15 to 20 years? – the growth should shift to those catering for higher levels as failure at school and at low levels of postsecondary programmes slowly disappear from our midst. Is this just a pipe dream?

The three dots connected would provide the basis for a targeted education system that sees a well-qualified community develop a skill-rich economy that puts New Zealand where it belongs. There is agreement that until the long tail of educational failure and disadvantage disappears, New Zealand will only fire on three cylinders. Wealth generated by the qualified and the skilled will, if there continues to be inaction on these matters, simply be soaked up in providing for those who take and do not generate that wealth.

This set of goals can do the job:

1.  Each and every New Zealand pre-school child will have access to two years of quality early childhood education.

2.  Each and every young person in New Zealand will graduate from secondary school with at least NCEA Level 2.

3.  Each and every young adult in New Zealand will complete a postsecondary qualification

Why are these goals appropriate and important?

Evidence supports the view that when a young child has access to quality early childhood education (i.e. 15 hours per week for two years with qualified teachers), he or she will not only be equipped to start the journey through school but also be advantaged throughout their entire education.

Finishing and graduating from secondary school with the recognised school leaving qualification (and this is NCEA Level 2 in New Zealand) makes a school leaver highly likely to proceed to a postsecondary qualification.

Finally, completing a postsecondary qualification is the marker of a potential lifelong learner. When that postsecondary qualification is gained without a break after completing secondary school the student will in all likelihood go on to a qualification at a higher level.

Can we do it?  Yes, we can.  Must we do it?  Yes, we must.  Will we do it? Well …

Just close your eyes and imagine a world in which each young person is unleashed on the future.  Dr Seuss in his wonderful book Oh, the Places you’ll Go!

You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.

Pathways-ED: Episode 2 – Crossing the Prairie

Stuart Middleton
2 June 2011

Folks this is the continuing story of the three dots. Those critical markers in education. The milestones along the educational journey to a bright future in which there are jobs and income, and civic participation, and better health and housing and happiness. Not just for some, but for all.


Dot 2: Schooling

Having got off to good start in Early Childhood Education (and three cheers to the ECE Taskforce that has recommended the ending of the untargeted 20 free hours) it’s off to school. I do not know any young person who doesn’t want to go to school at the age of five – why does that not last for the 13 years we would like them to be in school? The second dot is the successful completion of at least NCEA Level 2. Students who complete the school leaving qualification are likely to go on to complete a postsecondary qualification.

Schooling is divided into Primary and Post-Primary for a good reason. Primary is what comes first and post-primary builds on that. The use of the term secondary is relatively modern (indeed the NZPPTA preserves this useful reminder of the connection between the two in its name).

What is the role of the primary system? Well. I don’t think that it is very complex. It is to put in place an array of basic skills that lay the foundation for further education and training. Becoming a lifelong learner starts at primary school and those who fail to put into place those skills have no chance of becoming a lifelong learner – it’s that important.

What are the skills? As Dame Edna would say : “Call me old-fashioned Possums, but……” Surely the essential skills of language have to be at the top of the list. Reading, writing, listening, speaking are central skills in anything. If you can read you can do anything, learn anything. If you can write you interface with the world in so many different ways. Listening and speaking are keystone skills in team activity, working with others, being engaged with others, taking an active role as a citizen. Lack of these skills is crippling and limiting.

We wouldn’t even consider all those strange concepts such as financial literacy, computer literacy, food literacy and so on if everyone had high level language skills which these days are wrapped up usefully in the term “literacy”.

Sums, maths, numbers, numeracy, call it whatever you like but students who are good at this are well-equipped to tackle so many other things. The skills are fundamental. If you have to learn the tables to do this then just get on with it. If you have to do 20 mental arithmetic questions each day to increase ease and facility with numbers then do it.

It would be good if students developed some sense and understanding of the country in which they lived but it would have to be authentic – the modern, diverse country they live in not the world of Julius Vogel. Slowly the history of our nation would come into play and then there would develop an understanding of other countries. Primary school is also the place at which an ease with Te Reo Maori could usefully be developed.

Probably there is a need for a much narrower curriculum focus than that currently pursued but that might seem to lose too many valuable things that primary schools do. It will boil down to priorities.

When it comes to post-primary education there is clearly continuation of the development of language and of numeracy with an increasing emphasis on the ways language is used for varying purposes. It was always a disappointment that the notion of language across the curriculum enjoyed such a short life-span in secondary schools. Its intent was good but its execution was never able to overcome the silos of subjects.

As students approach the end of Year 10, the knowledge that they need to have around careers, vocational pathways and suchlike becomes central to their formulating a plan for intelligent subject choice and emphases through their senior schooling. So we are probably looking to start this process as early as Year 8 and perhaps even earlier. The goal of the senior secondary school must be to equip each and every student with the skills, knowledge and competencies required to proceed seamlessly to post-secondary study.

As with primary schools, doing less with increased focus and greater integration is probably a useful catchcry in reforming the secondary school curriculum.

The school system is central to a well-performing education system. Alternative programme and interventions can only operate at the edges – the bulk of students will and indeed must succeed in the school system. Schools cannot do everything. They are not resourced to do everything. It is timely for the school system to decide what it does best (and there is some evidence that it is in international terms a pretty good best) and get on with that.

Tune in next Monday for the last instalment in this story of connecting the dots.

 Episode 3 on Thursday:      The Destiny of Destination

Talk-ED: Episode 1 – Starting the Journey

Stuart Middleton
30 May 2011

If this was television then today we start a three episode mini-saga, a story of inevitable success and failure in which those in power and with power know what to do but find it difficult to get things right. It is a story of real human tragedy and real human joy; it leads to the best that our blessed country can achieve and to the very worst.

Folks this is the story of the three dots. Those critical markers in education. The milestones along the educational journey to a bright future in which there are jobs and income, and civic participation, and better health and housing and happiness. Not just for some, but for all.

                         Dot 1: Early Childhood Education                     

It is rather obvious that if you wish to reach your destination it is a good idea to get on the train. In education, the best start you can have is to have access to two years of quality early childhood education. This is defined as 15 hours per week with trained teachers in a well-equipped and safe environment.

We do not achieve this equitably in New Zealand currently. National levels of access look quite good and the trends are promising but there are too many pockets in our population where access is very low. This was emphasised by the Minister of Education in announcing the new funding being made available to address this.

Ironically at the same time there were complaints from responsible sources that there was a worrying trend of young people having too much access. It seems that some little ones are in early childhood centres for 40 hours a week over five years leading to a total of 10,000 hours before the age of five. The two years quality rule would lead to 1,500 hours. If a little one is spending over eight hours a day in a centre for five years, it can only mean that the imperatives of employment are placing parents into the situation where they either have little choice or they make that choice because they are able to. It is being questioned whether being a fulltime ECE student from age 0 = a few months until the age of five is desirable.

That might be true but a net result of this is that places are then not available for others.

And that is a major impact of the 20 free hours early childhood education policy that seemed so promising and forward-looking when it was introduced. It even seemed better when the restrictions on access to it were removed by taking away the means testing. But whereas once a young parent could afford X hours of care to return to work, they could now afford X + 20 hours. In this way the 20 hours free policy has not operated to allow an increased number of little ones access to ECE but has rather allowed the same number of little ones to have increased access. This loose policy needs review urgently and the resources targeted much more carefully.

But access is controlled to a large extent by where early childhood centres are. The best indicator of desirable location is where the large, flash, private centres are built. They are liberally dotted through the rich suburbs and avoid with a vengeance any presence in the poor suburbs. Private centres go where the money is and leave the state to cater for the little ones in other communities. It is in those other communities where the needs are greatest both economically and educationally.

At a recent education summit in Auckland, Dr Peter Gluckman emphasised the need for ECE as the mechanism for laying down the non-cognitive behaviours that were so critical to education and which were developed in those early years. In fact he was critical of the emphasis in early childhood education on cognitive skills at the expense of these non-cognitive areas. It is the non-cognitive skills that build the foundation for much of the success that people enjoy in their journey and certainly it is at the heart of educational success. Research associated with the Head Start programme in the USA seems consistently to point to the long-term benefits of participation in this programme aimed at increasing access to early childhood education for disadvantaged little ones and the development of non-cognitive skills is emphasised in many studies. It is not the teaching reading and writing that makes ECE important, it is the development of non-cognitive skills.

It ought to be possible in New Zealand for us to achieve full universal access to early childhood education. The equity gap between those who do get access and those who don’t simply has to be closed if we are serious about starting little ones on the journey to educational success.

A bizarre note on which to finish. This week it was reported that videoconferencing via Skype has been introduced at eight Universal Childcare centres around Australia. The aim is to give working parents and grandparents more face-to-face time with the children. Really?

So, dot one is that all New Zealand children will have access to two years of quality early childhood education.

Episode 2 on Thursday:      Crossing the Prairie

Leaping ahead of ourselves

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.22, 12 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The International Olympic Committee has just announced an exciting new development for the Olympic Games. In a press release from the IOC President yesterday, it was announced that in the track and field programme the long jump would be combined with the high jump to create a new event – the Vertizontal Jump. In this event the athletes would, in one movement, take off over a long jump pit and then clear the high jump bar in one mighty effort that defies imagination.

It might also defy the laws of physics. But that is progress.

The polytechnic world is watching these developments with interest because a similar effort is being made within that sector to promote a not dissimilar development. The equivalent of the Vertizontal* Jump is the inexorable trend to increase access and participation while seeking to have an emphasis on Level 4+ qualifications.

This development defies the laws of the physics of learning. We know that learning that is best is continuous therefore it must start exactly where the learner is in terms of their progress to that point. Linked to this is Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development. Put simply, learning takes place just past the point at which previous learning has taken place. So reaching learners requires us to actually assess where they are and start from that point.

Level 4+ is a goal, it is the high jump, it is the end point in a journey, which is the long jump, rather than a starting point. Students who are equipped to get stuck into Level 4+ programmes are almost certainly already at Level 4. If we are to be serious about getting students to Level 4+ qualifications we have to be realistic about the continuous pathways that polytechnics will have to offer. This means that polytechnics will have to offer programmes at Level 1 and Level 2 and Level 3. It means that polytechnics will certainly have to offer entry level programmes for those whose lives have not equipped them to undertake study towards employment.

Now this raises a couple of issues – first the issue of second chance learners and secondly the pathways required for many school leavers into further education and training.

Second chance learners need provision by way of lower level programmes as stepping stones towards those Level 4+ programmes that will take them into higher qualifications and enhance employment opportunities. Second chance learning is not an easy track. One USA commentator states baldly that the one thing we know about second chance education is that the first chance would have been better.

Second chance learners can also benefit from tangential pathways such as those offered by adult and community education. I am not going into the merits or otherwise of specific programmes but there is evidence that programmes of this kind are a positive pathway into the very programmes that lead to Level 4* qualifications.

School leavers are another group who find the Vertizontal Jump just too hard. In fact those who are really struggling opt to enter the Hop Skip and Jump instead – they hop out the gate, skip classes and jump the educational ship. If we are serious about addressing the group of disengaged students we had better be serious about continuous pathways through Levels 1 – 4 in order to get them into Level 4+ programmes

The USA Community College was invented to provide open access to further education and training and has become something of a metaphor for equal opportunity and access. They carry a mission to take and serve anyone who turns up and thus keep intact the American Dream that each and every USA citizen can “go to college”. In New Zealand, the only institution that can adopt the same mission is the polytechnic and Level 1-3 programmes will be to them what remediation programmes are to the USA Community College.

In an ideal world all students would be on a flawless path to educational excellence that sees them well into higher educational qualifications sometime in their teen years. But that is not the situation that we find ourselves in at the start of this century. Either educational institutions open up to cater for wider groups in the community or progressively fewer people will reach high level qualifications. This is an equation that brings with it economic and social threats.

Groups of at-risk young people are faced with a horny dilemma – the institutions and pathways that have contributed to their situation (admittedly they have willingly gone down less productive pathways in many instances) are then held up as the only pathway out of their situation. The truth is always in the middle – educational institutions might well be the best option through which to seek redemption but it will not be educational institutions doing the same old thing.

That provides a challenge to most aspects of educational provision. Funding mechanisms need to have a capability to mount programmes that are different, quality measures need to be able to take such flexible provision and delivery into account. The notion of levels might have to be suspended until the educational infrastructure required in a successful student is reconstructed and in some cases built for the first time.

We can dream of a time when such work is rare. A time when all students are on positive and successful tracks working with purpose towards sound qualifications and a set of personal skills that enables them to contribute positively to their community, to be successful in employment, to have the capability to earn a family sustaining wage and to make the best of the talent and skills they have.

That, after all, was the New Zealand educational dream – that each and every person will have an education which achieves that – the educational nightmare comes from thinking that this requires us to ensure that each and every person will have the same education.


 * I am indebted to that great philosopher Archie Bunker who invented the word “vertizontal”. Like all great thinkers and writers he believed that language should be his servant!