It was heartening to read in the paper this week that early childhood students are to be given a number that will assist in the gathering of more knowledge about access to early childhood education and their subsequent progress.
Immediately the conspiracy theorists kicked in with all tired old arguments about privacy and protection of young people which while important in themselves are constantly used to frustrate and even stop efforts to introduce systems that will allow a better picture of what is happening in education.
Internationally the use of identification numbers and student identifiers is practised widely. And this includes in countries that we would consider to be civilised and certainly in many countries that are not governed by fascist, authoritarian, civil-rights-destroying maniacs – we find such systems in countries such as Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, (NHS number) the United States (social security number), Norway, Sweden and so on.
It was realised that in the US the lack of a national system (42 states do have data of one kind or another on student progress through the system) was a major impediment in reporting progress (and more importantly lack of progress) generated by the No Child Left Behind policy. Without measurement and data and metrics and reporting you are simply flying an aircraft with a blanket draped over the control panel.
Not only that, the absence of data doesn’t stop the creation of Disneyland Data – hey, we are having a great time here! This is usually achieved by adopting a method learned from the imported second hand car dealers of the 1980s and 1990s – winding back the clock.
At the start of primary schooling, secondary schooling and postsecondary education and training, the clock of student data is wound back to 100% and data is calculated for that section of the system. This is like driving a car with a dashboard you can’t trust.
This is not to say that there is no good data available, there is and Education Counts (www.educationcounts.govt.nz) leads the way. But what we lack is that crucial piece that tells us what happens to a birth cohort as it progresses through the education system. It is not only that we are unable to speak accurately about current performance in terms of cohort performance but also that we are as a result unable to spot trends.
Sweden gives everyone a PIN – a Personal Identification Number unique to that person. In Sweden they have no NEETs. I wonder if the two are related.
So back to New Zealand. The assigning of a Unique Person Identifier to each and every child at birth seems to me to be an excellent idea. It would allow for the monitoring of important things – the access to quality care services through the first three years – probably more important than anything education can do for a young person – access to early childhood education services, effective transitions into, through and out of early childhood education, primary schooling and secondary schools. At a postsecondary level the tracking of students thought the education and training and into employment would be accurately possible.
At this point data sharing becomes necessary if the economic impact of and long term benefit from different educational tracks and programmes and qualifications is to be better understood. But many countries are mature enough to put into place tracking and monitoring systems in a context that is carefully managed within principles and enforceable guidelines that protect the individual’s privacy, dignity and safety. Surely we can achieve the same thing.
But I fear the worst with the immediate default position of opposition to any such tracking and monitoring because of feared breaches of privacy. It is always someone else who would do this, or the bogeyman government, or the state agencies colluding to smash vulnerable people. It is all a little bit silly and extreme.
We need such a system in order to progress. The extravagant success rates reported by a wide range of education providers at pretty well all levels simply needs to be tested by a rigorous system of cohort tracking.
I set out to develop a cohort success rate once. I admit my total lack of qualifications to do this. But I took 100 babies born in Auckland in 2010 and grouped them by ethnicity – and through applying the different success rates for these groups at points where we have some information, constructed a cohort success rate. I had to allow that 100 babies entered primary school because information or even what constitutes successful progress in early childhood education is very qualitative and not robust.
To cut 23 years down into two sentences, I took age 23 years as a point at which the completion of a postsecondary qualification is likely to have happened and reached the conclusion that 29% of those babies will have a postsecondary qualification.
A couple of statisticians after quite properly criticising the method I had used asked me what I had concluded. “Twenty-nine percent,” I replied. “Sounds about right,” they said. The exercise was to statistics what No.8 wire is to building a high performance vehicle.
But that’s how we do things in New Zealand.