Tag Archive for NCEA

Pathways-ED: Big 3 Budget boon!

Stuart Middleton
24 May 2012



In amongst a budget that was pretty flat on excitement, there was some good news for education. Spending will bring some benefits to education some increase in the operating grants and the broadband roll-out will continue. Universities get another slurp into the PBRF research trough and there is a focus on science and engineering for increased EFTS funding.

Of course there is a downside – largely borne by the students who pay back loans a little more steeply, means testing remains and a new targeting of such assistance onto first degrees constitute something of a curate’s egg rather than a golden goose’s egg.

But the big three for me, no surprise here, is the increase in early childhood participation, the increase in the number of youth guarantee places and the NCEA Level 2 target.

To raise the ECE target to 98% from the current 94.7% might seem a modest increase but it is a huge ask in some communities. Access to early childhood education across different communities with different characteristics is discrepant. So if the goal is to be achieved do not expect a little bit for everyone, this will have to be well and truly targeted.

The increase in Youth Guarantee places is throwing good money after good money. The fees free places are providing a valuable opportunity for young people who otherwise might well lose momentum in the school setting, to enter a tertiary programme and, if indications from the first couple of years are a guide, succeed and move into qualifications that will lead them into real jobs.

Then there is the NCEA Target. It is stark in its expression! By 2016 85% of all 18 year olds will achieve NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent). Now this is apparently not just 85% of those who tackle NCEA Level 2 but all 18 year olds. So the increase mentioned in the budget from 68% to 85% is the overall current result but there are challenges in this target that become more apparent when the total is deconstructed into its ethnic components.

The cohort that entered Year 11 in 2008 has performed as follows by the end of 2010 with regard to achieving NCEA Level 2.

  •          NZ European               68%                
  •          Asian                          74%    
  •          Maori                          43%
  •          Pacific                        58%


I actually wonder…

Now remember that probably 20% of 18 year olds have disengaged from school prior to age 16 years. Other students will have dropped out along the way through Year 11 and Year 12. So if this target is to be achieved equitably i.e. all 18 year old Maori, all 18 year old Pasifika etc then we will need to get our skates on. The group who will be the 18 year olds in 2016 are in Year 9 now. Help!

Earlier media attention was paid to the more controversial announcement in the budget that $512 million will be spent on improving teacher quality. We know of course that this is on the basis of savings that result from the squeezing of student / teacher ratio.

Something that intrigues me is a little calculation that I have done tells me that there is some good news for secondary schools in this. Based on national student number profiles (which means that there will be some differences for individual school to take account of their senior school profiles), the equalisation of the ratio across all the levels of the senior secondary school at the level of the current lowest (Year 13) rate will result in a 12% increase in teacher numbers nationally at the senior level.

Was this intended? I was surprised when I did this calculation because the Minister had said that schools would generally be affected by + 1 teachers. Am I wrong? If not then I am excited because increased teachers at the senior level should mean increased flexibility for schools.

If we are to hit that NCEA target in 2016 then that will be crucial.


Talk-ED: A double helping!

Stuart Middleton
20 March 2012


The Entree:    What’s not local about education and training?

Local Government Minister Nick Smith is wide of the mark when he calls for local government to get “out of education” and uses the example of “a council that sets a target of Level 2 NCEA”.  He goes on to say that local government has no business doing central government business. This is referring to the Auckland Council’s clear target for education and skills in the region.

He is right to say that local government should not be doing central government business but misses the point that local government has a role to play in seeing that central government does its business. There is no issue with the Level 2 NCEA goal – last Thursday Prime Minister John Key clearly set exactly the same goal for the government and his Ministers (see below).

The role of local government with regard to this target is to advocate for central government to deliver on it. It might also have a role in facilitating collaboration and innovation across the region to support the goal. Such a goal, and this is clear to the Government and certainly the Prime Minister if not to Minister Smith, is at the heart of economic growth and development. When the Auckland Council and the central Government sit down to talk about such matters, it is exciting to think that they will share the same goal.

One party (central government) will be held to account in that discussion for delivering on it while the other party (local government) will be showing how it contributes to a region that is similarly committed to it and which contributes in appropriate ways to it. No local government has an appetite to do the government’s work!  But if unitary councils are to be taken seriously, central government has to see that its work is contributing to regional aspirations.

Minister Smith needs to get up to speed on education and training, its performance and its role.


The Main Course:  Whose will be done?  Education must respond.

The recent speech from Prime Minister John Key outlined some directions that will impact on education and training.

Education will have a key role to play in the reduction of numbers of people on a “working age benefit”. Many of this target group will through in some cases no fault of their own – life dealt a pretty rough hand – require additional training and education before they are able to work. The skills of employment may have moved beyond the level of competence that they were able to reach in previous employment or in their education (IT springs to mind).

This raises the issue of transition – just how are people assisted to move from benefit dependency to self-reliance in employment as a wage earner. It is not black and white, one minute you have a benefit, the next you are in sound employment. And certainly an interview in a WINZ office will not achieve it. Education institutions should get their thinking caps on.

It is interesting to see access to ECE placed into a “supporting vulnerable children” set of responses – increasing access, increased immunisation and reducing the rate of assaults on children. I hope the goal is to reduce assaults on children down to zero!  Again education is a key.

And it is also an explicit player in the goal to boost skills and employment. NCEA Level 2 (or an equivalent) will be a key marker of a platform from which 18 year olds can launch the pathways into the world of further education and training and of employment. This is sensible. It sets a clear target that should be attainable by all students without requiring them to continue along a track headed towards university when this is not the goal. But it is also a big ask for us to achieve!

Add to this the development of “Vocational Pathways” within NCEA and the promise they have to bring integrity and cohesion to the programmes of many students not heading towards university. We are starting to see shape in the senior levels of schooling with these proposals.

It therefore makes sense for the performance of 19-24 year olds to get some attention. The goal has been placed at an excellent level – advanced trade qualifications, diplomas and degrees (at Level 4 and above). 

Evidence supports this goal as one which will lead to employment, to a family sustaining income and to allowing a person to make a positive contribution to society. For it is a fact that a person qualified to at least this level is highly unlikely to be engaged in the dark arts of crime. It all ties together.

Get a well educated and knowledgeable community and you will get one which is less dependent of benefits, less likely to bash children, be more assertive about getting education for their children and looking after them and, of course, will be both employable and employed. So the challenge is there to all of us in the education community and we simply have to be up to it. With the clear connections now being made between education and social and economic development clearly and in measurable terms, we will have nowhere to go if we don’t perform on such measures. Certainly we cannot sit back and blame it on the government – this government or any government for that matter.

Finally, there must be at least a touch of interest in the creation of the “Super-Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.” Of course there are cost-cuttings and efficiency considerations in this expression of the latest attempt to clean up the Public Service. But there might also be quite a lot of good sense in seeing new connections and taking a multidisciplinary approach to public policy and oversight. The inclusion of Building and Housing also seems more like a continuation of a search for a safer pair of hands. But to group economic development, labour, science and innovation seems to create a potential for increased impact and progress in those areas.

Will the spotlight turn next to education? Bringing together the Ministry of Education, the Tertiary Education Commission, the Education Review Office and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority would at least be an interesting discussion and might well have legs. Perhaps the Careers Service could also be included. Have I left anyone out?

We talk a lot about connection and transition in education and how the lack of smooth transitions gets in the way of education success for too many and yet we all work within an education system that is built around a lack of connection.

Connections, transitions, lifting education access and outcomes – a lively setting for education is emerging.



Talk-ED: It's not working!

Stuart Middleton
12 March 2012

I got into a discussion about youth unemployment recently with an interesting group of people. There was strong agreement that there was an issue, if not a crisis.

I suggested that we not only had the issue of youth unemployment but also an issue of unemployable youth. We are creating the confluence of two weather systems that will create a storm of Wahine proportions as the deep depression of youth unemployment meets the deep depression of unemployable youth to create dangerous waters and cyclonic winds that will in all probability rip the social fabric.

The issue of youth unemployment in New Zealand is exacerbated by a number of factors.

First, New Zealand has one of the highest proportions of youth workers aged 15-24 years in the labour force. Consequently when things turn tough we see a higher proportion of youth affected negatively. Nearly half of New Zealand’s unemployed is made up of this younger age group. Furthermore this youthful group splits into two clearly distinct groups – one is skilled and qualified while the other is disengaged from education and training and subsequently has little prospect of work.  No amount of improvement in the economy will address the issue of this latter group.

These two groups split along ethnic lines and hence the connection between this first exacerbating factor and the second. With the second group having such large representation of Maori and Pasifika youth the performance of these groups in the education system is critical.

NZQA has recently published the results of the 2008 Year 11 cohort in the NCEA as this group went through the senior school what was their level of achievement. This is a much more honest reporting than any that is based on the percentage of Year levels achieving since the cumulative percentages based on percentages inflates the result considerably. Now remember that this is the Year 11.

Remember too that this cohort is the group that actually made it to Year 11. So the cohort will be around 80% of the group that set out in education. And where numbers of Maori and Pacific students are higher the cohort will reflect an even smaller percentage of the actual cohort.

So with that in mind, this is the picture of real achievement:

In Year 11 students achieve in NCEA as follows:

NCEA L1 achieved…          … in Year 11          …In Year 12           ….in Year 13                         

NZ European                         72%                       81%                        81%                

Asian                                       70%                       80%                        81%                

Maori                                        44%                       57%                        59%                

Pacific                                      44%                       68%                        71%                

NCEA Level 2 has emerged as the level which all students should achieve prior to leaving school so as to have a good basis for further education and training. So what are the actual figures for the achievement of Level 2 by the end of Year 13?

NZ European                           68%                                                                                

Asian                                       74%               

Maori                                         43%

Pacific                                       58%

So even this basic measure of completing secondary school with the requisite achievement for further success is a cause for concern and those figures has in it a very clear message about youth unemployment.

Urgency must be brought to relating more closely the curriculum of the senior secondary school to the requirements of employment and to pathways that lead seamlessly from school into jobs and into further education and training. Each sector has a contribution to make to this. We will never solve all of the issues of youth unemployment if we cannot plug the flow of unemployable into the 15-24 year old group.

“Unemployment” should be a category for those who can work and want to work but who cannot get a job. Using it as a bucket category which in addition includes those who are unemployable and those who are in some form of social welfare trap, or both, leads to fuzzy responses that miss their mark.

What we do know is that the ethnicity of the demographics tells us that addressing this is urgent. A storm is brewing and like El Nino and La Nina they will not go away.


Talk-ED: Same dream, same nightmare

Stuart Middleton
16 May 2011

There is quite a lot of current interest in transitions from the K-16 education system and postsecondary education. This is a complex area and among other things there is a focus on careers education and the kinds of advice that students seek and receive. 

A report[1] completed in 2003 challenged the extent to which the USA education systems had met their end of the bargain in helping students manage that transition. In fact the report’s title makes clear how the authors concluded that they had not – “Betraying the dream.” One interesting table catalogues some common misconceptions about preparing for and attending postsecondary institutions especially university. The myths that might well apply to our education system are: 

            I can’t afford to go to university 

The report found that US students regularly overestimated the cost of going to university. 

            I have to be a stellar athlete or student to get financial aid 

This has a particular US flavour to it with the extensive sports programmes that tertiary institutions have. In fact there is a wide range of financial aid available to students. Do students in New Zealand have accurate information about the costs, the costs of borrowing through student loans and the assistance available through allowances? Do students understand these to such an extent that they can explain them to their caregivers? 

            Meeting high school graduation requirements will prepare me for university  

There is generally a discrepancy between high school graduation levels and the entry requirements into tertiary institutions and into some programmes within them. In New Zealand it seems as is NCEA Level 2 is emerging as a “School Leaving Standard” which would equate to the US high school graduation (a term not used in this country). 

            Getting into college is the hardest part 

Have we got news for you! For most students the hardest part will be completing the tertiary course – many don’t! 

            Community colleges don’t have academic standards 

Is this a perception that New Zealand students have of, say, polytechnics? The community college has similarities to our polytechnics (although the NZ institutions offer a more extensive set of qualifications that are longer and at a higher level than the typical two year qualifications of the US community college – but the open access is common to both. Is this part of the process that sees some New Zealand students ostensibly headed towards a university programme for which they are ill-prepared? 

            It’s better to take easier classes in high school and get better grades 

Success in taking tougher courses in high school is a constant predictor of success later – merely harvesting credit is no substitute for a sound academic preparation for higher and further education. 

            My senior year in high school doesn’t matter 

You would think sometimes, what with balls of both the sporting and the dancing kind that this myth is well and truly alive in New Zealand! Should some students be moving through the senior school more quickly? 

            I can take whatever classes I want when I get to university 

It is all a little bit tighter than students understand. Some universities have lifted their general entry standard so that it is higher than the plain “University Entrance”, many courses have particular requirements. These should be known by students well in advance of course selection in the final two years of school. 

And this raises an important question. Are students encouraged to think about the detail of their future pathway, especially those who are headed towards university? Do they understand the detail of it all? Is the importance of those last two years at school in terms of future success at university well understood? Or do too many students simply drift toward their postsecondary futures? 

[1] Andrea Venezia,  Michael W. Kirst, and Anthony L. Antonio (2003) Betraying the college dream: How disconnected K-12 systems undermine student aspirations, The Standford Institute for Higher Education Research.

Talk-ED: The right of the community to know

Stuart Middleton
2 May 2011

School holidays over and its back to the normal pattern. I had the chance to attend for varying lengths of time a few conferences over the past two weeks both here in NZ and in Australia.

The period has seen the publishing of NCEA results in New Zealand newspapers and despite dire predictions, civilisation once again did not come to an end. In fact I thought the response relatively muted with an almost helpful editorial in the NZ Herald.

It is still a problem that the reporting of these results is based on the percentage of students in a Year group who succeed in the anticipated “correct” NCEA level for that year. There is no requirement for perhaps even sense in relating Year 11 to NCEA Level 1,Year 12 to Level 2 and so on. The lockstep nature of this habit makes it difficult to actually know what the success is for a cohort. For instance, if 70% of a Year 11 group succeed in getting NCEA Level 1 and are then allowed to proceed to Level 2 in Year 12 and the reported success rate is 75%, the actual success rate in terms of the cohort coming through is at 56%.

But it must be inevitable that there is study at multiple levels and many students get their Level 1 in their Year 12 or even Year 13. How is this communicated?

So in reality the figures might be a pretty poor representation of what is happening with lower decile schools probably being shown as succeeding at levels that are lower than their actual achievement. Higher decile schools are probably about right. The NZ Herald editorial suggests that funding is the only way to lessen the gap between high and low decile schools. It is probably the case that the advantage of high decile schools over low decile schools is still at about 20%.

The matter of National Standards continued to get attention with a “boycott” by some primary schools. The actual number of the boycott group was a little hard to judge from reports. If every principal at that particular conference vote for the boycott then it suggests that perhaps as many as perhaps 30% of primary schools will not be reporting to the National Standards. But it is hard to tell from the reports. It might have been a small majority (and therefore only 15% of schools). It seems as if we have real issues in telling an accurate story. Many parents that I meet are very happy that their childrens’ schools are simply getting on with the job and they appreciate the additional information they are getting.

At the heart of anxieties about NCEA reporting and the National Standards is a view that it could all be damaging to schools when they are compared with each other, if they are compared with each other.

This too is the concern in Australia and a report in last Saturday’s The Australian drew my attention with a headline TEST CHEATS BLOCK THE GOALS OF EDUCATION REFORM. The reform referred to is the National Assessment Programme for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and its associated MySchool website, a government initiative that puts all the information about a school on a website and this includes the latest NAPLAN results. But who are the cheats? There is quite a list of students who are valid omissions from the tests but schools are going beyond this to include students who might lower the reported success rate of the school. Apparently it is common. The cheats are those who lead school and instruct certain parents to keep their children at home on certain days thus removing them from that testing regime that is the NAPLAN. Apparently there is also a developing practice of preparing students for the tests – another form of cheating it is claimed. Some schools are circulating practice papers with exemplar answers.

Thank goodness that New Zealand went down a reporting road rather than a testing road, leaving the testing to the teachers and the school working in the context of their programme.

It is a mockery of professional standards when education is frustrated in reporting to the community on its performance by any lack of openness and certainly by any deliberate attempt to frustrate the system.  Those who wish not to take part would be better, rather than merely protesting, to suggest other and even better ways of getting information to the community.

Parents and caregivers want to know what is happening. Indeed it is their right.

For more information and to register visit:

www.manukau.ac.nz/multiple.pathways   or contact   [email protected]



Think-Ed: Looking from the outside to find a way forward

Stuart Middleton
24 January 2011

The current discussion about the presence in a prestigious secondary school (Auckland Grammar School) of an external examination sourced from overseas continues to occupy quite a few column inches in the press but there is no attention paid to solutions – it is simply presented as a problem (but to whom it is not clear) for a variety of reasons (that are not specified) and as a threat (but to what is never identified).

At one level it is not an issue. The school is acting within its rights to offer programmes it sees fit and provided they meet the requirements of the New Zealand Curriculum then there are no issues here. The Government exercises its rights to say that all state schools must offer NCEA and the school is, so there is no issue there either.

Considerable progress has been made with the development and introduction of NCEA. As an assessment regime it required all of us to change our thinking and that is never easy and not often welcomed. We treasure most the things we are about to lose and often this is accompanied by an irrational attachment to things we have criticised and indeed even sought to have changed.

There were compelling arguments that the old New Zealand external examination system no longer served us well in terms of the nation’s need and in terms of the commitment to enabling all young people to find a pathway that met their needs. There were strong arguments that the whole business of scaling and the hierarchy of subjects was a gross distortion of achievement. There were reasonable arguments that the world of employers and the business community deserved better information than they were getting. It was obvious that the external examination system was strangling efforts to develop programmes and approaches that suited a wider group of students. As in all areas of activity, education needed to develop a more sophisticated approach to the more complex demands being made on it.

There was also an argument that the needs of the upper band of students pursuing a more purely “academic” pathway headed towards continued “academic” work at a post-secondary level and especially at the university level were being adequately met by the examination system.

Out of all that discussion, reform came along. As I have said many times before, the issue is not what reforms do to schools but what schools do to reforms. The 1990s were marked by battle-lines drawn by both sides of the argument that seemed to want to stymie the qualifications reforms in order to maintain a status quo, not just one status quo but the status quo that suited their particular view of the world. NCEA had not just a difficult birth but had to survive a pretty hostile environment throughout childhood as well. But it proved to be tough and it survived and is starting to show its capacity to provide for greater numbers of students than ever was the case with the single path external examination track of old.

What didn’t get addressed in all this was a mechanism for relating the external examinations for overseas that a school might wish to use to the qualifications framework. That is the issue. Of course the universities have wished to continue to stand outside the qualifications framework for reasons that are not clear even thought they have shown themselves to have no difficulty with NCEA in terms of selection for university and, indeed, it has come in for some support in its capacity to predict success at that higher level.

The wrapping into the qualifications framework of all qualifications was in fact a central principle for the reforms, one which would allow flexibility within the system and allow for the development of pathways that suited different groups within it.[1] That didn’t happen and the framework continues to have to carry this element of incompleteness.

It would be easy for a school offering a programme assessed by external examination to also assess that programme within the NCEA regime and offer their students dual qualifications. There is no need for an externally assessed programme to automatically stand outside NCEA. This would demonstrate that the argument for the external examination programme is based on its quality and appropriateness and not on some argument that is simply against NCEA. But that is for the school to decide not for those of us who are outside.

There are many ways of meeting the demands of the New Zealand Curriculum and it would be absurd to suggest that a programme based on and headed towards an external examination did not. It would be equally silly to suggest that it was the best path for all students. I do not hear that argument being made and personally reject the suggestion that it is the best path for all boys. It is, let us agree, the best path for a school that wishes to produced scholars developed under that model. It is not even the only way of producing scholars but it is one way.

If we are genuinely moving into an era when multiple pathways are required to meet multiple objectives and needs, the role of an external examination for the narrowest band of achieving students in a handful of schools hardly seems to demand our attention. There is plenty of work to be done in seeing that we are providing programmes and assessing them well and appropriately for the other students, the great majority on whom the wealth and success of New Zealand depends.

[1]See Thursday’s blog for the first of a series of discussions of critical documents and moments in and some of the influences on the reforms.

ThinkEd: Here we go again!

Stuart Middleton
17 January 2010

New Year and a new start? Well perhaps not. Taking the opportunity to have a leisurely read of the Sunday papers I was interested to see whether the New Year would bring a fresh perspective on education. A positive one which while celebrating our successes kept its feet on the ground when it came to commentary on the “could do better” areas.

It wasn’t a promising start with NCEA and National Standards the key headlines – I think that educational journalists see these topics as a soap opera and even if you have missed a few episodes there is still a good story in them.

This time it is the news that Auckland Grammar School will not offer NCEA to Year 11 students this coming year in order to direct them toward the Cambridge Examinations in Years 12 and 13. I suspect that the situation is not as simple as this as there were suggestions that some students might be able to do NCEA and some subjects would follow the NCEA assessment regime. The truth is usually in the middle.

I believe strongly in the view that schools should be able to set their own pathways and have long lamented the lack of exploitation of the opportunities to do this within the New Zealand framework of the National Education Guidelines and the New Zealand Curriculum. But there is another matter here – it is that offering NCEA is a legal requirement of the government and it certainly does create an issue if this is not done.

It could be that the school “offers” NCEA but counsels and advises strongly against it. It could be that the claimed benefits of external examinations have strong appeal to the parents of this group of students. It could be… You see it won’t be a matter of the letter of the law but rather a higher issue of what is best for young people.

The real test will be whether the option of NCEA is actually there and able to be taken up when it is the best option for students. We are told that two other schools might join Grammar in this approach to NCEA.

It is a similar issue with National Standards. It is a requirement of the government that they be introduced. But apparently 300 schools are dragging the chain on this one. But the monitoring report is optimistic telling us that “most principals believe information from National Standards will add value to the processes schools use for reporting to families, students and Boards, making informed decisions about how to improve student achievement, and identifying teachers’ professional development needs. While how much value principals believe National Standards will add to each of these processes varies, only a small proportion of principals believe information from National Standards will be very valuable.” This NZCER work reflects promising trends.

So the situation is not all that grim. Those of us who have had the chance to see what is happening in other English speaking education systems feel grateful that the NZ government has opted for a reporting orientation in the standards rather than a testing orientation. Communicating with the community of parents and caregivers on matters related to progress is a challenge to all education systems, the New Zealand approach has the potential to develop a confidence among parents and caregivers that the information they are being given will be understandable and helpful.

In any major change in education there is a period of uncertainty as we move away from the old way of working (or not working in some instances) to a new way of working. That uncertainty is an important reflection of the process of schools making decisions about what suits them best and what is most appropriate to their communities. Opposition to change is at one end of a spectrum that has willingness to change and optimism about the change at the other.

You would have to say that after the first year of a three year implementation, the National Standards are starting to bed in well. The real pity of the reported opposition is its emphasis on opposition rather than professional contribution to developing the standards in ways that reflect the special needs of the communities of New Zealand, the relationship of schools to them and the excellent skills of teacher’s in schools.

So, let’s hope that the New Year is not simply a re-hash of the old. There are 2,560 schools in New Zealand and if the unwillingness is reflected by the three secondary schools and the 300 primary schools, then both NCEA and National Standards developments are going very well indeed.