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NCEA is not at fault – but how we measure success is

In its editorial (20 May 2016), the NZ Herald was concerned about NCEA because “nearly half” of teachers surveyed were concerned.

The editorial provides a neat summary of what NCEA set out to do and notes that the moderation of the assessments has “worked well.” Then it notes that schools and parents get concerned when the “league tables” are published. Well, who publishes those tables?

NCEA is the most liberating innovation in New Zealand education for decades, and certainly since World War II. At long last, students are able to get credit for what they know and can do, rather than be punished for what they cannot do.

A parent that cares can see progress and, if the time is taken, can understand the skills that their young person has. The student knows what they have done successfully and what they need to do to build on that success. An employer has the potential to get more information about school success than ever before.

But most employers aren’t looking for whether a student can pass a test. They are looking beyond NCEA, for further qualifications that indicate the skills required to be work-ready and to understand the basics of the profession. And this is where NCEA has proved a winner.

Historically, our education system has been weak in helping students transition from secondary to post-secondary education and training, beyond the traditional high school to university track.

With NCEA being a portable qualification – where students are able to generate credit for knowledge and skills demonstrated in different places – education takes on a whole new meaning. It means these students, who never saw the purpose in what they were doing especially, now see the point of education and how it can be practically applied to their lives.

Since 2010, the Youth Guarantee scheme has seen the development of a variety of new approaches.

The Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) Tertiary High School catches students judged by their schools at Year 10 to be in danger of disengaging (or as the US calls it, “dropping out”). Four years later, we see a very different story. Our students are gaining high levels of NCEA and simultaneously completing vocational and technical qualifications that are industry recognised.  For those that like the league tables: NCEA results as reported by NZQA are for 2014: Level 1, 100%; Level 2, 91.4%; and Level 3, 83.3%. In 2015 the pattern was repeated: Level 1, 80%; Level 2, 87%; Level 3, 100%.

The innovation of Trades Academies into schools is more conservative but equally as successful. Students go to a tertiary provider (a small number of schools do provide their own Trades Academies supported by tertiary providers) – for example, MIT provides Year 12 students training opportunities across 10 vocational and technical areas. Each student on average gains 18 NCEA credits that they are able to add to the credits they have gained at school.

But the gains go beyond this credit transfer, they develop a purpose for learning and they improve across all of their schooling as a result. They develop a line of sight to the world of work. And they also develop an understanding that education and training matters. A significant number of students involved in Trades Academies return to school to complete Year 13.

None of this would have been possible without NCEA. It allows for flexibility, it allows for closer connection between students and the purposes for pursuing an education. It is in essence an educational currency that accumulates to a point where they have the entry price to a great future. It allows for students to develop an understanding of how their learning can be applied to the real world.

It’s not NCEA that is at fault in creating too much work for teachers. It is the simple fact that our education system for the past 70 years has greatly over-assessed students. Even the old examination system was characterised by too much assessment. It’s what teachers do! We need to change how we measure success – do we value test results, or do we value real-world learning that leads to life-long skills in the workforce?



Te Ara Whakamana is New Zealand’s largest forum dedicated to education and employment pathways and transitions.  Now in its sixth year, this event brings together educators from both secondary and tertiary sectors, industry representatives, policymakers, and researchers to share good ideas and practices, and to be challenged by different perspectives.

Wellington, 28-29 June 2016

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Talk-ED: Trade? Me? Really?


It’s time that the trades got a boost. It is an absurdity that New Zealand on the one hand requires substantial numbers of skilled people – 30,000 in Christchurch and 40,000 in Auckland and then some more – but on the other  hand there are struggles to get people into training for the trades.  And this is happening in a time when unemployment among young people is at worryingly high levels.

It surely can’t be the money – trades people quite quickly earn good money.  Have you had to pay a tradesperson lately?

It can only be a matter of perception that keeps young ones at arm’s length from training for the trades.  Of course it hasn’t helped that the secondary schools have so comprehensively removed trades options from the programme over the past thirty or so years and it will take time for the youth guarantee initiatives such as the vocational pathways and trades academies and the like to start to have an impact.

The perception that success can only be found in being a lawyer or a doctor or some other “professional” guides too many students into pathways in which they do not find success.  It would have been greatly to their advantage to have been on track to enter programmes that took them into technical and trades areas much earlier and consequently to employment that is secure and leads to “good money”.

The image of the trades must be elevated in the eyes of parents who should be invited to see futures working in the trades as ones worth pursuing, and so should teachers, careers advisors and those who influence people.  It is time for us to dampen a little the hype around knowledge workers and think a little more carefully and critically about the snob status attached to law and medicine.  New Zealand needs highly skilled workers at all levels not just those in suits and power dressing outfits.

We also need to think more carefully about the values that we attach to words such as “academic” and “vocational”.  Get used to it – the distinction is now spurious and has little meaning.  All education and training that is valuable is both academic and vocational.  A report will be published in London today that identifies the greatest pressure that universities will come under over the next period of time will be the extent to which they will be able to show that they are “vocational”.  Get used to it!

The Holy Bible is full of tradespeople.  Giving them modern occupational descriptions that reflect what they did, we note that Cain was a metal fabricator while Andrew, James, Peter and John worked in the marine industry.  Joseph worked in building and construction and later was furniture-maker, Abel and David were in agriculture while Luke was a health professional.  Noah was a skilled shipwright and Adam a zoological technician.

Think of the impact on New Zealand of various tradesmen such as Parnell the carpenter, Kirk the roofpai­nter and railway engineer, Hillary the beekeeper and Muldoon the accounting clerk.

In the 2012 list of most trusted jobs the following rated highly:  fire-fighter, nurse, childcare-worker, hairdresser, builder, plumber, mechanic, waiter, shop assistant.

One does not have to denigrate the professions in order to promote the trades but a balanced view would place the options clearly in front of young people with good and accurate information about life prospects and the education and training pathways that lead to different outcomes.  The trail of failed young people who set off on journeys for which they were not prepared nor perhaps even realistically able to complete is a tragic commentary.  On the lop-sided approach we took which saw disproportionate numbers of young people ignore real opportunities for a successful and sound future in the trades pursuing the rosy but unrealistic glow of the professional Shangri-La.

New Zealand is at a point where there will be opportunity for young people on a scale perhaps never seen before.  If we stand by and do not get our systems for education and training cracking, employers will simply fill up large aircraft with the workers they need and bring them into the country to fill the jobs that our young people could have got had they been better prepared, had developed better understanding of those opportunities and had been the recipients of better advice.

If young New Zealanders do miss out the fault will lie not with them or their parents and caregivers but fairly and squarely with a wider community including the education and training community that allowed it to happen.  It is greatly ironic that if the Christchurch re-builds and the Auckland demands from growth and leaky buildings had occurred in the 1960s we would have been much more soundly placed to respond.

The real causes of the current situation are not only seismic events, demographic factors and weather-tightness but also an education and training system that allowed itself to forget that each and every student needed a pathway that led to satisfactory outcomes both educationally and occupationally.


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Talk-ED: It's about more than rebuilding one city


The last week ended with the news that unemployment in New Zealand was continuing to increase and was now at 7.3%.  Maori unemployment is at 15.1% while Pacific Island levels are at 15.6%.  Furthermore 113,000 workers want more hours but the work just isn’t there.

Remember that these figures are based on those “actively looking for work”. They do not include those who are not looking for work and this would include quite a lot of young people. The unemployment rate for youth world-wide and especially in developed economies is showing a worrying rise – New Zealand stands at around 25% nationally with both Maori and Pacific Islands over 30%.

Add to this the NEETS and you have a lot of New Zealand’s population not working. You do not have to be a wizard to see a crisis in the making here which will take a a very long time to pull around.  Action is called for.

But New Zealand has unprecedented demand for workers. The Christchurch rebuild, the leaky homes response and the general planned growth in the Auckland region will all require huge numbers of workers.  With a little bit of imagination and some funding, the answer is there.

But what do we see?

There appears to be a recruiting campaign in the UK to recruit people to come to New Zealand to “help re-build Christchurch”.  MP Nicky Wagner appears there and reports that interest was high.  In fact the various spokespersons for this effort report interest running into the hundreds.

It is interesting to note that these kinds of efforts seem often to coincide with a rugby tour or major event such as the Olympic games!

So we are actively seeking overseas labour and skills instead of growing our own and remember that this should not just be at entry level but also up-skilling those already in industry to the levels needed to lead the enlarged workforce.

So what is happening? Well, the most notable recent contribution to all this in New Zealand has been the stripping of hundreds of training places out of the polytechnic system what would have provided those critical first steps that lead to the sorts of skills needed. There is no urgency at all being applied to solutions and the kind of emergency response needed to address the crisis.

The recently announced South Island initiative with 900 people being offered jobs after 6-14 months training is a start.  But it is a small effort – even if the places can be filled from the South Island (and this will be interesting to see) it is not aimed at giving robust qualifications to people but seems instead to be an effort to produce hammer-hands, and shovel bearers. The inspiration for the programme is from the depression of the 1930s.

It would be better to seek inspiration in the 1940s.  Between 1944 and 1953 New Zealand trained 7,000 ex-servicemen to help them find work after the Second World War.  This was under the aegis of the Rehabilitation Board and the training was predominantly in building trades.  What were they building in those days?  Well, there was substantial Government involvement in building state houses for a start and the Government was still the major source of work-based training (80% of apprenticeships were with government organisations).

It was also out of this time that the special efforts in trades training such as the Maori Trades Training Scheme emerged.  The Technical Correspondence Schools was started (later to morph into the Technical raining Institute and finally into the Open Polytechnic).  The initial focus was on offering national training in trades subjects.

The current dangerous mix of unemployment and youth requires just this sort of response – a special effort to get young people into skilled work and at the same time seek solutions to other issues – Christchurch, Auckland, leaky homes and schools and refreshing and expanding the the national housing stock and suchlike. These are normal times and abnormal responses are appropriate.

But they can only probably come from the Government.  Private industry seems no longer to have the appetite to see its role in training young people and receives little encouragement from a lack of incentives to do so and a schooling system that seems to want to hang onto young people regardless of outcomes.  The default position for industry currently seems to often to be to seek skills in overseas markets.

The various crises we face have within them unprecedented opportunity to re-position New Zealand’s skilled workforce in a way that will serve the country well over a very long period. It requires a national effort – young people the length of the country could benefit from the demand for skilled people flowing from Christchurch and Auckland.



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