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Pathways-ED: Ranging across the jagged edge


It has long interested me that in education ideas come and go and some come and go again until the time is right or the soil is fertile and the context has become more compelling. This is the first in a series that will look such ideas that have come and gone and for which the time is now right to give serious consideration to those ideas.

Ranging across the jagged edge

In 1986, the late Phil Capper wrote a paper to the executive of the PPTA which he called The Jagged Edge. In this he surveyed a number of developments that had sought to respond to the changing conditions and demands of secondary education. He noted as important the then current curriculum and assessment reform, the development of transition education, the introduction of ACCESS (which he described as “the son of STEPS and the granddaughter of YPTP, parent of ……”), link programmes, education outside the classroom, the focus on bicultural education and lifelong learning.

Capper was making a simple point. Each of these developments constitutes a challenge to secondary education and there is a clear willingness to respond to those as they arise – usually by clipping something on to the system. But overall he sees these responses as ignoring a truth – that ”these developments make increasingly blurred (or jagged) the boundary between secondary education and things beyond secondary education.” He was to go on later in the paper to challenge the notion of secondary education as an entity.

He rightly characterised secondary schools as being in an invidious position – they fail to respond and in so doing miss the opportunities or they do respond then they have to make room “for a wide range of alternative methods of delivery, including such things as off-campus locations, courses with elements located partially in tertiary institutions, classes extending beyond the normal school day, increasing participation of adult students and units of instruction delivered by non-teacher specialists.”

Remember, this was written in 1986, 27 years ago.

He correctly linked the development of alternative approaches, usually shaped and funded as a special initiative such as ACCESS to “the disadvantaged and unemployed school leaver….. which is warning enough in itself.”

He got on the front foot on this issue and expressed a view that could find little support in 1986 and which is still resisted 27 years later.

“We can none of us be comfortable with the fact that there is no substantial training industry based on the raw material of alienated young people who hated and dete­sted their schooling.” (Capper’s emphases). “Even more disturbing, is that a good proportion of these respond positively to what is currently offered to them by tertiary providers.”

Capper painted a picture of the way forward as he saw it. In his future that included a jagged edge, the blurring of the boundaries between secondary and tertiary. He took an interesting tack – “It seems to me that the central assumption …of policies is that there is something called a seconday school in which people called secondary teachers impart something called secondary education to people called secondary pupils during a period known as the school day, term or year. When we encounter a person, activity, place or period of time which does not fit neatly into one of these packages, we spend a lot of time agonising, and then we may or may not develop a special case.” He argued that despite the willingness of schools to consider such “special cases”, he called for the need to consider a new policy setting that allows for working differently and concludes that such a setting would allow secondary education to “restate” their principles in ways that would make it possible to embrace special responses within these principles, rather than constantly making them [i.e. the responses] be seen as something beyond the norm and therefore rather dubious.”

Capper returned to these ideas in 1992 largely because other emphases had “swamped” the points he had raised in 1986 and he questioned the continued “validity of regarding the secondary service as a fixed and discrete entity.” He added another principle to his argument – the trends he was providing commentary on were “international trends.” He saw a consistent pattern in confusion that existed internationally and went on to put this into a context that sounds very much like a paradigm as outlined by Thomas Kuhn. He noted later that the “confusion is worst in the Anglo-Saxon countries.”

He spotted an important shift – age 16 years used to be the point of selection for further education and training but now, he asserted, “it is the point at which a diagnostic appraisal takes place to determine the most appropriate post-compulsory track.” He then outlined a future in which we could learn from the experience of others and spent time untangling further the central themes of his two papers – the secondary / tertiary divide.

His comments in this second paper which he described as an “issues-raising paper” was a discussion, that turned to thoughts of a future schooling delivered differently, in a new kind of space. He wondered with some optimism whether “the Picot reforms may prove to have been based on a disappearing model of what a school and its community actually is and therefore further administrative reform of a major nature may be required in 5-10 years’ time.”

The issues Capper raised are still there and the solutions and responses continue to be stubbornly elusive.



Capper P H, (1986)    Jagged Edge, NZPPTA, Wellington

Capper P H, (1992)    Jagged Edge Revisited: Part the First** – the Secondary Tertiary                                        Boundary, NZPPTA, Wellington.

** Capper wrote at the start of this paper that “Part the Second, to follow, will consider the primary-secondary boundary”


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Pathway-Ed: Tales from the Past #2 – Challenges of changes that don't go away

Stuart Middleton
3 February 2011

This is the Silver Jubilee Year. No, not of some minor royal,  the A and P Society or even a school. It is the Silver Jubilee Year of a PPTA paper written in 1986 that deals with the issue of what the writer of the paper, Phil Capper, called the “Jagged Edge. (Capper, P. (1986) Jagged Edge, NZPPTA H.X.86/229, Wellington).

Let me quote a bit of it..

“This document is a discussion paper in which I attempt to bring together developments taking place in a number of areas which … present a challenge to the secondary education sector; and which underlies many of our [PPTA] policies.

The developments that represented this threat at that time were curriculum reform, assessment reform, transition education, ACCESS, Link Programmes, Lifelong Learning, education outside the classroom, bicultural education and vocational education. Many will remember these developments with some nostalgia.

What these developments had in common was recognition that the standard menu of offerings in schools was not catering for the needs of all students. The developments, especially the reforms, were a possible route through which, in Capper’s view, schools could “respond more readily to what the community wants, especially in the upper secondary school. If schools do not respond to the opportunities and challenges implicit in this, then I believe that we will see a flight of post-compulsory students to other educational institutions and the reduction of all but the most academic schools to virtual junior high schools.”

This is prescient stuff. The message, twenty-five years ago, was abundantly clear in the paper: the senior secondary school was not meeting the needs of a all students. This is the issue we face today and then, just as now, there need be no doubt that this situation would be responded to one way or another and if schools didn’t respond then others would. But as I have noted previously, it is not what reforms do to schools but what schools do to reforms that matters and change, when it did come, was both slow and of relatively little impact.

Twenty-five years ago, this PPTA paper grappled with a situation that still pertains today with one exception. This time alternatives to the conventional secondary school are appearing and schools are faced with issues (essentially those outlined by Capper back then) that arise from the need for schools to be flexible, to work with others and to see resources in terms of the student for whom they are provided rather than the school to which they are given. At this time, the developments are different but their impact on schools will be much the same if schools continue to exhibit the degree of unwavering commitment to the traditional patterns of schooling that Capper warns against.

In fact in concluding the paper, Capper argues that teachers were increasingly being placed into an indefensible position. He even questions the assumption that there is “something called a secondary school, in which people called secondary teachers impart something called secondary education to people called secondary pupils during a period of time known as the school day, term or year.”

Even now such an analysis would be thought of as a little radical and yet time has only underlined the basic truth of its hard-hitting comment. Six years later, Capper returned to the topic (Capper, P. (19992) Jagged Edge Revisited: Part the First – The Secondary Tertiary Boundary, NZPPTA, HX 92/032) this time describing the issue as “questioning the continued validity of regarding the secondary service as a fixed and discrete entity” and a blurring of the boundaries between secondary education and other sectors which posed a challenge at that time to the policies being pursued by the teachers’ organisation.

Issues that are not dealt with do not go away and even after twenty-five years will re-surface. In this instance, the issue that is captured by Capper has now become quite a focus throughout the English-speaking education systems but there is one key difference. There is this time a clear understanding of the demographic overlay that adds urgency and indeed inevitability that change must happen.

Schools have not been idle; teachers have not simply turned their backs in order to ignore the issues.  Much work has been done in developments such as NCEA and other qualifications, small concessions have been made with academies of one kind or another, and increasingly teachers are returning to professionally engage with the issue Capper highlighted – the appropriateness of current senior secondary schooling to a wide group of students in the face of developments of alternatives.

It must also be remembered that Capper was writing in the late 1980s and early 1990s at a time when the trend of keeping students in secondary schools for five years was starting to make  explicit the fact that there were at that time numbers of students in the senior secondary school that had never in the previous hundred years been there. The elongation of secondary education from two years to five years had rapidly happened in the period 1975 to 1990 with the 12% of students who had been staying at secondary school for five years increasing to 65%. The senior secondary school was now being asked to attempt something that it had never in our history achieved – i.e. provide a five year programme for a full cross-section of students. This was a major cause of disengagement from education.

So the stakes in all this are much higher this time as we replay a consideration of the issues Capper raised. No response is not an option. The role of secondary schools will play in any response will depend in large measure on the flexibility that they welcome into the senior secondary school.

A recent book from the USA has the title So Much Reform So little Change. This is now a luxury we cannot afford.

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