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Talk-ED: Solutions for a Solution


The Christchurch earthquakes and all that has gone with it have placed demands on a community that are alongside the devastation that the two world wars wreaked on the communities of New Zealand.

But if you can put the events of the quakes to one side, there might be lessons in the proposed re-organisation of schooling in Christchurch that has recently been announced. Perhaps all communities in New Zealand should be taking stock of current provisions, places and procedures of schooling and ask whether they deserve close examination.

Take the placement of schools. The principles by which school were located were originally that a young person should be able to walk to school or be taken to school by a school bus ride that was not unforgivable often along unsealed and poor roads. Those criteria have been well and truly shot to pieces in many communities, especially in the cities and towns where the middle classes and the rich take their little ones to school in SUVs and suchlike. It is really only in what we identify as low decile communities that walking is the norm. The school walking buses are a commendable exception to this rule. In the space of a generation biking to school has all but disappeared. And in country communities there are now generally better and sealed roads and better buses and it is conceivable to consider longer distances. 

So what powerful arguments exist that schools should continue to exist in the exact locations that they have in the past?

Well, tradition might be one reason and I can see the old secondary school sites being retained. But many of the old primary schools were located in parts of towns that might no longer have the communities of little ones to sustain them. A huge number of our schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s to cope with the baby boom and so the “traditional” argument might not be all that strong. It could simply be that we have too many schools, and some in the wrong places.

Then there is the matter of school size. I hear from many teachers that where schools use size to advantage then bigger is better. Just how much bigger might well be a moot point but where the resource base is able to provide choice and support across the entire diversity of a school population then it is a good thing. Where it is not then it is a pointless argument.

But perhaps the largest question I have about the “Christchurch Solution” is that it fails to address the sectors and their current structure, the place of senior secondary schooling and the development of choice through multiple pathways for students. It is in essence a housekeeping exercise with the existing ways of working which rearranges the furniture.

The results of schooling in New Zealand suggest that a more radical set of reforms is needed. If we were to look at the Finnish reforms that have taken the education system in that country to the top of the world three might be an argument for considering:

  •          changes to the sectors where a comprehensive “primary” sector would have responsibility for ages 5 to 16 with the eldest three years of this group (“lower secondary schools) starting the process of preparing students for the next step but doing this within the sector;
  •          the introduction of three year upper secondary schools that offer choices to students through academic tracks to university and vocational pathways into the trades and professions;
  •           rethinking the nature of a “local” school.

This last point is the most challenging. The Finnish put together teachers who previously worked in different kinds of schools and working to the view that understanding and working through human diversity was in itself an important educational goal, brought together students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, aspirations and circumstances. At the same time they eased the central controls on schools so that each school could introduce practices of a small-scale democracy (vivat Dewey). Teachers managed difference in the classroom through differentiated approaches often supported by assistant teachers.

This of course implies a more controlled system of allocating school places to produce the balance – the Finnish did it, such courage. Could we accept that parish pump and self-interest needs to be replaced by diversity and national goals? Do we really want to perform like Finland?

A system based on the principle of equal opportunity is one we aspire to but while we continue to work in a system that is structurally in opposition to such a goal, equitable outcomes will remain elusive. The cities and town of New Zealand should all be addressing these issues and starting to exhibit a willingness to consider new structures and ways of working or do we simply continue to do the same thing and get the same results?

In many respects the Christchurch proposals don’t go far enough – disruption on that scale that will lead simply to a perpetuation of the same way of working which is a disappointment. On the other hand it is a little unfair to expect Christchurch in these stretched times to alone make changes that should be permeating through the entire country.


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Talk-ED: A new year, a new response?


Stuart Middleton
23 January 2012

It’s that time again when all over the country students set off to start another calendar year of schooling, education and training. Some of those students will be the first batch of the 30,000 or so who will start school for the first time having reached that magic day, their fifth birthday. What a wonderful thing it is that we retain this tradition rather than do the bulk lot thing that they do in other systems (the Feb or Sept start).

The social contract is clear. Students are required to attend school regularly starting at the appropriate age, do what is asked of them, develop appropriate social behaviours and wear correct uniform. For their part, schools are required to teach a specific curriculum to a set of specific standards. If each party meets its obligations a young person should be able to face a secure future with knowledge, skills and aspirations that will take them into adulthood and able to earn a family sustaining age.

Well, that is all very well and good in theory. Increasingly schooling in schools is not enough and a postsecondary qualification is essential. So that brings into play another set of complexities – tertiary education. The young one’s starting school do not realise the extent to which that will present challenges that they are not often able to control.

So all of these little ones and their bigger brothers and sisters setting off to school at the moment in their new polo shirts of primary colours and sun hats big enough to camp under, face a treacherous pathway ahead. Actually they would have walked to school once upon a time but now an armoured division of SUVs will see them safely to school in many suburbs while in others parents will walk to school with them.

Do they know what their chances are?

I did a little study – what a real statistician would call a quick and dirty job – of a cohort of 100 New Zealand babies, right numbers of different ethnicities and so on, and applied what we know to be the success/failure trajectories of each group. I concluded that of those 100 babies born last year, only 29 would achieve a postsecondary qualification on the current performance of the education system, 71 would not. And I do not mean a degree qualification. I mean anything from a postsecondary certificate up. So about one in three will reach the minimum level of qualifications required.

That aligns with what we know to be the picture of disengagement and I do not see evidence that suggests that there is a trend of improvement. The increase in disengagement is stubbornly resistant to the efforts of educators.

One reason is that the demographics are working against us – the groups of students we teach well and to internationally stunning levels are getting smaller while the groups that struggle (and have for longer than we care to admit) are getting bigger.

Add to that the steady placement of vocational education options at increasingly older entry levels along with a blind belief that the comprehensive secondary school might meet the needs of all students (it never has in the past why should it now?) and that figure of 29% successfully competing a postsecondary qualification looks to be a stretch in 30 or 40 years.

Change in the education system is urgently needed and that is up to the grown ups not the little ones. So here is an agenda for professional concerns in 2012:

First, all jurisdictions want accountability one way or another so get over it and move on. If National Standards are right then change them but work constructively in the system rather than continue to bamboozle the community by staunchly rejecting standards – well that is how it seems to an outsider.

Secondly, seriously question whether we have been pulling the wool over the community’s eyes on the question of what schools can actually do. Less is more in curriculum design so sorting out what matters and doing that will make all the other stuff easy to do. If someone can read well they can do anything. Equitable access to technology is more important than more programmes (admit it, you got a gadget for Xmas and gave it to your grandchild to show you how to get it going).

Let’s be adamant about what schools can do and then ensure that we do that stuff so well that each and every student will receive a brilliant start in life through education.

Thirdly, get purpose into the lives of young people at school. Why they are there is the most important factor – if I ask a child in school the question “Why are you doing that?” and they cannot answer I seriously question the quality of the teaching.

Related to this is that focus on the end game of education. Forty years ago when everything seemed to be working and most people were in fact working, a central goal of education was to equip people to work. Is that such a bad thing? Sanitising education so that it is not tainted by vocational goals is crazy. Actually the universities know this and are blatantly vocational under the guise of being the critics and conscious of other people.

Having a strong focus on employability in real jobs need not in any way jeopardise the attainment of a liberal education which is in fact one which liberates and what could be more liberating to those imprisoned by educational failure to have such a quality education?

None of this seems very difficult really. It is just that it is urgent! Those little fellows starting the journey over the next 10 days or so need to be assured that it is worthwhile. The results in the school success statistics in 2025 will not be some disembodied set of figures, they will in fact be each and every one of these little ones.


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EDTalkNZ: Joining Some Dots

 Today’s guest writer is Karl Mutch, Manager, Team Solutions, at The University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education.

When I was a young boy in the 1960s, a long time before computer games and even before space invaders, there used to be things called puzzle books which children would inevitably receive as Christmas or birthday presents. These books, usually an inch thick and printed on poor quality paper, were useful for amusing ourselves on a wet weekend or in the winter school holidays. They contained pictures you could colour in, quizzes, crosswords, lists of interesting facts and, my favourite, join the dots. Using a pencil, you would begin to join up the hundreds of apparently random dots on a page until some kind of shape emerged – if I remember correctly it was usually an elephant, a cute dog, a palm tree or a clown. The easier join the dot pages even had some of the picture already provided so you kind of knew what was coming. Even if you could anticipate the final image, there was something satisfying about completing the picture, joining up all the dots and seeing everything connected.

What would it look like if we could join up some of the dots to help connect schools more strongly with our communities? What would a truly community connected school look like, and feel like – for students, for teachers, for school leaders and for members of the community? What sort of picture might emerge?

A couple of months ago I sat in the main auditorium at the Telstra Clear Events Centre in Manukau with over 200 people who were asking a similar question. What was exciting about this was not just the name – Raise Pasifika Fono – but the fact that it was a rare attempt to connect the education dots across a large and diverse community – to improve outcomes for Pacific students. There were specialist groups – students, early childhood, primary and secondary teachers, principals, tertiary educators, government ministry people, business people, church representatives, some MPs, union representatives, health sector representatives, counsellors, local community members, parents and people from local government. At times, we talked within our specialist groups, at times we re-grouped to engage with a range of perspectives. For a moment, it felt like a whole community coming together to talk about education connections and how these might be aligned to benefit students.

Of course there are already numerous examples of schools, kura and communities working together to benefit students – iwi have created and are implementing education plans and exploring education partnerships; parents are involved in school reading and homework programmes; businesses and sports clubs provide mentoring, work experience or sponsorship. Local councils have community development programmes and community trusts fund a wide range of school-connected projects. There are youth workers in schools and programmes that connect schools with artists and scientists. Trades academies allow secondary schools to engage in new ways with employers and tertiary institutes. Somewhere amongst all of this is the potential for more coherence in how schools and communities connect – perhaps across a suburb, town or region – and I haven’t even touched on the potential of virtual communities to revolutionize the ways schools ‘connect’.

Government can play a role. There are increasing connections between iwi and the Ministry of Education through iwi education partnerships. This week, Child, Youth and Family has established a direct hotline for teachers to help encourage reporting of suspected child abuse. Although there are worries there may not be enough staff at CYF to follow up those concerns effectively, it is at least an example of a direct connection between schools and a government agency that could make a difference for children. Why wasn’t it done years ago? What other hotlines do we need?

How can local government increasingly play a role here? It could start by providing more infrastructure for agencies and organisations to make connections. This would ensure that agencies intersecting and participating in education would know who was playing what role or delivering which services. It would allow the community to access the information they need in a timely way. In Auckland, the Education Summit held earlier this year was an attempt to kick start that process.

I know that community means different things to different people, but exploring ways for schools to connect in increasingly innovative and coherent ways with their communities seems like a really important job. What sort of picture, what sort of vision, might emerge if we actually start joining up more of those dots?

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Pathway-Ed: Tales from the Past #1 – Seamless is not shapeless

Stuart Middleton
27 January 2011

I bumped into Hon Dr Lockwood Smith the other day and mentioned to him that I still go back to the policy paper he released in 1993, Education for the 21st Century, a document that despite its worth had not had as much impact as it should have. Perhaps it made the mistake of including targets – New Zealand education has a deep allergy to targets. Perhaps it was the fact that it linked targets to funding – New Zealand education has a belief that funding is an inalienable right. Or perhaps it was that it contained a set of ideas that were a little or a lot ahead of their time.

“I go back particularly to one section,” I admitted.

“That would be the part about seamless education.” he said without hesitation.

Got it in one.

The notion of seamless education was a vision of a system in which “New Zealand will have a system under which it no longer matters with which provider or in which educational programme students are studying. All learning will lead to qualifications within the same framework.”

 The National Qualifications Framework and the new school curriculum were in their early stages of development or implementation and discussion around the country was hot. Startled by the fear of academic contamination the university sector didn’t want any part in it. A noted academic described unit standards as “intellectual finger food”. Oh dear, they were fractious times.

But in that section were even more revolutionary ideas:

  • that students would be able to undertake education and training in more than one setting at the same time”;
  • that  senior secondary school students might be able to “combine regular school courses with polytechnic or university courses and workplace training provided by local industries”;
  • institutions could enter into agreements with each other;
  • schools would have the “opportunity to offer courses which have previously been available only at polytechnics or universities”;
  • “Industry training organisations will be able to develop training programmes both on and off the job to meet their industries’ future needs.

This was 1993, 17 years ago and only now do we start to see serious progress starting to emerge in these things. Well, to be fair, ITO’s have got on in implementing this vision for the 21st Century but the rest of the system has been slow to respond.

Instead of seamless education we have seen a maze of Berlin Walls erected to repel any advances into our territory or our business at our level. The victims in these battles have been young people shot by educational failure before they had a chance of going over the top.

The minefields were laid. Time served became cemented into the system – you can’t do that you are only in Year XYZ. You can’t teach in this sector because you don’t have the correct degree – this sector has to have this degree because learning is so very different at this level. Oh yes, NCEA Level 1, that equals Year 11, NCEA Level 2 that equals Year 12 and so on. Financial penalties were inflicted on students who wished to leave school at the legal leaving age but before the age of 19 years to continue education and training.

What was meant to be an exciting new future became a living nightmare for students who for a whole variety of reasons could not find success in such a fractionated system.

You see, the notion of a seamless education is about the learner not about the teachers and the administrators and that still remains the key philosophic shift that needs to happen. “What is best for this learner?” has to be a more urgent question than “What can we do?” or “What’s best for us?” Making decisions based on what is in the best interests of a learner leads to good solutions which demand that we work in an integrated fashion, allowing students to move at different paces in different settings. It also means multiple pathways rather than the straight and narrow road of the academic secondary school programme.

So… we have to allow students who wish to access career and technical education sooner to do so. In a seamless education system this will mean that students who are coping well and succeeding needn’t spend so long in a school (this in a week when the university continues to cement entrance to the completion of the 13th year!). Those up against blocks should be able to easily move sideways to undertake more appropriate programmes in different places.

Seamless only appeared shapeless because people wanted it to fit the existing system.

We would all agree that education must provide strong foundations, and a wide range of opportunities thereafter, to meet the diverse needs of all New Zealanders. The education system must be without barriers to participation and life-long learning.

Actually, dear reader, the previous paragraph was the final paragraph of the section on THE SEAMLESS EDUCATION SYSTEM: A VISION FOR THE FUTURE published seventeen years ago.

We missed a grand opportunity back then.

Come back Lockwood, all is forgiven.


A question of fillings

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.14, 17 April 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Reforms and cucumber sandwiches are all about the bit in the middle.

A cucumber sandwich without the cucumber in the middle tends to leave those eating them feeling that somehow this all might have been better. But you can’t blame the sandwich – someone did this.

It is often the same with reforms. It is not that the reform is wrong or has faults but rather what people have done to them. You see, the issue is not what reforms do to people but what people do to reforms and this is where the bit in the middle is important.

The Tomorrow’s Schools Reforms as they have come to be called were based on a radical change that saw on the one hand, schools and on the other, and in a direct relationship to it, the crown (for that read government). This seemed a huge and distant relationship to manage. But there were bits in the middle that were designed to make it work. Education Service Centres would be established that would focus on the needs of a smaller cluster of schools and help them manage that relationship.

Community Education Forums would be established that would allow wider communities to have their say, to express views about the bigger educational issues and maintain a place in education that was beyond the gates of the school their children went to.

But both of these bits in the middle were abandoned – the critical mechanisms for gluing the schools to the government were never put there.

Then there is the case of the qualifications reforms.  Changes proposed on the basis of a Qualification Framework that would provide a common currency of qualification recognition and value regardless of the institution or level. Each qualification in New Zealand would be mediated by its place on the framework which would explain to employers, caregivers, and grandparents just where a qualification was in terms of level and scale.

But it took so long for the framework to get traction that when it seemed finally to emerge everyone had moved on to other things and qualifications in New Zealand, rather than being seen as a tidy and methodical set, continue to be questioned and challenged. Again that bit in the middle.

A more recent example of the middle phenomenon is the demolition of the stakeholder engagement section of the Tertiary Education Commission. Perhaps some of the rhetoric that surrounded this group was a bit out of synch with reality but there was, in the dual role approach of the members of the team, some valuable functions which we have yet to be assured will not simply disappear. For instance, among these tasks was the frontline concern for Pasifika in the Auckland region. Auckland is by far the largest concentration of Pacific students in tertiary education in the world and it made sense to have someone with a designated concern for Pasifika to be there on the ground in the region. It is a question of voice.

But no, the bit in the middle must go.

Finally there is that Royal Commission on the Governance of Auckland. First look seemed to be positive – the Government in Wellington, six Councils in the region and then Community Boards for the local communities. So guess what the first casualties were – the bit in the middle!

The abandonment of the concept of local councils leaves us ripe for a replay of the Tomorrow’s School business where for over 15 years, low decile communities and their schools struggled to get the fair deal that seemed to come as of right to more middle class areas. Communitiy Boards – perhaps as many as thirty – are unlikely to have an equal voice or even speak the same language both metaphorically and actually.

Despite the cries over the decision to do away with Councils, no-one is proposing a return to the borough councils of old. Just as no-one cried out in defence of the Education Boards. Or the myriad qualification and accreditation bodies that once existed. People welcome change but would it not be a good thing to make change comprehensive and complete. And why ask Picot and his group, Hawke and his group, Salmon and his group to think it all through and then set out to build only part of the plan.

At the head of the Whanganui River, at Maungapurua, is a very splendid bridge built in the 1930’s when it looked as if the community of farmers in that region would grow. But it didn’t and they walked off the land. The contractor pointed out that this bridge might not served the purpose for which it was intended anyway as it is in a fiendishly difficult location. Would it be OK if he didn’t go ahead?

No, the wisdom of the bureaucrat prevailed, the contract had been signed and the bridge must be built. It was. And to this day there is no road that leads to the bridge and no road that leads away from it. Nothing wrong with the bridge, but even the bit in the middle is no good on its own.

New Zealand as a country seems to feel that implementing some of the recommendations or proposals that seek to bring about a reform is as good as going the whole hog so to speak. But often when this happens we are left coping with reform that offers upheaval but little of the anticipated improvements. I used to think of this as a peculiar ailment of education but perhaps it is more a part of our general national psyche – we are a nation of tinkerers.

We are also quite properly cautious. After all, we wouldn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Never mind that in failing to attend to structural reform (the gaps in Tomorrow’s Schools, the qualification framework, the truncated implementation of the Royal Commission and so on0 we end up tossing out the bath and then struggle with both the baby and the bathwater.

Never mind, pass the cucumber sandwiches. Oh all right then – a piece of bread will be OK.

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The answers are obvious

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.2, 23 January 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The 1960 Master Plan for postsecondary education in California confirmed the place of the community college in creating pathways that young Californians could trek in the fulfilment of the American Dream – a college education. These postsecondary institutions are somewhat akin to the New Zealand polytechnic but offer a wider range of courses that includes a rich range of personal enrichment courses. Qualifications that theses courses lead to are usually the Associate Degree which allows students to transfer to a university or a General Diploma in Education.

Putting aside the issues of secondary school disengagement – an issue that bedevils the USA as much as it does us here in New Zealand – those who proceed from high school to an undergraduate tertiary programme in a postsecondary institution in California head in three directions. The University of California system (Berkeley, Davis etc) accepts 9% of the undergraduates, 18% are in the State University system (Sacremento, Monterey, etc) while 73% are in the community colleges. So the split is 27% into the universities and 73% into the community college system.

This compares to the picture of New Zealand undergraduates of 49% in the universities and 51% in the polytechnics and wananga. So we have a higher proportion of undergraduates in the university system which could be a reflection of the absence of any historical transfer track between the parts of our system. And we have a much higher proportion of students who enter Private Training Providers than do overseas systems.

All western education systems are struggling with a clear demand for increased numbers of graduates and the persistent difficulty of achieving this through the simple increase in participation remains a puzzle.

California – like New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA generally and the UK – has come to realise that the key to this issue is to get increased numbers of graduates from its community college system. This is based on a recognition that if gains are to be made, they will be achieved in the community college system because it is in the non-university tertiary sector that the required scale of increased achievement among traditionally underserved groups will be won.

But a recent report[1] from  the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at CSU Sacramento, hit the nail on the head with a major chapter heading We Know What Works But We Don’t Do It. There is a major industry on student retention and success in the USA supported internationally that has clarified clear actions that can easily be taken that will increase student success in undergraduate programmmes. Some of the agreed actions and responses we should be pushing in undergraduate programmes are promoted by this report and come as no surprise.

  • Make sure that students’ are ready for tertiary study. .

 A clear outcome of schooling should be preparation for tertiary education and training. But does school curriculum reflect this? Is there a shared understanding between educators at secondary and tertiary levels as to what readiness would mean?

  • Provide conditions that allow students to achieve success right from the beginning of the programme.

 Enrolling students in the right classes at the beginning of the year is a good place to start. And providing remediation in basic skill areas where it is needed. But do we really take the care we should with enrolment? Do we know clearly whether a student has basic skill weaknesses when they start or do we wait for it to become apparent?

  • Provide clear educational goals and pathways.

 Fortunately we are seeing some progress on individual education plans and personal pathway plans and such approaches that will help.

  • Make clear to students that the best study options are to study full-time and continuously.

The gap year – both the intentional of the moneyed and the accidental of the struggling student – is disruptive and will not increase success. And once they have started they should carry on without breaks. This is easier for the young than for the older after responsibilities have come along that compete for time.

  • Provide intensive support for students.

 This is, as they say, a no-brainer!

The report goes on to highlight other aspects in areas such as finance and institutional culture. For instance in finance, it notes, institutions that have multiple missions created by their relatively heavier load and more demanding tasks of catering for higher numbers of under-prepared students are simply not funded adequately to do the work.

And that old chestnut – funding systems reward enrolment but not success. Are the changed approaches in tertiary funding being worked through in New Zealand going to achieve what the Californian system has not been able to?

But perhaps the biggest challenge in the report is the authors’ assertion that “entrenched assumptions prevent considerations of new approaches” and that “there is a disinclination to consider policy change as the system seeks to improve student success.” 

The world has changed and the communities that we now serve have changed. The challenges of providing success in tertiary education have also changed. Simply increasing participation will not be enough. That must be matched with increased student success and the base on which this increase will be achieved is in the work of the secondary school and in the parts of the tertiary system that serve the under-served communities which represent the future.

If New Zealand does not respond to issues of access to and success in postsecondary qualifications that are industry recognised for these under-served groups then talk of economic transformation is plain nonsense.

In the Californian community college system 14.5% of students succeed in completing a certificate or associate degree or transfer (to a university). Comparisons are difficult, New Zealand Polytechnics offer a wider range of qualifications than does a Californian community college but certainly the comparable figure is under 50% and may even be as low as 40% for fulltime students,

Do we wait until we start getting the levels of achievement in undergraduate postsecondary education that our colleagues in California are faced with before we respond? As they say: “We know what works but we don’t do it.”

[1] Shulock, Moore, Offenstein, Kirlin (2008) It Could Happen: Unleashing the Potential of California’s Community Colleges to help Students Succeed and California Thrive, Sacramento, IHRELP , USC Sacramento

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