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Pathways-ED: Relationships up against a wall

Stuart Middleton
1 August 2012


It was not done lightly when they named the parts of Berlin after the Second World War that had come to be considered as exclusive property of this super power or that super power, “sectors”. The Americans had the American Sector and the Russians theirs. Movement between the two was restricted by that ghastly wall and Checkpoint Charlie became synonymous with freedom of access.

They had, after all, the lessons to be learnt from education where sectors had similarly become territory won and territory to be defended. The No-man’s Land was territory to dispute and little consideration was given to what is best for the citizen / students.

I was astounded that recently a one-day seminar on relationships between sectors with top presenters was offered by a reputable Australian organisation, ATEM, but was able to attract only 7 registrations from throughout Australia – well, it might have been six because I had registered.

Issues related to educational sectors and to relationships between them in Australia seemed to me to be an issue that demands attention. Especially in the tertiary area where chickens hatched in the late 1980s have all the appearance of coming home to roost. In New Zealand they also demand attention.

Relationships between higher education, further education, vocational education, academic education are simply beyond resolution by considering them each to belong to a “tertiary sector”. And just as the spoils of war are commemorated and held to be holy long after the fighting stops, much of the sector debate in education is based on the spoils of past wars and the now somewhat jingoist slogans of the factions – We are academic, protect the standard!  We are vocational , they need us to dig for victory! We are primary, we teach people! We are secondary, we teach subjects to people!

It is all nostalgia for a past age when education systems had the appearance of working. Let’s face the realities of peacetime.

The transitions between sectors has become dysfunctional with too many students successfully navigating through the checkpoints which have become chokepoints. The old academic / vocation distinction no longer applies. Education systems in Anglophone countries are characterised by unprecedented rates of failure and dropouts – casualties of this war. These countries all share the dilemma of skill shortages and increasing youth unemployment.

Lets calmly look at these sectors. Early childhood education is critical to later success in education and while we boast of pretty good national levels of access, the disparity of access between certain groups in the community is a less happy picture. A solution would be to subsume the ECE sector into the primary sector thus increasing the ease of access without increasing the need to escalate governance and capital works costs. Australia in ahead of New Zealand in halving the K Level entry group but this seems to be more of a Level 0 for primary than a dedicated pre-school effort. And one year is too short.

All systems know the importance of the primary, elementary part of the education system. The issue with this sector is that it is not encouraged other than through mechanisms of name and shame to have a successful but more narrow focus on the teaching of basic skills. I am not suggesting that we return to the old inspection when an Inspector of Schools would arrive at a school to hear the students read to ascertain whether Standard 4 or 5 or 6 had been achieved. But clear statements about exit levels would help with the critical platform that is primary education.

Where the primary sector has identity issues is at the upper end when it seems to grapple with the dilemma of being like a primary school but wanting to be like a secondary school. The solution is clear, create a new sector, Years 7-10, and let them get on with the job of making a successful transition from primary into the discipline-based secondary style programme. Introductory work on real pathways would replace the current work that is reduced to dabbling by the lack of clear pathways with continuity into post-primary education and training.

This would mean taking the senior secondary school out of the “school” sector and placing it in the “tertiary” sector. Having reached Year 11 students would have multiple pathways for further education and training which would be both, and simultaneously, academic and vocational. The different institutions of the senior secondary school, the university, the ITPs, Wanānga, PTEs ITOs and so on would then have a distinctive contribution to make to providing appropriate pathways, rich in their diversity, rewarding in their outcomes and  connected to the real world of family sustaining incomes, of employment and of continued learning.

A brief flypast over the battlefield cannot do justice to a complex issue but the general point is clear. Our current sectors have developed by accident not design, they have resulted in the development of distinctive features (unions, qualifications, sites etc) that are more intended to distinguish territory than they are based on what we know about learning and young people.

I would love to have got together with those six people who shared my enthusiasm for starting the conversation about sectors and the relationships between them. Who knows, it might have led to change somewhere ahead of us. One day the public will want to push the walls over. How much better it would be if we could do it before contempt for institutionalised education reaches that level?



Pathway-ED: Once a jolly good idea

Stuart Middleton
14 July 2011

Since the early 1980s New Zealand and Australia have had an agreement to work closely together in trade and financial matters. The “Closer Economic Relations” agreement, as it is commonly called, was thought to be a progressive recognition of the need for two countries with clear differences but many more similarities to work together to their mutual benefit.

The time has come for a Closer Education Relations Agreement between our two countries.

Why would you do this? Well perhaps the key reasons would be the advantages of a synchronised curriculum which would ease the flow of students between the two systems. Resourcing the development of curriculum, supporting its implementation and refreshing it through professional development and activity is expensive. The scale of economy in setting out to work co-operatively in this would be not only have potential fiscal advantages but also professional ones.

New Zealand teachers would benefit from having a larger canvas with which to work and Australian teachers from contact with those areas in which they could learn. These areas come and go a little but at different times New Zealand had an advantage in its approach to reading instruction, at another Australia was clearly ahead in the use of technology. As a generalization, New Zealand is string in the generation of ideas while Australia has strengths in implementation

At the tertiary / postsecondary level there would be gains in synchronising the approach to student loans and allowances and to an Australasian approach to collecting those loans from students after they graduate.

International Education might well have a much stronger brand were it to be an Australasian brand rather than two separate brands both of which had their own issues.

Initial reactions to this brief sketch will probably be driven by nationalism and a belief that our separate national identities were so different that the outcome would be an inevitable loss of something precious, something we had each “fought for” and which was inviolate. But that is from a former age and the modern world is now a global world, a world made flat (to use Thomas Friedman’s term), a world in which communication across oceans is as easy as those across the street, where collaborative work (especially in education) is simple, a world in which our graduates see job opportunities and careers wherever they occur and not necessarily in the old home town.

There are other areas where co-operation if not amalgamation could be considered.

Qualifications frameworks could be synchronised (now there’s an idea that has languished) with fewer qualifications taught across our two countries. School leaving qualifications could be the same (that would be a hard one) and reporting regimes brought together (in a saga perhaps called National Standards meets Naplan.

Both our education systems share indicators that are similar when it comes to disengagement, success rates in schooling systems, access to early childhood education, completion rates in postsecondary education. We also both share similar levels of skill shortages(but in different areas), struggle to find a modern expression of apprenticeships that works, are heading towards producing too many degree graduates and too few middle level technicians.

If we share the problems and issues might not there be sense in working together towards solutions? But it would require a different kind of thinking.

Solutions could only emerge if the thinking could get beyond such searching questions as “Who invented the pavlova?” and “Was Crowded House an Australian band?” It would have to move beyond referring to or perhaps even caring about the under-arm bowling fiasco of 1981. It would have to forget the us and them mentality that goes both ways.

In short we would have to rediscover the ANZAC spirit but this time in the battle against ignorance and educational failure. WE would have to take a lesson from those sporting codes (soccer, basketball, rugby league and netball) which have found few issues in operating across national borders.

Of course our history would continue to be taught but would not we each benefit from understanding the history of our neighbour? Of course our literature would still be read but how much richer the choice if there was a developed knowledge of each other’s literature? Mathematics, science, large amounts of the business subjects, international languages, engineering and many technical areas all operate with ease in an international environment and indeed rely on an international context to exist.

It is worth thinking about but later – I have to dash off to renew my passport so that I can get into Australia!

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