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“…For the loser now will be later to win…”

Just back from Australia and it is interesting how such a visit brings perspective to issues and topics of interest.

I have been feeling for some time now that things are about to change, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries which for 50 years have by and large got a lot wrong in education.

Three connected themes are emerging:

·         earlier access to quality career and technical education which brings about improvements in educational outcomes;

 ·         the questioning of the absolute dominance of the university-bound “academic” pathway both for its appropriateness for many students and for its insatiable appetite to absorb funding;

 ·         the need for reconsideration of current sector organization models of the education systems which are increasingly seen as a troubling block to lifting achievement.

Each of the Anglo-Saxon educations systems is now seeing an increase in the numbers of students gaining earlier access to career and technical education. The pathways schools in Canada, the university technical colleges in the UK, many academy / charter schools in the USA, initiatives in Australia and, of course, the youth guarantee stable of secondary/tertiary programmes in New Zealand are each examples of how the integration of sound and continuing academic preparation can not only be combined with but is in fact enhanced by a closer focus on postsecondary qualifications in career and technical areas at a younger age.

The Anglo-Saxons simply have to come clean – the experiment of comprehensive high schools proved to be neither comprehensive nor very successful. The result was a set of educational and employment outcomes that were inferior to those achieved by the schools they replaced. I think I want to reject the view that the development of the comprehensive high schools were essentially based on snobbery – Germany had a dual system of both academic and technical tracks, we beat them in the war, so the American Dream was born – college for all, equity of access to top universities and so on. Well it never happened. Schools lost their variety, pathways disappeared and the so-called academic university-bound track became dominant. Good for those it suited and always had, disastrous for the rest.

But it is not simply a return to what used to be offered to students in a diverse set of schooling options – academic, general, technical, commercial and other tracks which defined outcomes at the outset of secondary education. The new and refreshed approach is one of multiple pathways that are both academic and vocational, which have flexibility, which provide a clear direction with different people delivering programmes in different places and with multiple purposes for learning. So talking the old industrial arts facilities and programmes and organisation out of mothballs won’t be sufficient.

This development in no way undervalues the university-bound pathway – this pathway is also both academic and vocational for many. There is though likely to be a competition for resources as the performance of the education system encourages funders to see that a more equitable spread of funding is a good and necessary investment. This emerged a little in Australia last week. In working to “real identifiable work” the schools will be required to find a new level of flexibility.

“Our kids need to know trades and training are first class career options just like university – they shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re playing on the ‘B Team’ “ says Aussie Federal Asst Minister for Education Sussan Ley. She also sees the need for schools to be more flexible in programme delivery allowing for “real work experience” – the challenge as to what constitutes “being at school” and the “school day” are in the wings and yet to come.

That leads to the third issue – the challenges to the sector organization of schooling. The Catholic education system in Australia is getting ready to shift Year 7 (the equivalent of our Year 8) up to secondary schools in order to provide for a transition that comes at a better spot in the students’ pathway, allowing for a more coherent “junior” high school and therefore opening the way for increased flexibility in the “senior” secondary school.

It is still my view that New Zealand should be seriously discussing the benefits and issues of placing the senior high school (i.e. Years 11-13) into the tertiary sector – now there’s a big topic. Such a shift would allow New Zealand to consider the features of education systems that we admire and give to them a New Zealand flavor.

Are the times a’changin’? If they are then lets hope for more than hugs and bean bags this time round.


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Talk-ED: Trading Names


The use of both “academic” and “vocational” as terms that describe classes of education and training activity is one of those old hoary binary distinctions that might well be despatched to the rubbish bin.

We have for over a century loved to think that it was a matter of logic and orderliness that needed categories that were separate and neat and not blurred by subtlety. So “academic” and “vocational” served us well.

If you were “academic” you had refinement and intelligence and an innate ability to be a lawyer or a doctor or a philosopher, perhaps even a teacher (although I recall being told early in my time as a teacher that “gentlemen [sic] had MAs and teachers had MA DipEds!”). Not many people were considered to be “academic” – perhaps 10% of each cohort and that was about the number that therefore stayed in secondary school for five years and proceeded to enter the university.

I had the troubling experience as an imminent adolescent to have my identity as a learner called into question. At the end of primary school I was enrolled in a course to be a carpenter at the local technical college. The school principal intervened and insisted to my bewildered parents that I should not do this because I was “academic”. This cast a huge pall over the household. We had coped with many things but being called “academic” was beyond our experience. It was not just that we knew our place but also that we had bought into the view of those who pursued an academic track as being “brighter”. Further we did not feel that becoming a skilled tradesperson was in any way a second class choice.

But that was not a commonly held view. If you were more “vocational”, rather than “academic”, you were perhaps not so bright, you were better with your hands that with your brain, you like practical things rather than theoretical things, you used secondary school to pass through quickly and get out into the world of work.

Now, it must be abundantly clear by now, dear reader, that all of this was just nonsense. And yet I suspect the beliefs that kept these distinctions are still more alive than we would want to admit.

The Universities are clear about their right to inhabit the “world of academia” despite the fact that their publicity emphasises progression to employment and earning power – both strong indicators of a vocational orientation. In fact the developments within the university sector have seen the introduction of many more quite demonstrably vocational qualifications over the last 20 years.

So that leaves the “vocational” sectors looking as if they are left with only doing practical things. I don’t think that this true. “Vocational” is the new “academic” in as much as learning in such settings is both academic and vocational. It would be a brave assertion to try to say that this is not the case. Just because a sector has open access and is skilled in taking among the huge range of its students those who the education system has served poorly to that point points it seems to me to greater pedagogical skill than providers who skim the cream.

But I recently heard a university leader assert that “We do not train people!”  This has made me very nervous – the person that tested my eyes and prescribed the right glasses, the person that checked my hearing, my doctor, lawyer are all people with degrees from this very same institution. Of course they were trained!

It matters what names we attach to activity. CTE, VET, TVET are each an acronym that is used to describe trades training and preparation for many careers and professions.

CTE – Career and Technical Education – is a the term gaining ground in the US but I have a similar problem with that as I do with the academic / vocational split. Most learning could be described as having a career and a technical flavour.

VET – Vocational Education and Training – has been long favoured in Australia and other places as an accurate description and it does add “training” into the mix. This might please that University leader who assured a meeting I was at the other day that “we don’t train people.” But does it capture the broad range of areas that are covered in the VET sector? And as the university system has become increasingly vocational and about training, does it differentiate the sectors sufficiently?

Then there is TVET that is used in different places – Technical Vocational Education and Training. Now, this has a ring about it. “Technical” does accurately capture what much of the VET / CTE / TVET sector does. It is concerned in large measure with the middle level qualification the technicians that keep organisations, industries and operations ticking over sweetly and productively. It also takes note of the close vocational orientation of the activity – it produces job-ready graduates who have industry-current qualifications. And it does both education and training.

I think that TVET gets my vote.

Perhaps there are other ways of differentiating the sectors – a colleague of mine likes to refer to the universities as doing the work that you do sitting down while the VET sectors attends to the jobs you do standing up. Sounds good but too many exceptions. “Pracademic” was suggested to me – nah!

The key understanding is that all learning in this modern era is both academic and vocational and that this requires us to practice higher levels of parity of esteem than has been achieved to this point. To continue to have the great divide between what is thought to be “academic” and  that considered to be “vocational” is just another of those silly little habits of the past. And to ascribe status to it is even sillier – have you had to pay a plumber lately!



Pathways – ED: Mending leaks or fingers in the dyke

Stuart Middleton
10 November 2011

At last some education features in the newspaper during the election after all but disappearing during the Rugby World Cup (along with pretty well everything else) and the early weeks of the election. And oh dear, it’s about leaky school buildings, this is certainly a major news item. But I was looking for some connection between and analysis about this news of the leaky buildings (well everyone had known about for a long time) and the “new” spending on schools buildings announced earlier.

The general community has huge issues with leaky homes, crowded out of the limelight currently by leaky ships, earthquakes and game shows such as the Rugby World Cup and the Election. The Education Community also has its leaky home problems estimated to cost about $1.2 billion but we know how these dramas unfold exponentially.

At the same time the great number of schools built in the 1950’s largely of untreated timber (they weren’t expected to have to last very long – just to get us through this baby bump after the War) are now surely at the end of their lives and rebuilding those schools will be a bigger challenge than the leaky ones.

So the inescapable conclusion is that capital expenditure on education will be a major ticket item for any government for a long time to come.

And I haven’t even mentioned tertiary education.

There is an incessant call, and rightly so, for young people to get postsecondary education. Schools are working hard and getting better at bringing students through to the gates to those postsecondary qualifications. But the increased numbers of students have to be accommodated. When the UK announced proudly that it would set a target of 40% of the population gaining a degree, a study showed that in the first instance the country could not afford to house such an increase in the postsecondary numbers nor would they be able to source sufficirent numbers of adequate teaching staff to teach them.

But perhaps there is an easier solution. Most early childhood centres, schools and tertiary institutions are owned by the crown and even though the respectives business models and regulatory relationships with the crown are different, perhaps it is time for some thinking to wrap around the extent to which demand for space could be solved by using vacant space within existing institutions. Rationalisation of schools, primary and secondary, might lead to a considerable amount of space becoming available for both early childhood education and perhaps even for postsecondary education. I know of one polytechnic that is making effective use of a disused primary school. With far less expenditure than might be needed for a new facility, adequate teaching facilities can be created in this way.

Why cannot early childhood programmes be offered out of empty classrooms in priory schools? Age is not a factor – children tend to live with people relatively close to their own age. What is significant about the fifth birthday that requires huge separation of the two groups?

Perhaps underutilised secondary space could be used for tertiary instruction or even a university class. Waikato University started life in a high school.

Let’s find some of that inventive thinking that got New Zealand through previous depressions and wars.

Of course, I can hear you reaching for your pens, keyboards and finger tips (this for the iPad users). There might be a fallacy in all this. The pressure of numbers is perhaps not in the same places as the pressure for space. In a clearly divided community such as we have, half the population lives together and has a low fertility rate while the other half lives together and have a high fertility rate. Education facilities under pressure for space are usually therefore cluster. That is where transport comes in.

The old principle that there are certain distances children can be expected to travel to schools is made a mockery of in communities where phalanxes of military style vehicles deliver children to the gate each morning and wait to ensure that the little ones have the strength to reach the building while in other communities children habitually walk!  One rule cannot be fair to all and perhaps in some communities, schools need to be closer to each other than in other communities.

The old notion of what a school is and where a school should be needs looking at. It is time to consider education centres that meet the needs of all three sectors, that utilise plant to the maximum, that see a flow of people entering for different purposes at different times. It shouldn’t be beyond our wit to devise ways of doing this without compromising safety and without meeting the specialised nature of the educational intervention that a student’s age and progress demands.

The structure of sectors needs rethinking. Does it make sense to build a senior secondary school that is not integrated with tertiary programmes? There is some exciting action planned in this area.

Perhaps it’s time to ask whether every leaky school building needs to be repaired, whether the number of schools we have should be retained, whether the sectors should be made to collaborate to bring about effective use of education buildings. Perhaps it time to ask if we should be structuring education differently. Perhaps it is time…

End note

You all know what muscle memory is – the fact that muscles can learn repetitive action and move ahead of the brain to undertake them. Each time I write “leaky” on the keyboard my fingers desperately seek out the keys for “education pipeline”. Perhaps it is also time…


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Pathways-ED: A parity of esteem… or parody of esteem?

Stuart Middleton
5 May 2011


I have just returned home after a Vocational Education and Training (VET) conference in Melbourne, the AVETRA Conference, and very good it was too with interesting papers, good keynotes and a lively atmosphere. But there was just one thread that I struggled to understand – the constant worry about parity of esteem between the VET sector and the university sector. There seemed almost to be insecurity about the standing of the VET sector in Australia and of the extent to which work in it was valued. There was a consistent feeling that comparisons between the VET sector and the University sector inevitably stacked up to the disadvantage of those engaged in applied learning in the trades and other career and professional activities. I was constantly wondering whether the situation was the same here in New Zealand.

I think it is time we all got past the whole sector thing. If the universities have put themselves on a pedestal it is jolly well time they got down where people are made of flesh and bones rather than marble. And it is also time for the VET Sector to put well behind them the old cloth cap image of themselves as workers who took their shoes off before they entered the academy.

There are a number of reasons for this. The universities have been increasingly vocational for a long time – what could be more vocational than preparing for a medical career, or completing a degree in town planning, or getting an MBA? Look at the fuss last week when an Australian university determined that in the interests of its student getting a “university education” they would first complete a general degree rather than a targeted vocational degree. A degree in the arts, or in the sciences, or in the humanities was the staple diet of a university school person. I always recall a teacher who was critical of my completing a DipEd early in my career – “gentlemen have ‘MA’ after their names, teachers have “MA DipEd’,” he said with barely disguised contempt. Of course this was before the universities lusted after market share and vocationalised most of their programmes and increased three year degrees to four year degrees to maximise income against the marketing spend. Oh dear, it has all been a sorry story.

So I cannot fathom why those who work in the VET Sector feel envious of their university colleagues, for colleagues they are as they toil away in complementary post-secondary areas. Of course just as the universities have come out of the front room and tried to take over the kitchen, the VET Sector has been unable to hide its pretentions to dine at the top table.

In these aspirations, academics in the VET Sector will always be at something of a disadvantage because so many of them are working in the VET Sector as a second career. Success in the applied area of a discipline is often a necessary precursor to a second successful career as a VET academic. Just on the basis of time available, a university academic probably has a bigger publication and research record by the age of 35 than a VET research could hope to have in a career in the sector. While this is hard to swallow, it is a defining characteristic of the differences between the sectors. VET researchers have to understand that being a university researcher is in fact a career in its entirety – go to any US research conference and you can see post-adolescents embarking with great enthusiasm on a career as a university researcher. And good on them.

I would also point out that parity of esteem is not about handing over to another person the power to make you feel good about yourself.  It is more about how you feel about yourself, about how you work with pride and know that your best shot is usually good enough and on many occasions when you are at your best, well ahead of this. Most importantly it is about the esteem in which students hold you for the value of your work and the care with which you teach.

Finally, if the VET Sector wants to feel valued then just let them see the importance of the work that they do to the future of the country. Certainly universities are important, not more so, but just as.

For more information and to register visit:   or contact   [email protected]


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Pathway-ED: Pondering on pay and pathways

Stuart Middleton
18 March 2011

It is always good to hear that industrial disputes involving teachers have been settled and agreement reached on pay issues. Such drawn out issues are disruptive, distracting and distressing for teachers who want to get on with the job. They are also critically important. The quality of a settlement is a key factor in teacher recruitment especially of young New Zealand potential teachers and although there are other factors that impact on recruitment the promise of a fair and competitive remuneration is a big influence.

Details are yet to be announced but media reports suggest that the settlement is based around a simple equation that says that a degree of any kind plus a teaching qualification will pull a greater salary than simply a teaching degree.:

$ [(Degree) + (Teaching Qualification)] > $(Teaching Degree)

Media reports also suggest that this is intended by and large to head off primary teachers and restore the advantage secondary teachers had prior to the introduction of pay equity. This is surely simplistic analysis because the formula will apply to quite a number of primary teachers (probably as many as 30%) and we can expect their next pay round to attempt to secure the same conditions for that group in the interests of pay equity.

I must comment on the restoration of the importance of the Christmas Holiday that separates primary education from secondary education. What is it about a 50 day break that requires distinctly different qualification profiles on each side? The excessive emphasis on qualification type and on remuneration based on shoe size and the number of Christmas holidays were all argued against in the days of the quest for pay equity. Now it’s back to the future or is that buck to the future?

No one can argue against the value of a degree in general regardless of the fact that a portion of any degree will be unrelated to the disciplines subsequently taught. My degree qualifications include English, French History, Philosophy and Anthropology. I taught French (briefly and badly) and English (rather better I think). I have never formally studied business but I teach on an MBA programme and supervise doctoral students on a range of topics some related tangentially to education. There is a general value to general degree education that is greatly to be encouraged – a liberal education indeed demands it.

But to claim that this should trump a degree in teaching is a big call (and rather denigrating of such degrees). Has enough thought been given to the place of a teaching degree for secondary teaching? When there is such an inexorable drift towards vocational degrees in the university it might well have had a valuable place.

And there may be some unintended consequences to this settlement if it has been portrayed accurately.

We are inevitably going into a phase of development in secondary education that will require the senior secondary school to expand the pathways available to students.  There is a call for much more opportunity for students to engage with career and technical education at an earlier point. Conventional academic education designed to get students to the starting gate for a university / degree programme remains important but finally there is a realisation that a growing number of students are not well served and in many cases not at all by this single focus. This raises the issue of who then is needed to teach in the secondary school of the future?

If secondary schools are to have an increased capability in the delivery of the trades and career and technical programmes then the degree + teaching formula qualification doesn’t work. The people required for this will be those undertaking teaching as a second career. Does that ring a bell?

One of the historical, clear and hurtful divisions within the secondary teaching community was between technical teachers and the rest simply because their experience and qualifications were not given equity with the degree qualified teachers required for subjects of the conventional academic canon. I taught many technical teachers in my early years as a teachers college lecturer. They brought a wealth of experience from the world of work and life in general into the classroom. More importantly they taught applied subjects on the basis of long experience in applying them outside of the classroom – real teaching about real world activity. We know that large numbers of students responded to this and were able to access secure futures from it.

But we solved all that – a points system awarded them degree equivalence and promoted them into G3 to get equivalent pay (on reflection that was quite patronising). We then stripped a huge amount of the technical education capacity out of the school and looked for degree-qualified teachers to teach technology (which might have been much better served by attracting technologists who often don’t have degree qualifications – this does go around in circles.)

If an unintended consequence of the increased focus on degree + teaching qualification as the entry ticket to secondary teaching is a more constrained ability to provide that expanded set of pathways to students, the only way open to students will be to access those options outside of the school system (in polytechnics or private training providers or industry based training for instance). Alternately, the capability to provide for that group of students will need to be brought into the school through the development of innovative pathways to tertiary and industry-recognised qualifications. Trade Academies and suchlike developments are already starting this process.

Finally, I am again wondering whether teacher pay and student pathways are both impacted on negatively by the continuation of a sector-based approach to education. But that is another story.

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Think-Ed: ECE and the performance of 15 year olds

Stuart Middleton
7 February 2011

Hey, wait minute. For a number of years I have extolled the critical importance of early childhood education in terms of educational advancement and achievement. Two years of quality early childhood (i.e. 15 hours a week) would lead to such gains, I argued. This was on the evidence of research in the USA.

There is widespread agreement with this internationally. A Labour MP in Britain is arguing at the moment that early education will improve later school performance.

But, adopting its right of centre position and in order to challenge this MP, The Spectator weekly has recently published a table that, it suggests, shows otherwise. Here is that table:

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths (age 15) (Rank)
100% France 497  (6)
89% Sweden 494  (7)
87% Germany 513  (5)
83% UK 492  (8)
75% Japan 529  (3)
44% Finland 541  (1)
36% US 487  (9)
09% Switzerland 534  (2)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4)


Well, I thought, that is because it is mathematics and there could be many explanations why there is no correlation between access to ECE and later performance in mathematics. The story would be very different, I thought, if we also included Literacy and Science. So I added them to the chart.

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths at age 15 (Rank in list)  PISA Score in Literacy at age 15 (Rank in list) PISA Score in Science at age 15 (Rank in list)
100% France 497  (6) 496  (9) 498  (8)
89% Sweden 494  (7) 497  (7=) 495  (9)
87% Germany 513  (5) 497  (7=) 520  (4)
83% UK 492  (8) 500  (5=) 514  (6)
75% Japan 529  (3) 520  (2) 539  (2)
44% Finland 541  (1) 536  (1) 554  (1)
36% US 487  (9) 500  (5=) 502  (7)
09% Switzerland 534  (2) 501  (4) 517  (5)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4) 508  (3) 522  (3)


Just add a further bit of interest I added a line for New Zealand:

95% New Zealand  519  (5) 521  (2) 532  (2)


Of course this might all add up to nothing very much at all as is so usual in the popular media. The Netherlands rates well in this exercise but this conveniently ignores the fact that the system in that country has a “Mother and Child Health Care” programme that is universal and that 99% of all four year olds are voluntarily enrolled in primary schools (the legal school starting age is 5 years)

Then, this type of reporting also ignores that coarse nature of such a statistic as participation. Take New Zealand as an example. We might feel quite proud of our 95% rate but this is not evenly apparent across the system. Historically, Maori and Pacific Islands children have had lower access to early childhood education while the waged white middle classes have had both easy access and high quality provision. This is a fact and a trend that successive governments have always grappled with and it was exacerbated by the removal, for instance, of the targeting of the 20 free hours provision.

So let’s be impressed by Finland – only 44% participation The Spectator tells us but top of each category for achievement among the count rues in this survey (actually they did well in the whole PISA lists!). In Finland school starts at 7 years (but you can start at 6 years). About 75% of young ones in Finland have a significant exposure to day care and there is almost full enrolment in the pre-school classes at ages 6-7.

Reports such as that in The Spectator do not grapple with other issues – the extent to which the ECE curriculum is related to that of primary schools and premised on the fact that ECE should be preparing students for primary school. They don’t focus on the extent to which staff in formal pre-school classes are qualified (Finland has 100% degree qualified many up to Masters level!). They don’t report of the size of the tale of educational disadvantage and failure in the respective countries. Finland has a short tale we have a very long tale.

Stories such as this one in The Spectator start off by being political and never rise above the opportunity to take a few cheap shots. The key issue is to work towards quality early childhood provision for all students and perhaps a clearer distinction between day care and more formal ECE. I suspect that currently a disproportionate slice of the ECE resources are going to those whose focus is day care rather than ECE while those who might benefit from ECE are missing out.

I have long thought that adding ECE to primary schools was a possible and desirable way forward. But even if it were the same old sector division would arm themselves for war and protect their territory. It is not only the secondary / tertiary divisions that stop us being internationally competitive!

There are pockets in the community where access is very low indeed, perhaps as low as 40%. Whatever league tables we produce, this is a statistic that is intolerable in a developed, blessed and, in better times, rich country.

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Missed Connections

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.18, 15 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

 “Only connect!”  is the running message in E M Forster’s novel Howards End and it is an exhortation to bring together the disparate parts of life so as to get balance and, in the long term, a better result. There is a message here for us in education. If we were to seek increased opportunity to increase connection with, between and for students the benefits to students would be immense.

“Only connect!”  One of the key roles that Early Childhood Education plays is to provide a benign and empowering introduction to the education system for parent and child. Opportunities for many in those sections of the community that are likely to benefit most in this way continue to elude us. We miss an opportunity here to get connection with parts of our community that education serves less well.

“Only connect!”  Then there is the question of the sectors that I raised a couple of weeks ago. By breaking education up into these disparate and partitioned pieces we place the onus for achieving connection on the students and his or her parent rather than presenting a smooth and easy road along which they can travel. Students (and their parents) have a lot of other things to concentrate on without also having to be responsible for navigation. They need to concentrate on getting there, having the right preparation and support, making sound choices, staying the distance and achieving success without becoming distracted by a map that seems to bear little resemblance to their lives.

“Only connect!”  And within the sectors there are issues related to the changing of classes and teachers and the different demands of different levels. We know why we do things this way or at least we can rationalise it all but how easy is it for our community to grasp? Does something that seems to them to be simple – learning new and different things – require us to approach it in such a complex and at times convoluted manner?

“Only connect!”  the education world in general has now realised that a major issue exists at the end of secondary education (whenever that comes for a student) where the interface between schools and whatever is to follow is arguably the most difficult set of rapids for students and those who care for them to attempt.

The water rushes them ahead at this point, around, over and sometimes into the rocks of pathway choices, subject choices, career and vocational choices, and choices of institutions and providers. The work that is happening in some schools now to slow down the waters by starting the processes of decision making much earlier holds much promise and should be supported, Similarly the return to a more orderly education system at this level through a network of provision in which universities behave like universities and polytechnics behave like polytechnics will also help.

But perhaps the key connections will be the ones which education professionals make with each other. If education were an ecosystem then survival would depend on our becoming smart at seeing the symbiotic relationship between the parts rather than our simply relishing our spot in the food chain.

The rapacious decade of the 1990’s where students were there to be fought for, in which we all ate each others’ lunches, in which big was beautiful and bigger was more beautiful  took us nowhere and will increasingly be seen as time lost. This was time when we could have been tooling up an education system for what lies ahead rather than shoring up the system to make the most of what has always been.

The growth of our education system has been accidental rather than planned – there was no educational Mt Sinai from which tablets of stone were delivered to us saying this is how it shall be now and for evermore. Despite the tone of various reports over the years, attempts to change the system were attempts to bring some order to a system not built to a plan. The ark of the educational covenant when it is found will be found to be empty.

What was planned was that communities such as ours (and Australia, US, UK and Canada) would have universal primary (elementary, basic) education and a few would proceed to the conventional higher education academy for which a pipeline, secondary education, was required to deliver those few. At the end of primary education pathways would take students into the world of work or into the fee paying secondary schools that led on and up to the academy.

The growth of other options was slow as the British tradition of seeing anything other than a literary education as being inferior, influenced decisions. But other options did emerge and became an imperative after the Second World War when the group of five launched on a track of universal five year secondary education for a variety of reasons. Even the structures within which was tackled were rather haphazard. Junior high schools came but went nowhere, intermediate schools became a quick fix for population growth issues, single sex schools went out of fashion. We are now seeing the emergence of junior and secondary high schools again. All of this by and large took place and takes place without much discussion – it is a series of little bangs rather than intelligent design!

But the most random aspect of education and what could well become the most important lost opportunity for connection is the curriculum. Successive reviews have seen the curriculum feed on itself rather than the needs of the community and the economy. I can’t remember a review that has had the courage to conduct a real stock take of where we are and what we need, not even the orgy of consultation that characterised the Wellington (as in Merv) and Lockwood Smith reviews.

The current NZ Curriculum is a mighty fine document that schools can get their teeth into but will it promote connection? In other words is it an internal document for an in-house discussion or is it the document that will look outwards and tackle the issue of connection? It does mention that a target is to develop learners to be connected but to what?

“Only connect!”  – that is a challenge.

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Tear down the wall

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.11, 27 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….[1]

I wonder from time to time whether the notion of sectors has outlived its usefulness. It seems to me that the walls we place in the way of young students have become something of a series of barriers. I wonder whether the walls that divide the sectors serve a real purpose that is related to the progress of students. Or are they an historical anachronism?

From time to time the landscape would send shivers that challenged the walls. There is a developing debate about the location of early childhood services. Intermediate schools grew in response to the demographic earthquake after the Second World War sprouting from the ruins of the Junior High School experiment that never went anywhere. Various reforms attempt to dislodge the rocks. We have several integrated campuses that bring primary and secondary together. We are developing Junior High Schools and Senior High Schools. Much attention is starting to be paid to the transition from secondary to postsecondary.  But this all happens in the absence of any debate about sectors. If gaps occur we find new and ingenious ways to plug them.

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast….

Refoms and various developments do not, it seems, challenge what we do to any great extent. Largely because, just like the two farmers in the poem, we carefully replace any fallen rock.

And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go…..

Reports, commissions, even the royal ones, tend to confirm the status quo and as steady as the farmers, set the rocks back in place again. When issues of pay parity were being argued there was strong support for a view that said that distinctions between the sectors were to some extent spurious. But when it comes to teaching and learning, to school organisation, to the organisation of teaching labour there is no debate. We simply assume that because it has always been thus, it should always be so.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.

There is a need for us to have a discussion about why sectors should have the hard edges around them. Could it be that the best location for early childhood services really is inside a primary setting? And what logic deems that children should go away for a particular Christmas holiday to return to education as something else. Could it be that some students should move earlier and others later? And why are some Christmas holidays more important than others.

What is it that demands the walls? We sometimes hear the comforting clichés such as “We’re teaching children they teach subjects!” Would that we did both in all sectors! Is there a curriculum justification for the placement of the walls? Is it based on some understanding of how learning occurs? Is it related to social development? Physical development? Why this obsession with grouping students in age cohorts? What are we protecting here?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

And this is the crux of the matter. We are busily working on a new curriculum for schools and this presents an opportunity to ask how the lack of seamlessness in the organisation of education contributes to the development of lifelong learners who are connected.

An education system with many flexible opportunities but without barriers is not a new idea. “The Minister of Education is currently working with the education community to design a way of resourcing this seamless education system to allow these educational opportunities to flourish and to build an education system for the twenty-first century. 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.”[2] The Minister was Dr Lockwood Smith, the year was 1993, the government was a National government.

The farmers continue until the wall is once again strong and the one that wonders about walls make little progress with his neighbour who has been brought up to believe in certain things.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down…..’
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

[1] Mending Wall  Robert Frost
[2] Ministry of Education (1993) Education for the 21st Century, Wellington. 

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