22 November 2011
Six days out from the election and the National party unveils its education policy. Labour was out of the blocks a couple of weeks ago. What is remarkable is the focus of both is on skills training. It is clear that both major parties recognise that this is where action must be concentrated. Levels of 15-24 year olds who are not in education or training is, quite simply, unsustainable.
Of course the party in power, National, starts the race with something of an advantage as the policy is very much based on work in progress, plans that have been previously explained and actions of which a first hint has already been given.
The Youth Guarantee policy has developed over the past two years to have multiple prongs to its attack. The extension of the fees-free places for 16 and 17 year olds will reach 12,000 places over the next few years. And while the reduction of qualifications (which had reached a promiscuous 6,000) has continued, within the NCEA (the national school leaving qualification) the development of vocational pathways in five industry sectors starts the process of bringing more shape into that qualification.
And shape and direction is what both major parties are seeking in their respective policies. For too long we have continued to allow young people to drift through school either failing to collect credits for the NCEA or collecting a set of credits that lack cohesion and integrity.
Other countries, Australia among them, envy the fact that New Zealand has one qualifications framework that should allow different parts of the education system to work together to provide pathways through the different levels and to relate qualifications to each other, to credit work done within one programme into a qualification being pursued in another. But have we exploited that flexibility? No.
Similarly, the achievement-based approach to assessment not only should enable new programmes and different ways of teaching in a variety of settings to meet the needs of increased numbers of students but also actually for the first time give credit where credit is due. At long last we have the framework of a qualification that ought to mean something, if you have the credit you have been able to demonstrate the learning. But has it? Not really.
Over all of the policies is a gloom of anxiety from the political parties that there is insufficient accountability than there should be. Both seem to feel that there is starting to be some accountability in tertiary programmes but the schooling sector has them all flummoxed. That it is because it is genuinely difficult to come up with a system that is both rigorous and yet at the same time fair. Value added? Raw differentials in performance? Take account of prior experiences and learning? Ignore the differences students bring with them into the school? What sanctions are available when accountability measures identify shortcomings? Very few.
Meanwhile the teacher organisations simply seem to react to every suggestion of increased accountability with the old slogans of the 1970s – give us the resources and we will do the job. 30 years later we are still seeking evidence for such claims.
But there may be things that can be done. The focus on the narrow but critically important skills of literacy and numeracy in the primary school seems justified and if schools struggle with this then they will simply have to focus through narrowing the curriculum or learning how to better embed literacy and numeracy in a rigorous manner into a wider range of activity across the curriculum.
Attendance at school might be a simple measure. Is it too outrageous to suggest that schools should be paid a bonus for reaching targets of school attendance? Of course it is. But being there is a necessary first step to learning. At a secondary level there are real issues when the student body arrives at that level with such a huge range of achievement or lack of it. The result is that in the school sector no-one is accountable for failure.
There is a hint of a suggestion in the National policy that in order to facilitate the development of better pathways for students requires greater alignment between the secondary and the tertiary sector especially between the senior secondary and tertiary.
Good people work in education, they can’t possibly be held totally responsible for the levels of failure and disengagement that all political parties struggle to address. The issues are not because of people – they are structural. The structure of education needs a good shake-up.
Here is an idea. make the primary sector start at Year 1 and end at Year 6. Have a “Junior High School” from Year 7 to Year 10. Then re-position the senior secondary school (Years 11+) as a Senior College within the tertiary sector. This would allow the funding formula for all students from Year 11 on to be synchronised regardless of whether they are in Senior College or a tertiary provider. In fact, the Senior College could well be the tertiary sector (these ideas will be expanded in Thursday’s EdTalkNZ).
You see, a structural solution to a structural problem!
We don’t yet have a political party happy to tackle that. Nor probably an electorate that is open to these ideas for that matter. We can change governments, keep the same governments. But only radical solutions will address the issues they earnestly seek to address in Education.
I vote for change, structural change in Education!