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Tag: vocational education

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: One lad's tale from the past

Stuart Middleton
EdTalk NZ
10 February 2011

Back in the 1950’s a young boy was approaching the end of his intermediate schooling and the move onto a secondary school was looming. Along with the rest of his mates he was given an enrolment form and instructed to take it home and fill it in.  He did so with some help from his parents. He cannot recollect the conversation that night but the result was that he was enrolled in a technical high school to undertake a course in carpentry, one of the options in the technical course.

He picks up his story…….

“In those days, the late 1950’s, New Zealand secondary schools were organised into stratified courses based on the split between what I now understand as academic and vocational. I also later came to understand that there was an undercurrent of perceived and even assessed ability that guided the advice given and the choices made. You were expected to enrol in a school and also into a course. I know now that “Academic” usually meant two languages and “General” one language. “Technical” was for the industrial arts with tracks through metal, wood and technical drawing and it was almost exclusively for the boys. The girls were directed into “Commercial” or “Home Economics”. This tracking approach was very much oriented to the role of the secondary school in providing the bridge between the basic education of the primary school and the special skills needed for employment. It was not by accident that secondary schools were more likely to be referred to as “post-primary” schools than they were to be called “secondary schools”. Going to secondary school was, and especially for my family, the next step in heading into a job.

 In fact I never got to the technical high school. My intermediate school principal intervened and told my parents that I should not be going to a technical high school and I should not be doing a course to be a carpenter. This advice puzzled, perhaps even troubled, my parents. My mother had been to that particular school a long time previously of course. My two brothers had been there and one had done the very same course that I was enrolled in.

 “Why?” she asked the intermediate principal.

 “Because he is academic and should be doing an academic course – that school doesn’t offer one,” she was told.

 This caused some consternation. No-one in our family had ever been called academic. We never thought of ourselves as academic. We had little or no understanding of just what that meant but we did appreciate that to get certain jobs you took different courses, that is why we had chosen technical. Perhaps even there was a feeling that all this academic business was a little above our station in life. Eventually it was agreed that I should undertake an academic course and therefore change the school in which I was enrolled. The intermediate school recommended the local boys school but this was declined on the grounds that I was too small. Fortunately a multicourse secondary school had recently opened and was offering the full range of programmes.

 I started off in Form 3 in a cohort of about 200 students organised into programmes – Academic, General, Technical (Boys), Commercial (Girls) and Home Sciences (Girls). Four years later at the beginning of my last year at high school, the beginning of what is now Form 7 (Year 13, Grade 12), the twelve survivors of this cohort were paraded as an example to the incoming third formers, of quite what I am not sure but it was probably an exhortation to work hard and to value education. In my second year at high school, they introduced a Form 4 Certificate so that “most students would receive some recognition of their post-primary education” – I still have it. A lot of my mates left school after that to go into jobs and a small band of us was left to undertake study at the senior level. Having little background in such work and receiving little guidance and help, it was a matter of survival by observation and experimentation. Failure was perilously close on many occasions. My level of preparation for work at the senior secondary level was simply inadequate in terms of my understanding what really was required.

 My home valued education highly but it was beyond our experience all this academic stuff. Given study leave for School Certificate the puzzle was what did you do with those three days? How did you work in a self-directed manner? At that time there was no assistance with any of this and there were quite a few times when the security of the known – preparing to be a carpenter – looked to be a pretty good option. My results were marginal. I scraped through School Certificate but a “pass” was a pass and there was little talk of how many marks had been gained.  I was then accredited University Entrance and to this day, I am not at all confident that I could have passed had I had to sit the examination.  Any way I got through school and moved on, but that is another story.”

And how did this boy end up? He did OK. This story ends in the same way as the endings of so many stories played repeatedly on radio request sessions back then. . . . . . .

“I know because I was that boy.”


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Investing in change

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.28, 24 July 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

President Obama is keeping up the “Yes, we can!” theme with his latest support for the Community Colleges in the USA. He announced an American Graduation Initiative that would see $US12 billion additional funding going into the community colleges adding 5 million new graduates by 2020.

The USA Community College evolved as an alternative to the traditional four year college (i.e. university) that offered conventional higher education. The system received a boost in the 1960’s when California included them into the development of a comprehensive postsecondary higher education provision. The Californian Dream of everyone being able to go the college was to be realised with the help of the open access community college that led to a two year exit qualification (often the Associate Degree) or a transfer option to complete a conventional degree at a four year college.

The institutes of technology and polytechnics in New Zealand have taken on the role of community colleges but with a narrower and more focused vocational and technical orientation than the USA community colleges. They also have in the last 20 years added a relatively narrow range of degrees to their portfolios.

Both the USA and New Zealand share similar challenges – the gap in the middle of the skill range. The focus has shifted too much onto so-called high level qualifications and too far away from the middle level skilled technician. The call for increased numbers of students at Level 4+ is interpreted as a call for more degree level students. Qualifications such as the NZ Certificate in Engineering or Science and suchlike all once had a valuable role to play in feeding into those areas people skilled to undertake technician level responsibilities that supported the work of those with degree qualifications.

To mindlessly accept the creeping credentialism that has seen increasingly higher level qualifications required for work that while becoming different has not become markedly more difficult, has led to a series of distortions.

The 2006 New Zealand tertiary graduation numbers in critical technical skill areas make for an interesting read. It is hard to tell how many of the graduates subsequently replace that qualification with a higher one but the relative proportions of graduates at various levels remains somewhat constant. When a comparison is made of sub-degree graduates with degree (bachelor and postgraduate to masters) graduates, the balance is interesting. In Management the split is 64% (sub-degree) / 36% (degree), Engineering 71% / 29%, Information Technology 64% / 36% and Law 5% / 95%. So there is a sound basis for the assertion that we have too many students graduating at too low a level. Remember that these figures are for disciplines in which there is a need for low, middle and high level skills.

But when the figures are seen on a student number basis there might be an even bigger concern. NZ Prime Minister John Key suggested in a recent speech that we might be turning out too many commerce and law graduates and too few engineers and scientists.

For each single engineer or scientist who graduates at degree and postgraduate level, New Zealand graduates over four commerce and law graduates. At least our increasingly skill deprived economy will be well managed and regulated!

So is President Obama right to see the USA Community College as the place in which make a significant investment at this time? And would an investment in the ITP sector also be the right move just now? The answer is probably the same in both countries. In general investment in education does produce long term gains when it leads to a step change in access or performance.

Investment followed the 1877 Education Act which opened up primary education to all. In the early 20th Century New Zealand had an enviably high standard of living. There was additional investment in the late 1930’s and into the 1940’s as secondary access was expanded. In the 1950’s we again enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. Is this pattern a matter of chance? Of course some rightly argue that there is a multiplicity of factors that lead to high standards of living. True. But perhaps the decision to make a step change in education provision is the key.

So what might be that step change right now? It is probably the Youth Guarantee investment which will in some form or another offer students the opportunity to access free education for two further years beyond the age of 16 in settings outside the secondary school. In the development of the education system (see the steps in the previous paragraph) this is a logical progression. Simply encouraging everyone to continue in conventional secondary schooling might have the appearance of continuing our proud tradition of universal access to education but the stark facts of disengagement suggest that continued education is only a feasible goal when opportunity is offered in a range of settings.

We made a mistake along the way in thinking that “more” meant “same” and uncritical commentary about knowledge waves and information ages emphasised the need for high level technical skills rather than multiple pathways and a range of qualification exit points. This took our eye off the real prize – getting every single young person equipped to make a contribution. Not just some , but every person, whatever [their] level of academic abilitywhether … rich or poor, … in town or country, … [exercising their] right, as a citizen, to a free education [of an appropriate kind] to the fullest extent of [their] powers.

So we move into the next phase of our maturing education system, one characterised by increasing choice of pathways, of increased status to middle level technical qualifications and to a society that is inclusive in the allocation of access. Rather than defining access as getting into something or somewhere, we will learn to define it in education as an outcome – what does education give you access to?

Yachting and business legend Darcy Whiting died recently and his obituary noted that “… after leaving school at 13 with a Certificate of Proficiency, he attended night school for five years studying English, signwriting, engineering and cabinetmaking. During the day he worked as a delivery boy on a bicycle.”

Can we feel confident that the Darcy Whitings of our age will emerge from the education pathways currently available? If we could, then that would be a great guarantee to our youth.


Lessons from apprentices

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.16, 1 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

It is usually true that learners’ success in programmes can be related to a recurring set of influences. Despite changes in the settings in which education and training takes place, these influencers remain constant in their impact.

Many students can succeed given more time. The rush to complete within and only within the designated lock-step length of the programme means that some students fail because they needed a little longer. Others of course will have been frustrated by not being able to move faster. But still the programme has its inexorable pace measured out by calendar years.

Success comes more easily to those who enter with sounder academic preparation often measured by higher level qualifications at entry. It is this factor that largely determines the degree of support required to get a student through the programme successfully.

The people impact of the instructors, teachers, programme managers and so on are alsoan important component of successful education programmes – obviously!

Finally there is an ethnic pattern that repeats itself in New Zealand from programme to programme – Maori and Pasifika do not enjoy the same levels of success as other ethnicities.

So, time, academic preparation, people and ethnicity feature as factors in the levels of success in programme – and this pattern repeats between programme, between provider types and at many different levels.

So it was little surprise that a recent analysis of the completion rates of Modern Apprenticeships should bring out exactly these factors in commenting on the low level of completion that dogs training of this kind. And this is a programme that has consistently failed to meet its targets.

So what is the issue? We can attend to the time available and more flexibility is always in the interests of students. So let’s do that now – forget the one size fits all and allow more individual pathways. Academic preparation is more difficult. The cost of allowing some students more time can be compensated by allowing others to complete more quickly. The great promise of the qualification reform was that “time served” would be dead – well we haven’t achieved that yet.

As an aside, it was pleasing that Waikato University is looking to allow students to complete a Masters degree faster than is currently allowed. This could trigger a trend that focuses on standards at completion rather than the more industrial X number of hours.

With apprenticeships standards and competencies should be the key measure, not time served.

Academic preparation similarly should be able to be addressed. The report notes that those with higher entry qualifications complete their apprenticeships more swiftly and that those in the 18-20 year old bracket are also successful. Well this is also not a surprise. But it would be a sad day if apprenticeships were seen as being more appropriate for those who were already successful in the education system. Apprenticeships were an alternate route to success – practical, on the job learning, a co-operative enterprise between the indentured tradesperson and the novice. Might it be the case that the introduction of block theory courses was something of a contradiction of this principle?

But we love binary distinctions – theory / practice. Good practice is good theory and theory counts for little until it is manifest in practice.

Having good people as Modern Apprenticeship co-ordinators was also a factor in higher rates of completion. I imagine that the best co-ordinators demonstrated the best practice, developed the best relationships, were the best at understanding the progress of the trainees. In the old days when apprenticeships had an element of “sitting next to Nellie” this also applied. “We’ll put him with old Tom – he will show him the ropes.”

It is more of a worry that the ethnicity pattern that features in all tertiary education repeats itself in Modern Apprenticeships. Again, Maori and Pasifika perform less well in the Modern Apprenticeship setting. The uptake of modern apprenticeships is also low among these groups. Again issues of settings and support might be a factor here. The old Maori trades training was wrapped around a set of values and procedures – a twenty-four seven setting, whanaungatanga, care and help outside of the job and so on. Lessons here?

The key point is that this report should encourage us to address the issues rather than wring our hands and start up the sport of blame and accuse that is the substitute for an intelligent response. The report noted that this programme was attracted to the “young with few school qualifications.” This is a tough group to try to serve. The Minister is right to respond by seeing it as a priority that the success rates be lifted but it won’t be achieved without changes.

The reported response of a spokeperson for the Industry Training Federation was strange. He saw the issue as being one of vocational training rather than trades training largely because the “polytechnics had a low success rate as well”. It is difficult to know what comparison was being made here but it couldn’t have been between the overall performance of polytechnic vocational education (with a completion rate of 48%) and industry based Modern Apprenticeships scheme. The report is silent on any comparisons between industry-based and polytechnic-based apprenticeships and this might be worth following up.

It is a useful report which suggests that it is time to take a look at the scheme and see where improved performance might be gained.

But we do struggle to recapture the glory days of apprenticeship training when the government employed 80% of apprentices through lands and survey, the public works department, the P and T, the railway workshops, the armed services and so on. The demise of apprenticeship training in the 1980’s was a direct consequence of the withdrawal of the government of the day from the economy.

We all want apprenticeship training to succeed – but is this simply nostalgia or was it really the success we think it was. And if it was, why does that success elude us now?

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