Does the education curriculum need an overhaul?

There are days when I wonder how the New Zealand education curriculum got to its current state. In an age of computers and digital communications, how are we delivering basic curriculum content to our students and are the delivery methods appropriate?

When I was taught English at school, there were parts of the syllabus that were frankly mystifying. As someone who was then planning to make a career in volcanology, how was Shakespeare going to help me? I think report writing would have been more useful. As such a broad subject (film, literature, structural English). Although I did definitely learn a lot, I wonder how many people today would know what an acronym, a synonym or things like proverbs, and adverbs are. Credit to them, but sadly for New Zealanders and our education I know people from European countries where English is not their native language and yet they speak and write it better than many New Zealanders.

I mentioned the problems afflicting science yesterday, but it is worth pointing out that perhaps in addition to chemistry, biology and physics teachers having a few in earth sciences might not go astray either. Generally the curriculum of science – if the bulk of it is still structured around these three core subject areas – is fine, but the delivery in terms of assessment, along with the “War on Science” is crippling it as a teaching discipline. I don’t expect that anyone will have been able to mix Rubidium or Caesium with water, but this area more than any other needs decent practical assessments.

I think though that everyone should do Legal Studies, or some other law-based subject matter introducing them to how the legal system works, the components of it such as the Courts, the Police, Corrections and so forth. It should include a segment on how Parliament works, ones human and civil rights as well as their responsibilities before the law. People might argue that it is inappropriate to introduce students to politics. I would counter argue that it is even more inappropriate for them to not know how the legal system, its components and functions work and their rights and responsibilities before it.

For me Social Studies was probably my favourite compulsory course. I did okay in most of the others, but looking at geography, society and what was happening around the world at the time I found fascinating. Whether it was looking at how indigenous peoples live or following politics in New Zealand I was for the most part hooked. In saying that I believe by the time everyone finishes Year 10, they should be able to name all of New Zealand’s major mountains, at least some of the major rivers and lakes, all the major towns and cities and show where they are on a map – the number of people who cannot is shocking.

And then there is Maths. A subject I was excelling at at Primary School until I had a catastrophic Maths teacher in 1988 who completely – and possibly permanently – inverted my whole understanding of it. After that it was without doubt my least favourite subject, and one that I have not achieved School Certificate/Year 11 for. Perhaps that makes me not qualified to comment, but I would like to say that I noted in 1988 that we would be given a pile of little plastic pieces – a mix of sticks and little cubes. One cube equalled 1. A stick equalled 10. We were supposed to show a number using them. So, 18 would be one stick and eight cubes. How maths gets taught now I do not know, but I hope that the working still has to be shown on paper before it can be done on computers.

If you, the reader knows anyone in the teaching profession, ask them to have a look at this and find out what they think.

National’s education policy II: The Rest of New Zealand

Whilst there has been a lot of attention focussed on Christchurch and its struggles in a post-earthquake environment to find normality in an educational sense, it is worthwhile exploring how other schools around New Zealand have coped since National came to office in 2008.

When National took office, there were mixed feelings about what would happen. I personally was ambivalent, having seen some good stuff happen under the Labour Government of Helen Clark, but also some very disappointing policy changes. Though the rise of their support party A.C.T. and its desire to see charter schools similar to those in the U.S. be developed acted as a sort of distant red flag, I wonder now if it was a cunning foil to the fact that a novice Member of Parliament Anne Tolley had been handed a ministerial portfolio that is one of the most sought after that a Government could offer: Education.

In hindsight it should have been a red warning light flashing. Ms Tolley was quick to stamp her mark in a way that exuded negativity. Within weeks, she was talking about removing funding from night school classes, saying that they were just hobby classes, and ignoring the fact that many of them taught valuable skills such as accounting, website design, and home economics.

As a novice Minister she made an easy target for the Opposition who quickly managed to score some hits. It was perhaps because of this, she was moved onto other policy areas after one year, and Hekia Parata made Minister of Education. Ms Parata quickly pressed ahead with plans for the first charter schools, and introduction of National Standards. Brushing off controversy about comments over large classroom rolls, she also managed to survive the fallout from trying to close a Nelson school for disabled/special needs girls who were deemed unable to cope in mainstream classroom environments.

One issue where Ms Parata is suffering on performance is the Charter Schools where the first closures as a result of foreseen incompetence by school management have started to surface. These are schools where funding for public schools is being diverted to a school often with no set curriculum and whose teachers may not have been vetted.

The ongoing saga of the Christchurch schools post quake is discussed in the previous post, but it would be worthwhile pointing out that Ms Parata has relented as a result of several challenges to allowing schools threatened with closure to stay open. Not all have been successful and her decision on Redcliffs Primary School is the cause of an appeal.

As easy as it is to blame the current Government for everything, the problems in the New Zealand education system were around before John Key was elected Prime Minister. I have major problems that started to form under Labour Government of Ms Clark, but which have since escalated, with the direction of New Zealand education. I never supported the National Certificate for Educational Achievement. Although I think ideally it should be replaced outright, I accept that it would cause widespread disruption in the education system, and thus believe an acceptable alternative would be to refocus it on trade courses and leave traditional subjects to a graded regime.

One can therefore conclude that although these problems might have started with Labour, said party has been out of office for 7 years now, and it is time for National to accept that it has done little better.

National’s education policy Part I: Christchurch

From very early on, the warning signs were there.

The fact that a first term Member of Parliament was given a plum portfolio about which she knew nothing, and originally seemed to care even less, should have been a warning sign. The fact that her successor does not seem to be any better raises another flag. But perhaps most importantly, the fact that most of the issues to be dealt with in New Zealand education are unchanged in every way except that they are worse than before, should tell us something.

So, what are those many problems?

The National led Government of Prime Minister John Key promised National Standards for non-high schools, saying that it would improve the performance of teachers and students alike. Whilst the criticism has been loud, it has not always been on target and at times confused. And the failure of Labour in Parliament to use it as an attack weapon against Government policy until the Greens and New Zealand First – still outside of Parliament at that point began attacking it.

I find it frankly absurd that now the land which used to host Aorangi Primary School is being used to develop housing. Schools in this part of Christchurch were already close to overflowing from sustained growth in Ilam, Bryndwr, Papanui, Bishopdale and Burnside before the earthquakes hit. My old school Waimairi Primary, which had a student roll call of 300 plus staff when I left at the end of 1991 now has 500 students. Cobham Intermediate, one of two public intermediates in the area had a student population of 400 when I left at the end of 1993, now has nearly 800 students. Two other Primary schools, Wairakei and Burnside are also full to capacity. A full capacity redeveloped Aorangi Primary School could probably have taken 200 students. You can see above how some of National’s policies pre-earthquakes have since been found to be very short sighted. Although National could not possibly have predicted the earthquakes, these suburbs in Ilam Electorate were among the fastest growing in Christchurch.

One of the biggest quake recovery bungles thus far has to go to the Ministry of Education for showing how little it understands the needs of post-earthquake Christchurch schools and the migration of students from east-to-west. Yes, the future of some schools post-quake looked dubious. Yes a few might have to close. However, randomly announcing with little prior consultation a list of schools that faced the axe was a major failing, and perhap only because of political infighting on the left, did Labour not make hay from it. There have been several closures other than that of Aorangi Primary School. In New Brighton, Philipstown and Lyttelton, schools that were perceived to be failing because of their low post-earthquake rolls have been shut often against the will of the local population, and ignoring the large scale influx of students from elsewhere in the city looking for a school to attend. The now proposed closure of Redcliffs school ignores the fact that a private contractor offered to make it safe for free, as well as stiff community resistance from people who realize the potential disruption having to move their kids will cause.

Christchurch, fortunately seems to have not been subjected to the charter schools programme that National want to roll out with the support of A.C.T. Member of Parliment David Seymour. This programme, sadly lacking in structure, purpose or intended outcomes other than to redistribute taxpayer monies has some huge flaws including oversight of the teachers, the lack of a proper cirruculum and – already – misuse of funds. But if one adds governance problems at Christchurch Girls High and Rangiora High School, there is plenty on its plate to cope with.

And that all is just related to schools in Christchurch. Coming in National;s Education Policy Part II: The Rest of New Zealand


Does N.C.E.A. work?

Recently the debate around the National Certificate of Educational Achievement restarted. The system that was implemented in New Zealand high schools by the Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark is said to favour girls over boys, and is allegedly a failure. Given that the author has some concerns of his own, it is worthwhile revisiting an at times quite controversial assessment regime. In doing so, we need to understand the basics of the system.

What is the National Certificate of Educational Achievement?

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement is a three stage (Years 11-13)assessment regime that replaced School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and University Bursary from about 2001. It was rolled out over three years. Students have to earn a certain number of credits per course to pass. It uses Unit Standards, which are a credit based concept where a student has set criteria that they have to meet in each to be granted the Unit Standard.

What do proponents of the N.C.E.A. regime say?

N.C.E.A. has its backers and I acknowledge some of the points that they have are valid.

N.C.E.A. replaced a scheme that had a scaling method that was designed to ensure at least some students failed, whether or not they were actually deserving of it. In my political history class we had a mixture of Unit Standards and other assessments. Although I think history is not an appropriate subject to run these in, I actually did quite well in the Unit Standards.

I was also unable to see how my Tourism I and II courses could be assessed through exams and assignments. Whilst the simple pass/fail regime or Not Yet Competent (N.Y.C.) was somewhat off putting, the opportunities to revisit them and improve to a pass, were there. Most I passed on the first try.

What do critics of the N.C.E.A. regime say?

I will be honest from the outset. I am a critic for several reasons. I seriously hope though that it has changed substantially since I played with it in 1996-1999, at Burnside High. If not, the following comments are worth noting. My own personal experience of the old system it replaced was that it had numerous redeeming features that were lost when N.C.E.A. started. One of those features was students having an idea of how they performed – did they get an outstanding pass, a bare minimal pass or were they a catastrophic failure. With the N.C.E.A. concept one simply passed or failed initially. I found that quite off putting. I also found that there were some subjects where it was probably suited to the nature of the subject – mainly the traditional ones such as history, geography, English, science, mathematics. There were others such as Tourism which it could have worked on.

My own grades had little to do with whether the system worked or not and more to do with the fact that I tended to be a minimalist in terms of study. I did all the class work, and nearly all the homework, but when it came to studying for exams and tests, I tended to zone out, and despite what was said above, my marks reflected the zoning out more than they reflected a bung system. I do not think one can blame the system for that.

My own assessment is that no, N.C.E.A. does not work. However, I do not totally support winding back the clock to when Unit Standards first started being rolled out. If the Unit Standards can give some sort of success measure, perhaps by providing ___ credits per course, of which ___ must be attained to pass the course.

If I were revisiting the assessment regime for High School students I would be looking at requiring standardized external exams for all, but each would have an internally assessed component devised by the school and submitted to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority for approval. These would be common courses such as the ones I have already described. Another change that I would make would be to significantly improve scholarship opportunities. A B-Grade Scholarship might for example pay half of the fees for a student, whilst an A-Grade scholarship would pay all the course fees.

Contrasting educations

As the debate about the effectiveness of New Zealand’s public schooling rages, it is worthwhile looking at contrasting courses by two different people through the primary and secondary school education systems.

My brother and I both attended Waimairi Primary School. I started in 1985 and he started in 1987. Waimairi was a school that dealt with the full range of children from various socio-economic backgrounds – ones from foster families or state owned housing; the middle class living on modest privately owned or rented properties, and the children of the wealthy. As one born with significant hand eye co-ordination and later on, severe hypertension it was crucial for me to be schooled in an environment where I was respected.  The school was very co-operative in terms of helping me deal with my issues especially after being admitted to hospital with severe hypertension in 1989. With the exception of one rotten apple for a teacher, all of the ones I had were good. I think my brother, 17 months younger than me had a similar experience with his teachers.

Cobham Intermediate and my time there in Years 7-8 is something I generally prefer to keep quiet about. The school did its resolute best to help me through a period when a combination of bullying and complete indifference to learning were driving my parents nuts. More often than not I was kept in late to do work I had not done. Most of my friends went to Heaton Intermediate, and those that did go to Cobham were in higher classes than I.

I went to Burnside High School from 1994-1999. It is a school that had a role when I was there of about 2200 students and about 180 staff.  Like Waimairi and Cobham before it, I found that the school catered for the full range of socio-economic statuses. It also caters for a significant number of students from Asia, whose parents decided that schooling in their native country was not an option. My marks were modest, but that was not a mark of the education I got so much as my then attitude to exam study. My final year at Burnside, granted despite the Principal’s concern that I would not gain academically from doing it, turned out to be my best year in the entire pre-University period of my life socially. It was also my best year academically, passing everything I sat for the first time.

My brother got a half scholarship and then a full one that gave him access to St. Andrews College, one of the most prestigious schools in Christchurch for his Years 7-13. He excelled, made a great bunch of friends, and was well regarded across the school as an outstanding – albeit somewhat talkative – student who contributed to a number of activities such as Stage Challenge, various school plays. It might account for the significantly larger number of parties he got invited to and the larger number of friends he made than I did.

My fees at Burnside High largely paid for tuition and stationery. Whilst there I did very little in the way of cultural activity that required funding, other than join the rifle club. I am not aware of an Amnesty International chapter existing whilst I was at Burnside High, and I had not really started thinking about social activism as I do now. My brothers on the other hand were significant. Part of it was due to being a private school and needing to be able to fund his scholarship.

I look back at my years in the public education system with only one regret that cannot be blamed on the system, and that was that I did not make better use of the opportunities that were available at the time. I would probably be in a better position than I currently am. So, it comes as a complete mystery to me why people think public education is private schools poor sibling. But it also mystifies me why politicians who want us to all have jobs and be off the benefit are the same ones who want to deprive us of the necessary education to GET those jobs.