Guest Post: Educational Aspiration in Crisis

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In New Zealand it is acknowledged that a University is an important pathway to change socioeconomic outcomes. Back in October 2014 Professor Stuart McCutcheon noted:

Each year, some 10,000 ordinary, mostly young people leave the University of Auckland armed with a new degree or diploma. Their qualifications will lead to them having lower unemployment rates, higher salaries and better health outcomes than those whose education terminated at school. The lifetime salary benefit of a degree is estimated to be in the range $250,000 to $500,000. (

You would therefore think that any major disparity in University Entrance results would have opposition politicians, teacher unions and educationalists raging – and parents on the street.

The PPTA used to campaign on this. In a 2009 report they stated:

New Zealand has a tail of students with low academic achievement. Although internationally standardised test data for literacy, numeracy and science show New Zealand does very well in terms of its average performance, we have high quality but low equity achievement. Almost all of the students “at risk” are found in state schools, the highest proportion of which is in lower decile schools. The skewed nature of educational disadvantage correlates with family income and ethnicity. However, there is increasing evidence that genuine solutions can be found to reduce this problem.

The Labour Party manifesto in 2011 acknowledged the problem:

Some children are missing out on a quality education. A good education is a human right and we will work to make sure the most vulnerable students don’t miss out: Māori, Pasifika, children from low-income families, children with special needs, victims of bullying and violence, and those who struggle to achieve academically and don’t have a clear post-school pathway to work or higher education.

However, after the 2011 ACT/National agreement to introduce Charter Schools as a small part of a solution to address the problem for priority learners the issue stopped being of importance. Any effort to point it out might be seen as an endorsement of a policy that the Opposition and associated unions had chosen not to like. Since that moment almost all of their protest energy has gone into trying to eradicate Charter Schools as opposed to trying to find solutions to the huge disparities in the outcomes of young people in NZ. This expensive, false, and misdirected protest finally reached the point of outright comedy when Labour and the unions raged about how a Charter School spent money from multiple sources on a waka. They currently say very little about the outcomes for priority learners in many of our high schools. These schools that receive tens of millions of dollars every year. They have tied their own hands with the mantra of “world-class” that they dreamed up to imply that there was nothing to see here and no need for change. They have fallen silent about inequitable outcomes when this generation needs them to stand strong.

Recently the NCEA and UE qualifications data was released for 2014.

In terms of UE a sample table is as follows (referenced from NZQA published tables).

School Name Decile 2014 UE Roll Based Pass Rate
Northland College 1 12%
Tamaki College 1 10%
Southern Cross Campus 1 18%
James Cook High School 1 7%
Mangere College 1 12%
Papakura College 2 9%
Huntly College 1 6%
Fairfield College 4 17%
Flaxmere College 1 5%
Melville High School 4 15%
Edgecumbe College 3 0%
Opotiki College 1 12%
Otorohanga College 4 6%
Tokoroa High School 2 15%
Te Kuiti High School 3 14%
Ruapehu College 3 8%
Wanganui City College 2 9%
Rangitikei College 3 18%
Wairoa College 2 12%
William Colenso 2 16%
Makoura College 2 7%
Mana College 2 10%
Naenae College 2 18%
Some Comparisons
Glendowie College 9 65%
Howick College 10 48%
St Kentigerns College 10 77%
Pakuranga College 8 65%
Epsom Girls Grammar 9 81%
Rosmini College 9 74%
Wellington Girls College 10 81%
Samuel Marsden Collegiate 10 93%

The discrepancies in outcomes speak for themselves but it is worth reading the above table two or three times to really get a handle on it. This is a blight on our society and that almost no one is talking about it and/or reporting on it has me flummoxed. I won’t name them here but two lower decile school Principals who stated that UE and University wasn’t for “their kids” must, I hope, have had their statements taken out of context.

Keep in mind also that these are the roll based statistics for Year 13 students. It says nothing of the children in these schools that have left through attrition in previous years – i.e. the actual percentage of any cohort achieving at that level is even lower.

Schools in New Zealand are set up and funded to bring about progress, development and change. Blaming the circumstances of the children, or the surrounding area, isn’t an option as a society, and it doesn’t help. The reason we have state funded schools should be to ensure that education can precede changes in circumstance. If we were to wait for social equity before we felt we could educate children we will be throwing a portion of another generation on to the heap. With education, being Left or Right does not help.

In saying that, there is no denying the disease. We have to look for massive aspirational approaches to overcome this. It should be all hand on deck for these young people. Twenty years ago I was studying for a Masters degree in Education and all of the talk was about how to overcome the outcome problems for Maori, Pasifika and lower socio-economic children. The difference with today is that at least twenty years ago it was being talked about.

Solutions have to be found. There are a lot of tyre-kickers in education in NZ. People who criticise outcomes, criticise attempts at solutions, attack all manner of people who are doing the job but do nothing to assist. The kids who are missing out don’t need theoreticians – they need on the ground solutions. The vast majority of those solutions involve people and not flash buildings. People who understand the new learning paradigm understand that all children, given quality teaching/coaching, repetition/practice and opportunity can develop remarkable skills and knowledge sets. These young people need to be surrounded by adults who understand aspiration and change.

I know these aspirations are worthwhile. I managed to get through one of the decile 1 schools listed above and get to University. I had three teachers in that time who communicated to me that it was possible and I was unsophisticated enough to believe them.

What are some of the solutions within the school system that are worth discussion?

– Communities need to take this on and need to militant about it. Every community needs to demand schooling that generates results that allows their children to move into the higher levels of education in roughly equal numbers as any other community. Passive acceptance of the status quo should not be an option.

– Revisit bulk funding and give Principals in schools much more discretion on how they spend their money. They know the children, families, and locality so allow them more say in provision.

– Differentiate teacher salaries across the deciles. Pay a premium to teachers working in decile 1 – 3 schools to bring about change. If there is not a will to differentiate for results by teacher then incentivise the whole school for externally evaluated improvements. Allow the Ministry and management to bring financial and other incentives for bringing about great outcomes for kids. If it is acknowledged that working in some of these schools brings a different level of challenge then reward people who take it on and succeed.

– Children in the lower decile schools are not having special exam conditions applied for. Of the 5454 students with exam help last year only approximately 330 were from decile 1 schools – as opposed to 1440 from decile 10 schools. Something is significantly amiss here that needs to be fixed immediately.

– These students don’t arrive at Year 13 from a vacuum – continually revisit the base and the provision there – particularly in the subjects the Universities have designated as key. Ensure that all primary school teachers can teach Maths, English, and Science well and a start would be to have strict entry qualifications to teacher training in those areas (e.g. at least level 3 NCEA).

There will be other suggestions out there that can make a difference. It is time to get things done.

(Note: I would also have a concern that too rapid a transition to computer based qualifications may exaggerate the gaps further.)

Alwyn Poole

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