Engage minds before proceeding

3 Feb

School students have to be involved in the learning process before we talk about increasing tertiary qualifications, writes Stuart Middleton

The great education machine of Australian schools is grinding into action again for another year. In about 9500 schools, 184,000 teachers will stand between 3.5 million students and their futures.

The social contract is clear. Students are required to attend school starting at the appropriate point (this is tidily based on the calendar in Australia whereas in New Zealand it’s based on the actual 5th birthday).

Schools are required to teach a specific curriculum to a set of specific standards. If each party meets its obligations a young person should be able to face a secure future with knowledge, skills and aspirations that will take them into adulthood and able to earn a family sustaining wage.

Well, that is all very well and good in theory. Increasingly schooling in schools is not enough and a postsecondary qualification is essential. So that brings into play a further layer: the higher and further education sectors that are a dog’s breakfast of organisational complexity, varying standards and sector anxieties that these young ones starting school do not realise will present challenges that they are not often able to control.

Add to that the issues of the “different” sectors at the tertiary level in Australia and you have grounds to issue a health warning the little ones.

So all of these little ones and their bigger brothers and sisters setting off to school in their new polo shirts of primary colours and sun hats big enough to camp under, are faced with a treacherous pathway ahead. And the evidence supports that view.

I did a little study – what a real statistician would call a quick and dirty job – of a cohort of 100 New Zealand babies, right numbers of different ethnicities and so on, and applied what we know to be the success/failure trajectories of each group. I concluded that of those 100 babies born last year, only 29 would achieve a postsecondary qualification on current performance of the education system, 71 would not. And I do not mean a degree qualification, I mean anything from a postsecondary certificate up.

That aligns with what we know to be the picture of disengagement and I do not see evidence that suggests that there is an improving trend. The increase in disengagement is stubbornly resistant to the efforts of educators.

One reason is that the demographics are working against us – the groups of students we teach well and to internationally stunning levels are getting smaller while the groups that struggle (and have for longer than we care to admit) are getting bigger. Add to that the steady placement of vocational education options at increasingly older entry levels and a blind belief that the comprehensive secondary school might meet the needs of all students (it never has in the past why could it now?) and even that figure of 29 per cent successfully completing a postsecondary qualification looks to be a stretch in 30 or 40 years.

Change in the education system is urgently needed and that is up to the grown-ups not the little ones. So here is an agenda for professional concerns in 2012:

All jurisdictions want accountability one way or another so get over it and move on. If NAPLAN isn’t right then change it from the inside.

Seriously question whether we have been pulling the wool over the community’s eyes on the question of what schools can actually do. Less is more in curriculum design so sorting out what matters and doing that will make all the other stuff easy to do. If someone can read well they can do anything. Equitable access to technology is more important that more programs (admit it, you got a gadget for Christmas and gave it to your grandchild to show you how to get it going).

Get purpose into the lives of young people at school. Why they are there is the most important factor – if I ask a child in school the question “Why are you doing that?” and they cannot answer I seriously question the quality of the teaching.

Related to this is the focus on the endgame of education. Forty years ago when everything seemed to be working, people were working and a central goal of education was to equip people to work. Is that such a bad thing?

Sanitising education so that it is not tainted by vocational goals is crazy. Actually the universities know this and are blatantly vocational under the guise of being something else.

None of this seems very difficult. The test will be whether those who start school this year have much to show for it in 2034.

Stuart Middleton is director of external relations at Manukau Institute of Technology in NZ and writes on education at EDTalkNZ  and writes fot The Education Review


One Response to “Engage minds before proceeding”

  1. Sibyl Laverette June 10, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    Very interesting information!Perfect just what I was searching for! “Wherever the Turkish hoof trods, no grass grows.” by Victor Hugo.

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