Learning that matters

Closing Address to Te Ara Whakamana Pathways and Transitions Forum

Good afternoon, and thank you giving me the privilege of delivering the closing address to what I understand has been a thought provoking conference.

It’s certainly an interesting time for our education system. As the world around us changes rapidly, our expectations of our education system will also evolve.

Thirty years ago someone could walk out of the school gate and have a reasonable expectation of paid employment, no matter what level of qualification they had achieved.

One job would lead to another and over their working life, the average Kiwi could expect to work a few different jobs, often within the same industry, have reasonable security in their employment, save to buy a house, raise a family, and put a bit of money away for their retirement.

Those days are gone.

Many of the jobs out there today will have disappeared by the time students who are currently at school step into the workforce. Some studies have suggested that over half the jobs people currently do will disappear within the next two decades. That’s upheaval on a grand scale.

Many of the jobs disappearing are the ones that have often provided a bridge between school and ongoing employment for young people. Checkout operators are being replaced by self-service kiosks, newspapers replaced by online news delivered direct to our phones and laptops.

Many of you will have seen the new self-service kiosks in McDonalds. Within a year or two, it will be possible to go to a fast-food joint like McDonalds, order your meal on your phone, and that meal will be prepared and delivered to you through automation without a human being involved at any step in the process.

But it isn’t just the low paid jobs, lower skill jobs that are vanishing. More highly skilled and qualified professions like accounting are seeing huge numbers of jobs vanish as technology makes them redundant.

Our education system needs to prepare our young people for a world we can’t yet imagine. We might not be able to imagine ‘what’ they will be doing, but we can predict with a reasonable degree of certainly some of the attributes they’ll need if they are going to succeed.

They will need to be resilient, creative, adaptable, have great communication and interpersonal skills, and be prepared to work collaboratively as well as independently.

Far from having a ‘job for life’ they can expect to chop and change careers on a regular basis. They will probably undertake a range of different types of work, some salaried, some contracted, some in a workplace, some from home.

Subject specific knowledge and technical skills will be a lot less important, transferable skills will be essential. Attitude and aptitude will be just as important, if not more important, than qualifications.

That poses enormous challenges for the education system and here, as around the world, we’re only just beginning to grapple with those.

The current focus on standardisation and measurement works against adapting the education system to the needs of the modern world. Those policies seek to refine a system that was well suited to the last century, but simply won’t cut it in the future.

Our focus has to be on a much more personalised learning experience, one that brings out the best in each and every individual. No two people are built exactly the same so we should stop forcing the education system to treat them as if they are.

If the attainment of national qualifications to satisfy government mandated achievement targets is such a recipe for success, why has an increase in the number of young people achieving school qualifications corresponded with increasing rates of youth unemployment?

Why do employers say that kids are arriving on their door steps insufficiently equipped for working life? And why do tertiary education providers claim they are having to play catch-up with students who aren’t ready for more advanced studies?

There is absolutely no doubt that our school system can do better, and there is no doubt that some of our teachers can be supported to be better teachers, but the current focus on obtaining a specific qualification is incentivising a lot of the wrong things.

The introduction of the NCEA marked a mini-revolution in our system of secondary education. Its focus on more detailed assessment information has the potential to provide students, parents, prospective employers and tertiary education providers with much better information about what someone can do and the areas that they might not be so proficient.

For example, under the old system if you sat school certificate maths you could have passed the exam even though you were hopeless at measurement. Not so great if you want to be a builder, but how would anyone ever know that?

Under the NCEA, much more detailed information about which particular standards a student has attained gives us much more of a clue.

But that means that we all need to be smarter about interpreting student achievement results. Simply getting the qualification is no longer enough. We need to look more closely at what type of standards make up that qualification, and that’s where the drive towards an arbitrary target starts to come unravelled.

Schools and teachers are being encouraged not to guide students towards courses of study that will push and extend them, but instead towards courses they know they will pass.

The current government focus is sending kids a very worrying message: that the only learning that matters is that which contributes towards credit accumulation, that the only credits that matter are those that lead to qualification attainment, and that the only qualifications that matter are those that lead to higher incomes.

If everyone follows the cues Steven Joyce has been giving and makes their study decisions based on post-qualification incomes, who will train to be a social worker or a teacher aide – both jobs that earn less than those with no qualifications at all according to the statistics Steven is so obsessed with.

The actual reality is many schools and teachers are swimming against that tide. They are trying to do the right thing and ensure that kids get the type of education that will lead them somewhere, and they are being labelled and stigmatised in the process.

So if NCEA qualification attainment isn’t the right measure of success for our school system, what is? That’s a very fair question to be asking.

Instead of obsessing about getting every student a particular piece of paper, we should be encouraging schools and teachers to ensure that all of them are learning things that are leading to something, whether that is a job or further study.

For some kids, that means NCEA isn’t necessarily going to be the right pathway for them. They may be far better of going into an on-job apprenticeship programme for example. For the academically inclined, it means pushing them to take on harder subjects that will really push and extend them.

Who would you want to have working for you, the student who has struggled and passed a course that they found really hard or one who just coasted through without much effort?

We must also draw a line under this idea that there is an A group and a B group of school leavers. The A group being those that go to university, and the B group being those that go elsewhere. All roads don’t lead to university, but far too many of our schooling policies suggest they do.

So yes, we can do better, and yes, we should be constantly driving for improvement. But let’s make sure that any targets we set are actually going to get us there.

Under Labour, the obsession with narrowly focused student achievement targets will go. Instead we will focus on actual outcomes. What a school leaver is doing 1, 5 or 10 years after they finish school is far more important to me than the paper they leave with.

I want young New Zealanders to undertake courses of learning and study that leave their options as wide open as possible. Closer partnerships between schools, tertiary education providers, and industry will be vital.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean kids should be learning job-specific skills at school. Job-specific skills are best learnt where they will be used – on the job. But a closer partnership between education and industry will result in a much greater emphasis on transferable skills, and less of an emphasis on subjects and credit accumulation.

Great careers advice and guidance will be critical. The careers advisor can’t be someone in a pre-fab room out the back. Their work needs to be integrated into every classroom. Helping young Kiwis map out their options and explore their passions requires real skill. Professionalising and properly supporting careers advice is long overdue.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some brilliant examples of where this is happening already, but it’s still too much of a lottery.

How many successful, thriving Kiwis have you met who encountered an element of luck and chance along the way. They might’ve met the right person at the right time, or just been in the right place. They might’ve selected a course of study on a whim and found it to be a natural fit to their interests.

Our challenge is to ensure that luck extends to everyone. Your opportunities in life shouldn’t be determined by who your parents are, and the support you get to work out just what your options are shouldn’t be a lottery either.

We will focus on eliminating the barriers that prevent all students achieving their full potential. Tackling poverty and the enormous effect it has on student achievement, better targeting support to those students who need extra help either because they have special needs or simply find themselves struggling in a particular area, and shifting emphasis back to a broad curriculum will all be essential ingredients in the recipe for a modern education system.

The Labour Party will continue to champion a free public education system that provides all New Zealanders with lifelong learning opportunities so that they can reach their full potential.

Every New Zealander will have access to 3 years of free post-school education, and that includes workplace training. We’ve got some details to work through around how we make that happen, and in the immortal words of Rachael Hunter – it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

These are indeed exciting times to be in education and to be in politics. For every challenge we face, we have even greater opportunity.

New Zealand can be a shining example of how to build an education system set for the 21st century, one that caters to enormous diversity, one that equips young people for the challenges of life, not just the next step on the career ladder.


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