NCEA failure not an option

Education has always been a battleground for ideas and ideology.

This week has emphasised the point with huge prominence given to attacks on NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) by a small number of school principals.

NCEA is the new qualification which replaced School Certificate and Bursary. It was developed under National’s Lockwood Smith and then implemented by Labour’s Trevor Mallard.

These latest attacks come at a time when NCEA has had its smoothest year of operation and produced results showing improving student achievement at each of its three levels. But instead of celebrating the fact that more students are achieving through NCEA, this is the very problem they see. Too much success is a bad thing for these principals.

They argue there is a lack of academic rigour, a failure to extend and challenge bright students and, what’s more, they claim we can’t trust the results because significant parts of the qualification are internally assessed.

These arguments have been rehearsed ad nauseum in recent years. They just don’t stack up. Yes, there are problems with NCEA but it is a big step forward from the pre-determined failure of 50 per cent of our kids every year through the likes of School Certificate. The purpose of schooling is to educate young people, not to ensure half are branded failures.

These principals, Byron Bentley from Auckland’s Macleans College, John Morris from Auckland Grammar and Roger Moses from Wellington College, would prefer “gatekeeper” exams as we have had in the past. Such exams are generally more beneficial to students from high-income families as they weed out other students before they have the chance to access higher level university courses.

These well-publicised, repeated attacks inevitably weaken public confidence in NCEA. Unless it is well regarded in its own right then our universities, polytechs and employers could well begin to regard the school a student attends as being more important than the qualification they obtain. Once again it will be students from low-income communities who will bear the brunt of a low-credibility NCEA.

Once upon a time, if a student received a 52% pass in School Certificate maths the school he or she attended was irrelevant. Despite its shortfalls it had the same credibility whether it was gained in Invercargill, Temuka, Porirua or Fendalton. NCEA has yet to gain this level of public confidence.

Now other school principals such as Brent Lewis from Auckland’s Avondale College have taken fright and worry that parents might remove their children unless he offers an alternative to NCEA.

Labour must take the lion’s share of the blame. From the outset the new system was poorly resourced and was carried on the backs of teachers and schools. There were low quality exemplars, a lack of training and teachers in every secondary school were expected to reinvent the wheel by developing almost all their own resources.

And on top of everything else the best features of NCEA were buried under a mountain of over-assessment. It was the old story of weighing the pig frequently instead of feeding it.

Not surprisingly, the qualification struggled in the early days and was brought into disrepute by practices such as those at Cambridge High School where 100% pass rates disguised a multitude of manipulative practices designed to enhance the school’s reputation rather than improve student learning. It’s worth remembering that the first person on their doorstep to congratulate the school on its pass rate was none other than the then minister of education, Mallard.

Many of these problems have been eased but the legacy is a qualification which is still fighting for the place it must occupy at the heart of secondary education. It’s our only national qualification and failure is not an option. Getting it right remains the Government’s biggest challenge in secondary education. We can take some encouragement that Minister of Education Steve Maharey is pushing for further changes to bolster public confidence in the qualification.

But it’s time to take a closer look at the attackers. Besides being principals of decile 10 secondary schools each of the three, Bentley, Moses and Morris are also members of the Business Roundtable’s education sub-committee, the Education Forum.

Bentley chairs the Forum with Moses as deputy chairman. They sit with Business Roundtable executive director Roger Kerr and representatives of the private education lobbies to promote the policies of the forum’s big-business backers. For example, the forum has called for student fees to attend our universities and polytechs to be dramatically increased and for increased government subsidies to private schools. These are policies to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.

The problems with NCEA need fixing but it’s long past the time when we should give any credence to those who attack NCEA to promote narrow sectional interests above the interests of all our kids and their futures.