This week I found my 17-year-old son busy sanding (yes, with sandpaper) his name off his calculator, as he had been informed that his engraved name contravened the rules of ‘no notes’ in his upcoming exam.

Come again? This is yet further evidence of a deeply contradictory bimodal-world of education that claims to be fit-for-purpose yet has long since passed its use by date.

The education world I work in has young students overflowing with enthusiasm and excitement as they discover, discuss and create solutions using the technological tools of their time. Research is active, involving testing and trials, searching and validation. Creation involves 3D modelling, web development and the creation of videos and games. Maths is a living concept that provides solutions to engineering problems and helps guide robots around spaces and places. Skills are learned, shared and developed, not measured, compared and judged.

I have seen too much. I have run out of patience. Not for these incredible young minds, but for the analogue, rigid system that continues to prepare them for a world that no longer exists.

I do not say this to be alarmist. I say it because in the past four years my organisation has taught over 100,000 students and I can tell you we aren’t fooling them. These students are highly connected, informed, inquisitive and part of the single largest demographic grouping of humans the world has ever seen. These young people watch world events play out in real time and they are all privy to the massive technological, social, demographic and environmental changes that unfold every day of their lives.

So who are we fooling? Ourselves? Are we really that committed to the status quo that we are happy to pretend that the world isn’t a very different place than it was when we grew up?

So with this opinion as a backdrop, I was dismayed recently when I woke to an article that stated ‘New Zealand has the most future-focused education system in the world’.

Compared to what? Are we happy to play the game of comparing our country to every other nation who also offers an analogue, industrial education system that ignores the increasing number of students who leave school demoralised, unconfident and ill-prepared for the new world of work?

Are we so obsessed with measurement and comparisons that we will seek justification of our dated practices and failing education models just to deflect the hard conversations that we should have had years ago.

I stopped believing our national hype many years ago. We don’t punch above our weight. Number 8 wire isn’t going to get us out of this one.

This year the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report stated for the world to see that the third biggest issue for New Zealand is our ‘inadequately educated workforce’ followed by our ‘insufficient ability to innovate”.
No filing of my son’s name from his calculator is going to solve this problem.

Across New Zealand, there are businesses looking around the world for talent to fill skilled jobs that New Zealanders are unable to tackle. While at the same time we have over 90,000 young people defined as NEETs, who are not in education, employment or training. These are just some of the young people that our existing education system has failed.

Imagine if these NEETs were lucky enough to be educated in a country that truly was the most future-focused education system in the world? Imagine if students left high school as confident as when they started? Or if they felt like they could take on the world by showing what they could do, or were able to share their knowledge by articulating what they thought? Instead, we continue to defend the process of measuring all students on how much they can retain in a three-hour hand-written exam.

Why as parents, educators, and employers are we not banging on the doors of Government demanding rapid change to the broken assessment system? Why do we clap our hands in delight with headlines claiming our place in the education hall of fame, when we are failing so many?

A couple of weeks ago I championed a nation-wide initiative kicked off by KPMG and ASB seeking companies to remove the requirement for applicants to have a qualification to apply for roles in their companies. Over a period of 14 days not one or two companies signed up, but more than two-hundred.

Two hundred businesses who value skills and great attitude over qualifications. With around 40% of technology and digital roles left unfilled in this country, you can see why employers are starting to feel the impact of long-term education neglect.

I want us all to be restless about what we know to be true. Let us be champions of a new path for our children and our grandchildren rather than accept ‘what is’, on the basis that ‘it has always been done this way’.

The headline may state that ‘New Zealand is the most future-focused education system in the world’, but I know this is not true. I didn’t need to read the small print to know that this study didn’t measure student preparedness, confidence or skill levels. Turns out this study evaluated ‘inputs to our education system’.

There is it. A system, that on paper, looks all shiny and fit for purpose.

What a shame we have to go and make it all complicated by putting students into this same system?

The article discussing New Zealand’s top ranking in the new Worldwide Educating for the Future Index can be found here.


  1. A thoughtful article, the conveyor belt (industrialized education system) has been extremely successful, adherents to this system,(its beliefs, values), have positions of power. Generally speaking men and women graduates of this educational system, sit in the halls of power, (they are our policy makers, sit on chairs at Universities, they head legal and political institutions). So self reflect on success becomes self evident “this is how I achieved a successful life, so generations after me will follow or will educated in the same way” This is an over simplified comment, however, there are prophetic people / leaders who are pointing out the realities of the world now and yet to come, who are brave enough to say, “that what we doing / how we are educating our young is inadequate, that we need to rethink about the nature of knowledge, how we learn and how we communicate with one another.” The implications are profound.

  2. Hreat stuff. How about some tools to fight the fight. How about the alternative teacher assoc that actually champions and pursues change. Yep many inside education know its broke. Lets do a Welby and reach out to the ones who do want change but find themselvesand a lone voice in a sea of compliance and tradition. Maybe mind lab can help us build or model NCEA assessment outcomes that reflect the needed changes to pedagogy. Help us design learning ‘events’ that transition practice. I feel many practitioners would be really interested in such an action focused course of events that builds confidence, tools and usable models.

  3. All good, but let’s not believe the digital is the entire solution. We should be re-evaluating the trades and the practical. Have a read of Matthew Crawford.

  4. Hi Frances,

    I agree with what you say.

    I believe that students are more successful in their pursuits when they stop relying on getting top marks and preforming to an old fashioned school system.

    The magic comes when they develop their critical thinking and approach tasks and problems with chutzpah and grit.

    Straight As, talent, and playing by the rules only cut it in the real world if you apply the above.

    Schools and teachers need to get real so that our young talent can go out and kick arse!

  5. Thank you Frances, please keep it coming! My 17-year-old has always questioned the system he’s stuck in, but heading into Level 2 exams has relented somewhat — not because he drank the NCEA Kool-Ade, but because our NZ education system is the gatekeeper for competitive university courses and scholarship money.

    Adrian — I recently completed the 32-week Mind Lab by Unitec postgrad for practising teachers. I can assure you, far from suggesting “digital is the entire solution”, we examine theory past and present, and put this into practise. Digital technology, especially for collaboration, are among a mix of tools we can employ to transform education.

    After note: Our teachers get it, our schools are interested, but the system around them has turned its cheek, preferring to flog the Chalk & Talk & Test horse.

  6. Loved this piece as it totally reflects my take on education, not just in NZ but the majority of the world.
    We are letting down our kids by not recognising that the world of the last century is no longer that in which we grew and got educated…..and how interesting that sooooo much of the world around us has changed and continues to do so but Education is lagging sooooo far behind.

    In my opinion it is not because of the teachers but rather the Governmental and regulated environment in which they have to work……they understand the need to change from being “just” teachers to teachers and facilitator.

    Part of the change must start within the schools and Boards of Trustees have a responsibility to start shaking trees…………but parents have a role to play too…..don’t sit and moan get on social media and write e-mails to MPs and the Education Department and the Minister of Education and the Prime Minister too [after all she will in 5 short years put her child into this system] – tell them all that you are not happy, tell them why, give them ideas and challenge them to change…heck, if your kids feel strongly too get them sending stuff out too!

    Our kids live in a world so different to what most of us parents/oldies grew up in and THEY are our future…they will look after us in old age and we don’t give them the right start that future might look to rosey for us!


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