When the Minister of Education announced changes to NCEA, Stuff declared that it was “Back to the future for students in NCEA overhaul”. They haven’t been the only ones: I’ve read a number of perspectives across social and traditional media concerned that NCEA is headed back to the days of subject silos, rigid examinations and, I assume, caning.
As the Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Group, whose recommendations contributed to the changes to NCEA, I felt the need to correct some of these misconceptions. I say this because I think that the announced changes are anything but ‘traditionalist’ or ‘conservative’. For me, they are a clear continuation of the goal the Ministerial Advisory Group set out with when we first started talking with New Zealanders about NCEA: “NCEA needs to make space for the powerful learning needed for success in further study, work, and life in the community”. And I believe that these changes will make that a reality for everyone across the full variety of schools in our education system.
I signed up to the NCEA review because I thought we could do better to make it a qualification that every young New Zealander would be proud to have. About a year ago at the start of this process, the Ministerial Advisory Group on NCEA published the ‘Big Opportunities’, which set out to provoke a discussion on NCEA. We wanted to push out with some fairly radical ideas to encourage New Zealanders to think boldly and courageously about what would make for an outstanding qualification for young people. I don’t think anyone would have claimed that it was a ‘conservative’ or ‘traditionalist’ set of proposals.
At the heart of the Big Opportunities was the idea that “NCEA needs to make space for the powerful learning needed for success in further study, work, and life in the community”.
We wanted to achieve that by:
- Refocusing Level 1 on foundation learning and readiness for life
- Strengthening literacy and numeracy
- Ensuring that Levels 2 and 3 built towards meaningful pathways
- Making it easier for teachers to focus on learning, instead of just accumulating credits
- Telling a useful story with the Record of Achievement
- Bringing down barriers to achieving NCEA.
We were worried that NCEA had become a gauntlet of non-stop assessment, and that fragmentation was making it hard for young people to get a coherent, connected education. We were worried that teachers weren’t being helped to focus on courses with clear objectives and outcomes, and that literacy and numeracy was getting lost in a mass of assessment.
When I look at the final changes to NCEA, I hear the challenge we issued to New Zealanders echoed back. I see changes which would make sure that literacy and numeracy is taught, valued and credible. Changes which ensure young people have access to a diverse range of pathways, and that those pathways offer up clear information about what they know and can do. Changes which remove barriers to NCEA. And perhaps most importantly, changes which put young people, their whānau and teachers at the centre of NCEA, and make it workable for them, balancing a quality education against wellbeing and workload.
When we released our ‘Big Opportunities’ discussion paper, we made it clear that the Ministerial Advisory Group didn’t “claim a monopoly on good ideas”. Throughout our engagement on NCEA, New Zealanders showed us that they had a great many good ideas. They shared with us their experiences, their wins, and their struggles with school and with NCEA. Some told us that they wanted an NCEA grounded in projects and inquiry; others that they wanted more subject choice, and to be able to ‘dive deep’ in subjects that interested them. Some were worried that they would be overworked, and some that they wouldn’t get to show off the breadth and depth of their learning.
The final outcomes of the NCEA Review have been shaped by the people we’ve spoken to and heard from. And hearing from so many people about NCEA – including our colleagues on the Professional Advisory Group (chaired by Roger Moses) – has made it clear that many of them had outstanding ideas about how we can make NCEA fit for purpose for everyone and every school.
I mention the Professional Advisory Group specifically because there are those who see the changes we arrived on as being a ‘victory’ of the Professional Advisory Group over the perspectives we put forward through Big Opportunities. I see the changes as anything but.
We did hear from innovators – those who want to disrupt school timetabling, who want to offer cross-curricular learning, and who want to break down barriers between academic and vocational programmes. We also heard from those who were struggling with the basics of NCEA – who found the vast number of standards overwhelming, or who were struggling to identify the most important learning. Students who were struggling with racist streaming, or courses which didn’t equip them for where they were going.
Last year, we came out boldly in support of compulsory projects and ‘transition opportunities’ across NCEA Levels 1, 2 and 3. We heard back that many schools weren’t ready for such a big move, but that we could make progress towards the same objectives by grounding subjects in the most important learning and by making vocational pathways more accessible. We supported big changes to pare back NCEA Level 1 – but we heard that for many learners, it’s important that Level 1 remain, credible and comprehensive.
The changes reflect three perspectives brought together to near-consensus: the Ministry of Education, the Professional Advisory Group, and the Ministerial Advisory Group. Not because any of us had compromised our expertise, or our values or visions, but because after spending so long listening to people about their experiences of NCEA, we all believe these changes to be the best way forward to strengthen our education system. We think that these changes will make every young person’s NCEA better, whether they’re learning at Auckland Grammar or Kia Aroha, while recognising and celebrating the diversity of practice across our secondary schools.
My aspiration for NCEA continues to be that it be a flexible, versatile qualification that young people can navigate – with help from their whānau, teachers and others – in a wide range of ways. I still want to see growing innovation. But what we heard overwhelmingly is that for that innovation to be achievable for a wider range of schools, and for it not to come at the cost of meaningful learning and achievement for deserving young people, we first need to get the basics right. That means stronger literacy and numeracy, more coherent courses, and less time spent on assessment as opposed to learning.
I can understand that teachers and schools which are already innovating, and supporting students to reach their diverse aspirations, may feel that these changes don’t go far enough. But I am confident that these changes won’t hold those schools and teachers back, and will help focus on the learning that matters, and lower barriers to every young person having a fair shot at attaining an NCEA.