The education system is full of acronyms, but sometimes it is useful to say things in full: “The National Certificate of Educational Achievement”. When students gain enough educational achievement, they receive a certificate, and a list of their achievements.

That was the idea behind NCEA. Let’s make lists of students’ actual skills and knowledge, rather than just report if they passed or failed against traditional academic subjects.

NCEA is 13 years old. Some 800,000 young people have given it a crack. The NCEA guinea pigs are turning 30. They, and their families, know how it works.  You get credits for being able to do stuff – like read and write; interact in a different language; compose music; demonstrate health and safety in a workplace; solve simultaneous equations; plan a design project; safely use powertools – you name it!

But in education, as well as acronyms, there are hangovers.  One real humdinger is the idea that the final act at school is to either pass or fail. It’s not. After 12 years of schooling, we should hope that lots of our 18 year olds can compile a list of their skills and knowledge.

The PPTA recently pointed out the risk of  ‘credit farming’ of  ‘easy credits’, driven by government targets.  Certainly, if kids make up NCEA out of a random collection of credits they are doing themselves no long-term favours, and being let down by the system.   And assessment gurus worry that the year-on-year increases in ‘pass rates’ can’t all be down to improved teaching.

But NCEA is about ‘completing’, not ‘passing’. The credibility of any NCEA (or the whole system) does not depend on how few other kids have one.  And what about “easy credits”?  I found maths easier than dance, but I knew many fine folks who were the exact opposite. So which one is easier? And ultimately, their value is in the eye of the beholder.

So instead of pass rates, there is something much more important for students, parents and teachers to consider: Where can your NCEA take you? Will it help you get and keep a job? Get an apprenticeship? Enrol at a Polytechnic? University Entrance? In other words, does your NCEA add up to a coherent set of things that will help you take your next step?

Here is the good news. A few years ago,  Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) partnered with the government to develop new Vocational Pathways. We led a process involving people from industry, schools, and tertiary organisations. We went through every single credit for Level 1 and 2 NCEA (just under 2,000 different standards).

We made recommendations for entire sectors of the workforce: Construction and Infrastructure; Manufacturing and Technology; the Primary Industries; the Services Industries; and Social and Community Services. Creative Industries came along later.

We colour-coded all the credits and we linked them to jobs.  Then we identified the qualification levels you generally need for those jobs – from NCEA Level 2, right through to jobs that require advanced degrees.

So today, each and every student can see how their credits stack up against the world of work.  Parents and teachers can see how their kids’ choices relate to future education and job possibilities.  And employers can see a simple bar graph of how an NCEA stacks up in terms of their industry sector.

Manufacturing and Technology? Red. Young people with red credits achieved skills and knowledge recommended for the Manufacturing and Technology industries.  They’ve met minimum literacy and numeracy requirements. And, if they have a Pathways Award, they’ve also achieved credits drawn directly from actual Manufacturing and Technology.  All the other sectors? Same story, different colour.

Vocational Pathways include all the classic curriculum hits: English, Maths, Science, Technology – since employers across the board value these skills. They also include ITO industry standards, which speak to practical and technical skills, and applied learning for the real world.

Unfortunately, and unfairly, ITO standards can end up on the wrong end of “easy credit” snobbery.  Some like to compare credits from demonstrating skills in workplaces, and credits from demonstrating skills in exam rooms.  Actually, both are valid, and their usefulness depends on what students want to do after school, and who they need to impress.

Industry standards can assess fantastic learning programmes for secondary students, with clear pathways to employment and further training.  They also provide real world relevance and experience that help many young people see the point of education.

So with Vocational Pathways, we can tell whether an NCEA is very general, or very focused.  We can see whether it is coherent.  Most importantly, we have a tool to make sure every student is on a pathway to an exciting working future. I reckon that means a whole lot more than “pass or fail”.


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