Gone are the days when just a handful of kids stayed on for ‘seventh form’; today it’s unusual for teens not to go all the way through to the end of Year 13.
But how well are these five years of secondary school setting young people up for the next steps in their learning/career journeys? Is what they’re learning at high school aligned well with tertiary education, industry training and employment?
“The simple answer is ‘no’,” says James Heath, President of the Otago University Students’ Association. “A lot more needs to be done to prepare secondary school students for the transition into employment or tertiary education.”
Civics education is a must, he says. “We need to be educating students on the role of government, politics, and gearing them up with the civic tools needed for life.
“Students, for example, should be educated on debt before they are expected to take a student loan.”
Heath also believes secondary schools should be putting more time into mental health and social education – “preparing students for not just the financial or academic challenges of life but also the more ‘human’ ones”.
With nearly two-thirds of young New Zealanders now going on to tertiary education, schools must ensure they are preparing them well for university, industry training “and for any sort of successful post-school career”, says Chris Whelan, chief executive of Universities New Zealand.
“The sorts of skills that will be most valuable for students and to employers are the so-called ‘soft’ skills: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, co-ordinating/working with others, negotiation, emotional intelligence etc. Learning how to learn is key among these and will set students up for future success.”
Several years ago, the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) was given responsibility for providing careers advice into the schooling system. The TEC has yet to announce what the future careers system will look like, but Universities New Zealand’s advice has been that they should focus on two things in particular, says Whelan.
“First, broaden the focus from ‘careers advice’ in schools to ‘pathways advice’ – helping students understand all the post-school options open to them, given their particular interests and abilities. Help students understand the sort of things they should be studying in Years 11-13 at school to be best positioned for satisfying, successful lives and career after school.
“We need to be educating students on the role of government, politics, and gearing them up with the civic tools needed for life.”
“Second, combine the pathways advice given to students at school and use this to inform the subjects and NCEA achievement standards offered in Years 11-13.” This involves ensuring the secondary school curriculum is innovative and engaging, but also making sure it forms a strong foundation for success after school, says Whelan.
To prepare students for life after school, Josh Williams, chief executive of the Industry Training Federation, would like to see more partnering between secondary schools and local employers, for interface programmes linked to NCEA and towards industry credentials.
“Importantly I’d like to see this occurring as a normal and mainstream part of every senior student’s experience, rather than via a special scheme or alternative programme,” says Williams, who believes all senior students would benefit from exposure to workplaces, “including those whose next stop is full-time degree study”.
While many schools are doing “amazing and innovative things” to expose their students to different post-school possibilities, Williams says by default the experience of the final three years of school remains organised and delivered around an academic programme.
“I’d like to see the overall balance shift to broader and longer-term life and work skills.”
He says the five key competencies identified in The New Zealand Curriculum forms
“a pretty good list” of the skills young people need to succeed. These are thinking; using language, symbols and texts; managing self; relating to others; and participating and contributing.
“I notice that employers use much plainer language than educators, but the key competencies describe pretty well the things that employers are looking for. So for me, while secondary school often gets organised around disciplines and subjects, it’s the front half of the curriculum that captures the core things young people need to succeed, and again, I think some of those core skills are best demonstrated outside the classroom context.”
Williams says while the underpinning skills that help people secure and sustain employment don’t change very quickly, the tools and techniques that people use to do their jobs are changing rapidly, thanks to advancements in digital technologies.
“So, on top of the list [of key competencies] is the ability and willingness to keep learning as you go.”