Education Central is excited to bring readers Reimagining Qualifications, an in-depth, high-quality, ground-breaking feature series that looks at the history, the purpose, and the future of qualifications in New Zealand.

Against the backdrop of the Government’s NCEA Review, this series will examine the possibilities for changing the way assessment and qualifications work in New Zealand, both in secondary and post-secondary education. This is the first of seven feature and opinion articles.

Sometime in November 1999 I sat my seventh form bursary history exam. I remember entering the school hall, in which evenly spaced desks were arranged neatly, and being chaperoned by solemn-faced volunteers. I remember clutching my see-through plastic bag containing several pens – by seventh form I’d sworn off all maths and science subjects so had little need for any other stationery. I remember the rush of nerves and adrenalin and excitement as I inched ever closer to the end of my secondary school days.

Oddly enough, I don’t remember much about the exam itself – yet of my five subjects, it was my highest mark. That was, after all, what counted then – the marks. You generally needed over 300 for your top four subjects for admission onto many university courses and entry into the halls of residence.

Those subjects stood in isolation from each other – there were no opportunities to integrate what I was learning from one class to another, and little project-based learning.

I knew I would attend university – there were no other options on the table for me. I had a vague idea of what I was going to study there, but no career pathway in mind. I had very little knowledge of any industries or any workplaces.

Although I like to think of myself as driven and determined, in hindsight I just drifted through school. I was focused entirely on getting good marks, regardless of the content or the bearing they might have on my adult working life.

I’m relieved things have changed since then and I’m pleased they’re continuing to evolve. With the support of teachers and careers advisors, our secondary school qualifications need to equip students for life beyond school and give students both choice and direction.

Since those bursary exams, the qualifications I’ve completed have become more and more relevant to my professional interests as I’ve developed a clearer idea about where I want my career journey to take me. A broad conjoint BA/BCom was followed by an MA in publishing, and more recently a journalism diploma. The latter two were completed on a part-time basis with the support of my employers and I loved every challenging second of both qualifications. Passing was important to me, but it was secondary to understanding and applying ideas and concepts; fortunately, when you’re passionate about what you’re learning, high grades typically follow.

The NCEA Review was the impetus for Education Central’s series ‘Reimagining Qualifications’, but we didn’t want to limit the scope of the series to secondary school. To our way of thinking, qualifications are the road markers along everyone’s journey, and as such they need to be robust, easy to navigate, and give direction and flexibility as they span a person’s pre-working and working life.

I am a commentator of the qualifications system and an end-user (albeit a lapsed one), but there are so many different sorts of stakeholders with vested interests in keeping our system fit for purpose: our students, parents, teachers, principals, tertiary education lecturers, industry training organisations, employers, and government agencies. This series is about opening this important topic up for examination, considering the strengths and weaknesses of the status quo, and reimagining the future of qualifications.

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