Recently we released a paper calling for the Minister to scrap the 85% NCEA target. The main reason, we argue, is the very real risk to the qualification – bluntly, it puts pressure on schools to ‘juke the stats’ which undermines NCEA's credibility.
The other day the Minister said that basically a school could do whatever it wanted with its curriculum as long as it was producing good NCEA results (see this interview – no need to teach Te Reo Maori, even in a predominantly Maori school if your grades are good). Of course that’s the central premise of charter schools too. A senior official lately was singing the praises of schools for having a much sharper focus on ‘achievement’ than ever before.
And by achievement, we’re not talking personalised portfolios or individual leaver profiles, this is quantifiable achievement, i.e. qualifications. Maybe there’s no problem with having a view of schools as ‘qualification factories’. But lately I’ve seen some reports and studies which cast doubt on the value of qualifications over all else at school.
One of them was the Ministry’s review of the various Youth Guarantee initiatives. These programmes are aimed at students who are not doing very well at school and are at risk of disengaging, around 14% of young people access them. The report showed, when they tracked participants for a few years and compared them to a similar cohort, that while the programmes helped with gaining level 2 NCEA, “there is no evidence that they are providing a more effective pathway to further education and training than other educational choices for a similar group of young people”.
So, while it helps the minister’s target, it doesn’t seem to help the students much. Is this a worthwhile initiative to put resources into?
But perhaps more important is this fascinating report based on data from the Dunedin multidisciplinary study. It was reported on at the time and it’s not new, but in the light of schools’ supposed ‘sharper focus on achievement’ it’s worth revisiting.
What it shows is that in the long run, academic success at school is not as important for having a good life as what the authors call social connectedness. The authors write “Adolescent social connectedness was a better predictor of adult well-being than academic achievement “.
We’ve got a few measures that relate to our students’ ‘social connectedness’, and well-being, from some of the questions in the PISA survey that goes along with the tests, Youth 2000 and Wellbeing@School. But are schools allowed to report these things alongside NCEA or National Standards? Does the minister have an ‘unrelenting focus’ on well-being? Not so much.
Of course , as usual, this comes back to some of the fundamental questions about the purpose of school. Secondary teachers know that qualifications matter – that’s why we want a valid, robust system that treats students fairly and is useful for people who need to know what someone leaving school can do. But there’s a balance to be struck here, and an ‘unrelenting focus on raising achievement’ may not be setting up students for the best possible lives.