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Labour has made the right call on NCEA, so what about teachers' pay?

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The proposed changes to NCEA will be at the top of teachers’ minds as they push for better pay.

Even with the best of intentions, governments have a tendency to do things to us rather than with us. So, it can be a surprise when one suddenly changes tack to meet the public mood.

The new NCEA proposal is just such a change. In its 17 years, the secondary schools’ assessment system has generated strong criticism that it dumbed down aspects of our children’s education at the same time as it needlessly stressed students and teachers with constant assessments.

With the changes announced last week, we are moving towards a higher-quality system in which students will finish school without critical gaps in their knowledge and skills. In announcing that the new 20-credit standards in literacy and numeracy are to be externally marked, Education Minister Chris Hipkins explicitly noted that NCEA will become “more credible and robust”, thus finally acknowledging the problems so long denied.

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Both Labour and National governments were responsible for the NCEA’s design and evolution, and both have had a tendency to be mulishly defensive in the face of evidence that the system was, for example, too easily “gamed”, with the inclusion of perceived low-quality credits for such things as getting a driver licence and picking up rubbish.

Little did New Zealanders dream it would be a Labour-led Government that finally acceded to the chorus for change to higher-quality subjects, more exams and fewer, but more robust, assessments. Just a year ago, a ministerial advisory committee set up by Hipkins urged the opposite: no NCEA exams for Level 1 students, and less focus on literacy and numeracy.

Hipkins has preferred subsequent advice from a principals’ advisory group that the NCEA needed to restore primacy to numeracy and literacy, including curtailing the practice of allowing unqualified teachers to determine whether students meet literacy standards.

Sceptics may fear a U-turn toward the inflexible exams-only days, but there appears little risk of that. What’s being championed here is an upgrade of the quality of the learning. There’s still plenty of room to add non-core subjects and activities tailored to students’ vocational aspirations. We are, however, returning to the premise that children’s life opportunities are dependent on being proficient in core areas.

We should brace for at least a temporary drop in marks and pass rates, as happened in the UK when it upgraded the quality of student assessments. Lower-decile schools might fear that gaps between schools’ achievement rates obscured under NCEA could become more exposed. Yet, British schools found students readily saw the link between taking more exacting subjects and getting into better jobs or competitive tertiary courses. Further welcome news here is the scrapping of assessment fees.

The changes should eventually help ease teachers’ workloads, as they remove the incentive for students to build up surplus credits. However, teachers are now faced with the urgent burden of both devising exams and preparing students to sit them. At a time when the sector is already seriously disrupted by a lack of appropriately trained teachers, this could perversely drive more of them out of the job. Even if the Government’s new recruitment drive succeeds, there will still be a dearth of experienced practitioners to implement the new regime.

All this will be at the top of teachers’ minds as they push for better pay. So will the other big reform, the mooted recentralisation of schools’ administrations. It makes sense to centralise some procedures for efficiency. But enforced homogeneity and reduction of parental governance are not the smart answer. The troubling ethos behind this restructuring appears to be that some schools have been so much more successful than neighbouring schools that they should have their ability to innovate clipped, in the interests of uniformity. Yet, as the retention of NCEA vocational and life-skills options acknowledges, education is not a one-size-fits-all process. Schools that have developed their own paths to excellence should be encouraged and emulated, not stymied.

With the PM busy examining ways to prevent radicalisation in young people, there is surely no better path than to ensure students have a high-calibre education that provides them with the tools to assess and debate issues intelligently. The Government has made the right call with its focus on core skills. The question now is whether it will make the right call in ensuring the teaching profession has the quality we need to propel the changes.

This article was first published in the May 25, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.