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Cambridge and the NCEA

Cambridge and the NCEA

The irony of the debacle over NCEA credits at Cambridge High School is that this will not rebound on Cambridge students as much as it will rebound on tens of thousands of students attending schools in low-income communities around New Zealand.

As the credibility of the NCEA gets a hammering from such incidents its value as a qualification is diminished. The black cloud looming now is that when a school leaver fronts up for a job or to enrol in a tertiary education course the interview could well begin –

“I see you have got your Level 3 NCEA – but what school did you get it from?”

With the larger amount of internal assessment in NCEA compared to traditional exams the school one goes to could now be seen as more important than the qualification itself.

Once upon a time if a student received a 52% pass in school certificate maths the school he or she attended was irrelevant. Despite its shortfalls it had the same credibility whether it was gained in Invercargill, Temuka, Porirua or Takapuna. Not so now with NCEA.

Many people will already believe that the shoddy practices at Cambridge or the nonchalant attitude to NCEA cheating at Auckland Grammar will be normal fare in schools in low-income areas.

Many in the community already – quite erroneously – believe that the educational standards and expectations of students are lower at schools in low income areas. Lazy perceptions like this are fed by a relentless diet of media reporting of so-called “top” schools, “elite” schools and “high performing” schools. These are code words for schools in high income communities while “failing schools” is code for schools in poor communities.

So in the debate on NCEA the stakes for students in low income communities couldn’t be higher. On its credibility rests the aspirations of hard-working, high achieving students for whom this is their single critical qualification. Other students will have some immunity from the fallout. The school they went to will be enough.

So who are the guardians of the NCEA’s credibility? The Ministry of Education, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and the Education Review Office. None of these organisations questioned the Cambridge result despite the fact that every Form 5 student had entered and passed NCEA.

Where were the children with special education needs? Are there none in Cambridge? Is this some hole in the universe where no child is born intellectually disabled or of low academic ability? Either the school is very adept at declining enrolment of such students or adept at finding ways for them to leave before they reach Form 5.

But no-one raised a query. In fact first on their doorstep to congratulate the school was Minister of Education Trevor Mallard.

It took a letter from a student – written anonymously for fear of reprisal – to an education newspaper to raise the issue. Our NCEA guardians only took notice once it became publicised in the wider media.

The subsequent NZQA criticism has focused on the fact that there was no teaching programme or qualified teachers in the achievement recovery programme at Cambridge but this misses the equally important point. It is not good enough to say this was a rogue school with an “extreme” interpretation of NCEA. The fact remains that these credits – “bubble gum” credits in the Cambridge context – have no place in the major academic qualification in Form 5.

They do have a credible place in an employment skills course for those intending to leave school in Form 5 and deserve recognition in a separate national certificate – but they have no place in a credible NCEA qualification.

Looking deeper, the Cambridge situation highlights the development under Tomorrow’s Schools of a “celebrity” culture among principals at some of our public schools. “Look at me!” has been ingrained into their behaviour as they work hard with the media to create the right perception in the community. In an environment where success is measured by the growth or otherwise of the school roll, creating the right impression – never mind the reality – with parents and potential parents is seen as paramount.

Tomorrow’s Schools was supposed to give parents greater input into their children’s education. However many parents now find themselves and their children outside the “image” their school principal wants to project. This means less choice for many and the abandonment of the concept of a community school where all students are welcomed, there are high educational standards set and high expectations of everyone. Clearly this was not the case at Cambridge and neither is it an isolated case.

Astonishingly Tomorrow’s Schools with its “market-driven” ethos has never been evaluated despite the fact that it has been the most significant change in school administration in 50 years. It’s time it was scrutinised and from the point of view of parents rather than school principals.

NCEA itself can be challenged on sound educational grounds as QPEC and others have done over recent years. However as it stands it is the only New Zealand qualification so that along with students and their families we look to urgent, positive educational leadership to develop and bolster its flagging credibility.

It would be a tragedy if our national educational qualification lost out to the cultural cringe of the ironically titled Cambridge Exams. John Minto National Chairperson QPEC Quality Public Education Coalition

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