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NCEA: The Experiment on Our Children

NCEA: The Experiment on Our Children
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

Very few people, if any, would disagree with the fact that education is the key to the future. In light of the vital importance that education plays in enabling children to achieve their potential, it is difficult to understand why this year's fifth form students have been used as guinea pigs in what can only be described as a massive educational experiment.

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement, or NCEA, is the new qualifications framework that has replaced School Certificate. It is based on vocational training methodology involving the breaking down of skills into discreet learning units which need to be mastered by the student before they are able to move onto more advanced competencies.
The problem is that while this system appears to work well for skills training purposes there is no categorical proof that it can be successfully applied to academic learning. Nor does the internal assessment process, which enables students to take tests over and over again until they pass, sit easily with the doctrines and rigour of intellectual learning.
The NCEA has been regarded as experimental since day one. My son, like many other New Zealand students was involved in an NCEA pilot programme. In his case it was sixth form Physics. When the time came for him to choose his seventh form subjects, he didn't choose Physics, even though he was an A grade student under the NCEA assessment. His reason was that he didn't really understand Physics.
He explained that students who failed were given an almost unlimited opportunity to pass, just so long as they kept on re-sitting the tests. He described how the subject had been broken down into such small units of learning that almost anyone could eventually pass. The essential problem was that through compartmentalisation, an appreciation of the wider continuum of learning necessary for the conceptual understanding of Physics had been lost.
Since the inception of the NCEA, there has been on-going concern over the framework by teachers, students and parents alike. Yet in spite of this inherent uncertainty, the new system was thrust onto unsuspecting fifth formers and their parents by the government in the year in which a major secondary school teacher's pay bargaining round was underway.

As a result of the ensuing acrimonious industrial action including rolling strikes, learning for secondary school students has been widely disrupted. This has severely compromised not only the implementation of the NCEA, but also student achievement.

The Post Primary Teachers' Association has strongly opposed the increased workload imposed by the bureaucratic nature of the NCEA. Students and parents alike have complained that the rigorous internal assessment programme is causing anxiety and stress, leading youngsters to give up their extra-curricular activities. All in all, the introduction of the NCEA has been the cause of massive disquiet.

In retrospect it would have been far more sensible to have introduced the NCEA on an optional basis. There were problems with School Certificate, but these could have been addressed. By leaving School Certificate in place, students would have at least ended this year with the certainty of a proper qualification. Meanwhile those schools that chose to implement NCEA subjects would have been working closely with officials to overcome the teething problems.
By scrapping School Certificate, the government has removed an established qualification, exposing all year 10 students to the risks associated with an educational experiment.
In response to the union's outcry over teacher workloads, the government has now decided that Level 2 of the NCEA will be optional next year. Schools will be free to teach the old Sixth Form Certificate, leaving students with a muddled academic record.
This situation is simply unacceptable. What the government should do right now is accept that it has made a blunder and reinstate the tested system of School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate, Bursary and Scholarship, while allowing schools to implement NCEA for those vocational subjects and the like, for which it is appropriate.
Further, with images of students striking still in the forefront of our minds, the government needs to reassure the country that it is running the education system, not the unions. The reality is that teachers are there to serve students and their parents. Their role is to help each and every one of their students to achieve their potential to their greatest degree. That is the nature of their calling.
The government's responsibility is to ensure that their profession is well regarded, and that it is worth their while to stay involved. Pay scales that provide bonuses to good teachers would help to achieve that goal. Reducing the plethora of bureaucratic forms, assessments and reports, would assist as well.

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