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Easy transition to secondary critical for students

Trevor Mallard Speech: Easy transition to secondary critical for students

Speech to the New Zealand Association of Intermediate and Middle Schools conference, War Memorial Centre, Hastings.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference today.

Two months ago I released the government’s Education Priorities for the next three years. They bring together the programmes, initiatives and hard work that is going on across the sector, and what our government wants to see coming out of this work.

Our first goal is to build an education system that equips New Zealanders with 21st Century skills.

Let’s face it: the days of the 1960s and 1970s, when the unskilled, or those with limited technical skills, could easily find employment are well and truly behind us.

Today we need to keep the focus on creative and innovative thinking.

We need skills that will help us to communicate and participate effectively in this internet age.

We need skills that help us adapt to a rapidly changing world where the traditional physical boundaries between countries are fast disappearing.

New Zealand’s economic fundamentals are sound.

But this is a century where the economy and the growth and prosperity of New Zealand depends heavily on the development of our greatest resource – our people.

Our schools are at the forefront of how we go about developing the skills, talents and creativity of this, our greatest resource.

Our second goal is to reduce inequalities in educational achievement to ensure all New Zealanders can reach their potential.

Achieving a focus on students from diverse backgrounds and on students with diverse needs is a priority for our schools.

This is especially so when we consider the following:

Poor educational achievement outcomes are concentrated in relatively high proportions amongst low socio-economic and Mäori and Pasifika communities;

The demographic profile of our schools is changing and New Zealand students are becoming increasingly diverse; and

Teachers are giving us a strong message that they are seeking more support to improve practice for diverse students.

Research tells us that literacy and numeracy initiatives focussed on the early years have proved very successful in recent years.

However, there is still a lot more work to be done.

These initiatives have not been as effective for Mäori and Pasifika learners.

New Zealand based surveys and international research shows a wide range of achievement amongst students.

This is mainly due to variation within each of our schools – and to variation between different classes, rather than to differences between schools.

That is why we are sharpening our focus on effective teaching for all students, directing more energy into the key influences on learning, and evidence-based practice.

Reducing disparities in achievement so all our children can achieve to their full potential and have the skills they need for this century is our greatest challenge.

The Ministry of Education’s Quality Teaching for Diverse Students Best Evidence Synthesis which I released on Tuesday has a major role here.

Focussing on the evidence about what actually makes a difference for children is the key to improving education in all schools and early childhood education services.

This research focuses on what has been shown to make a difference to student outcomes, that is on what works, rather than on what is fashionable, feels good and works in theory.

We know from research that the single largest school influence on a students learning is effective teaching.

This lesson is emerging right across the OECD.

What teachers do in the classroom, how they do it, how they think about the way they teach and the expectations they have of their students – all of this is hugely influential on student achievement.

This is not to discount other schooling-based influences and the wider influence of the child’s family and community. This is a crucial point and one that I want to emphasise.

The research also shows that much greater impact is possible when teachers, schools, resources and parents join forces.

By sharpening our focus in this area and working to strengthen teaching across the system we will see the greatest gains in terms of achievement for diverse students. It will also make the system responsive to all learners.

There are lots of examples of quality teaching in New Zealand schools and a wealth of literature on “what works”.

I’d like to encourage the education sector to work with the Ministry of Education to make the best use of this research and put it to work for the benefit of our students.

So what is the role of intermediate and middle schools in helping us achieve these priorities?

Intermediate and middle schools cater for about one in ten of the school population and more than half of the year 7 and 8 cohort.

Your schools have the obvious advantage of being able to specialise to meet the particular needs of students in the middle years.

This is the time when students switch from the relative safety of the primary classroom with one teacher to the larger secondary school with its subject-based curriculum, specialist teachers and departments.

That’s why we need a special focus on these years to provide the right programmes and prepare students as well as possible for the transition to secondary school.

Compared to other countries, the school sector here has been relatively slow to recognise the importance of the middle years of schooling.

Intermediate schools date back to the 1930s. Middle schools (year 7 –10), on the other hand, are a relatively new invention, with only seven currently operating.

Their presence in the sector is creating considerable interest.

A small amount of local research is looking at the effects of middle schools, but more research is needed, especially to determine how well middle school students are making the transition to senior school.

An Education Review Office study which I am releasing at this conference today looks at Years 9 and 10 students.

It found the quality of education in the middle years has a major impact on future success.

However the quality of education was mixed, and varied across all school types.

But middle schools appeared to provide a higher quality of education than other school types.

ERO recommends improving the quality and delivery of programmes to better meet the needs of emerging adolescents.

It suggests:

A curriculum more focused on student interests and concerns. NCEA can help as it allows schools to offer courses more relevant to students;

Teams made up of teachers with different curriculum strengths and experiences;

Teacher education that promotes a greater understanding of the needs of students in the middle years.

I am a great supporter of innovation. But the current diversity in school arrangements in New Zealand, unique internationally, does create some challenges.

It means a system with more transitions than many other countries, especially for students who attend intermediate or middle schools.

Evidence shows that school transitions can slow or even reverse the progress of some students. It is at these times that some students ‘switch-off’ education.

Students attending intermediate and middle schools are likely to have two school transitions over a relatively short period.

It is therefore vital for our students and their progress in the critical senior years of schooling, that we manage these transitions well.

Thank you for your time today. I’m happy to take questions from the floor.

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