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Real Issues No. 183

Maxim Institute

real issues.
this week: No. 183, 17 NOVEMBER 2005

* Confidence in the NCEA still questionable

* The role of Foreign Minister

* No school is an island

Confidence in the NCEA still questionable
Secondary school pupils began sitting their external National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) examinations this week, but the real test is facing the overseeing body, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), to get it right after last year's bungle. But problems remain. Recently, for example, NZQA failed a geography project by a Year 13 Wellington College pupil despite its winning a national award as judged by Canterbury University lecturers. It may have received the approbation of specialists, but apparently did not meet NZQA achievement standards.

NZQA came under fire for its marking of external exams in 2004. Extensive variation in achievement standards was said to exist which made it difficult to assess a pupil's acquired knowledge or skills. There was disparity in results across subjects, with a number of top pupils failing subjects. Although NZQA has attempted to remedy the faults, the Wellington College incident suggests the problems have not been fully ironed-out. The mix of external moderation and examinations with internal assessment makes marking difficult. The meaning of achievement standards and how these are communicated between schools and the NZQA is a real challenge.

An August report by the State Services Commission on the NZQA recommended (among other things) that the Authority introduce clearer boundaries around the four grades of Non-Achieved, Achieved, Merit and Excellence, so that grades can be interpreted with more confidence by pupils, schools, parents and employers. There is a real need for grade clarity.

To read the State Services Commission Report on the Performance of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority in the Delivery of Secondary School Qualifications, visit: http://www.ssc.govt.nz/display/document.asp?DocID=4703

To read the Maxim Institute report; "The Parent Factor: Freedom for schools", which includes research around parental views towards the NCEA and some positive policy recommendations regarding curricula and examinations, visit: http://www.maxim.org.nz/parentfactor/report1_freedomforschools.php

The role of Foreign Minister
Winston Peters had his first outing this week as Minister of Foreign Affairs representing New Zealand at the APEC meeting in South Korea. Mr Peters was accompanied by Trade Minister, Phil Goff (Foreign Minister in the previous government). Mr Peters' appointment came out of the controverted bargaining between New Zealand First, Labour, and United Future. As a minister outside cabinet, Mr Peters only represents government policy in his portfolios of foreign affairs, senior citizens and racing. He has declined to chair the Cabinet Committee on Foreign Affairs meaning Phil Goff or Helen Clark will fill the role.

Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, recently questioned the unusual arrangement of a Foreign Minister outside cabinet. Mr Peters had earlier sought assurance from Australia that it would help New Zealand improve its uneasy relationship with the United States at upcoming ministerial talks between the US and Australia. Mr Goff later revealed that he had assured the Australians that Mr Peters was acting in line with the foreign policy of the Labour coalition government.

The role of Foreign Minister is a strategically important position in any government, and given that the state's primary task is to protect its citizens, the office calls for clear thinking and policy. Any misunderstanding or equivocation could be very costly. The incumbent minister must speak with a clear government mandate, but the APEC incident suggests a confusion of ministerial roles and authority.

No school is an island
Former PPTA President Roger Tobin recently indulged in a piece of politicised wishful thinking. One highlight of his address published in the October issue of PPTA News, declares that New Zealand schools are "islands of democratic egalitarianism in a free market world". What do we make of such a description of the local school?

For starters, schools are not isolated or insulated "islands". It is true that school zoning and centralised funding insulate schools to some extent from the pressures their communities face and the need to respond to them, but schools are first and foremost servants of parents, pupils, families and their communities. Far from being isolated islands unaffected by the stream, schools are integrally involved in their communities. It would be silly to suggest that schools should be isolated from the wider community, whether it is "free-market" or otherwise.

And in what sense is a school an island of "democratic egalitarianism"? Perhaps Mr Tobin means that all education should be of the same high quality, offered to all, and that schools should be fostering a generation of egalitarian-minded democrats for the future. Some might desire this but it has the unfortunate effect of politicising education, and making schools into centres concerned with political goals, rather than the encouragement of learning and excellence. Teachers and educational professionals' beliefs about the purpose and function of schools will undoubtedly shape their work, and therefore deserves consideration.

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK - William Blake (1757 - 1827)
Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.

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Real Issues is a weekly email newsletter from the Maxim Institute. The focus is current New Zealand events with an attempt to provide insight into critical issues beyond what is usually presented in the media. This service is provided free of charge, although a donation to Maxim is appreciated. Items may be used for other purposes, such as teaching, research or civic action. If items are published elsewhere, Maxim should be acknowledged.

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