Opportunity knocks

March 2010

 

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The government’s Youth Opportunities suite of initiatives promises better things for young people. But could it also be the start of a sea change for secondary schooling in this country? JOHN GERRITSEN reports

The tertiary high school kicked off this year, as did 2000 fully subsidised places for teenagers in polytechnics and private tertiary institutions. This month the sixteenth military-style ‘service academy’ starts, while next year five school-based trades academies will open their doors and another 2000 fee-free tertiary education places for young people will be available. It’s all part of the government’s Youth Opportunities, a group of policies aimed at ensuring all young people of secondary school age are in education or training if they are not already in work.

The idea behind this is that some young people disengage from school and would benefit from the opportunity to either begin training toward a particular trade while at school or by leaving school and studying in a different environment, such as a polytechnic.

Implicit in the move is a strong sense that the school system has failed to meet the needs of some students, generally those who are not academically inclined and for whom school feels like a waste of time. There is certainly agreement that such students need more help, but opinions differ on the extent to which schools can be part of the solution. Also unclear is the extent to which the policies will change schools themselves. It will break the monopoly secondary schools have as the sole provider of free education for teenagers – for the first time, young people will be able to leave school before the age of 18, albeit in very limited numbers, and not have to pay fees for their tertiary education – and it will help some schools develop trades academies.

Will all this be merely an extension of the new pathways schools have been developing under the NCEA, or does it signal a paradigm shift that abandons the notion of a liberal arts-based education for all? Is New Zealand moving to a system where larger numbers of young people will be able to opt out of school and into vocational training at tertiary institutions?

Though Minister of Education Anne Tolley did not comment on what impact the policies might have on secondary schools, she did say the government’s ultimate aim was to make the Youth Guarantee – fee-free study at tertiary institutions – available to all 16 and 17-year-olds. If that happens (it’s dependent on funding) how many teenagers will jump at the chance to leave school and go to a polytechnic?

A fan of the policy is Stuart Middleton, the director of external relations at Manukau Institute of Technology. Middleton has argued strongly for many years for a better transition from school to tertiary education for those young people who struggle at school and he has no doubt about the potential of the Youth Guarantee.

“It is very significant,” he says of the policy. “We are moving away from the view that students should, as a matter of course, do five years at a secondary school to be well schooled.”

Middleton notes that most of the opportunities for young people to leave secondary school at an earlier age – employment, apprenticeships, night school – disappeared in the 1980s, resulting in an increase in the secondary school roll. It wasn’t like that previously and it doesn’t need to be like that in the future, he says. “There were jobs for which two years’ secondary school was enough.”

He argues that schooling currently prepares young people only for more education, rather than equipping them for employment. “The issue is, what are students qualified to do when they finish school?” Middleton asks. “We say to them, you are still not qualified after 13 years to do anything else except to go on to another school.”

Youth Opportunities will change that, with students able to start trade training either at school or in a tertiary institution without paying fees.

Middleton agrees there will certainly be blurring of boundaries between secondary schools and tertiary institutions. For example, he expects polytechnic tutors will eventually work in schools alongside school teachers to deliver trade training. And he predicts that the policies will start to benefit students younger than the current target of 15 to 16-year-olds, with 13 and 14-year-olds a likely starting point.

The beneficiaries of this change will be students who need a more focused purpose in their schooling and that purpose will probably be vocational, he says.

But what of the fear that students will opt too early for a vocational path? Should they be allowed to miss out on the enrichment of a curriculum that covers, for example, English literature?

Middleton dismisses such concerns and is adamant that the only thing such students will be missing out on is disappointment and unemployment. “What they’re missing out on is failure. What they are missing out on is the dole queue. What they are missing out on is a lifetime of welfare dependancy.”

School education holds out the promise of a rich life, but it does not deliver for too many young people, he says. For them, the Youth Opportunities initiatives will “inject purpose to their learning, bring rewards to their life and bring them to the state of being actual life-long learners”, Middleton says.

And this is no small issue. Twenty per cent of young people are no longer at school by the time they are 16 and 60 per cent leave school with no qualifications to speak of, he says. “The model we have got is not working.”

Middleton stresses that school teachers are not the problem here. He says they are well equipped to work with young people, but they are teaching the wrong programmes. That’s despite the presence of the NCEA, the school qualification that was designed to recognise students’ achievements and help schools provide more flexible programmes that better meet the needs of students – from the academic to the strugglers.

But Middleton says schools have failed to exploit the full potential of the NCEA. “If schools had exploited the flexibility of the NCEA it would have achieved a lot more than it ever will do. Instead we translated NCEA into a national exam system, equating NCEA levels to particular year levels.”

It is a damning assessment of the school system and it is clear that if Middleton had his way thousands of young people would be able to opt out of school and into free tertiary education. It would be a radical realignment of the pathways that currently lie before the nation’s teens, but entirely possible if the government were to expand the Youth Guarantee programme.

But not everyone agrees with Middleton and in the school sector itself opinions on the policy’s impact range from concern to relaxed.

Peter Gall is president of the Secondary Principals Association (SPANZ) and principal of Papatoetoe High School in Auckland. He says it is hard to see any impact from Youth Opportunities at this stage. The tertiary high school is in his region, but none of his students have enrolled with it, and despite the offer of fee-free places in tertiary education his school is inundated with returning senior students.

Gall also notes that schools are already offering students vocational pathways – in fact, he expects Youth Opportunities will be business as usual for many schools.

“We are running pretty complex operations in terms of meeting the needs of very diverse learners. That is something that evolved... over time. We have been offering courses that enable students to access the trades when they leave school for many years now.”

Post Primary Teachers Association president Kate Gainsford agrees. The entire secondary school system is now geared toward helping students plan and prepare for their future. Courses are tailored to students’ goals and a single class might have students following a variety of different programmes at different levels of the NCEA.

It is, says Gainsford, a huge change from how secondary schools used to be.

But the PPTA has definite concerns about the Youth Guarantee side of the government’s initiatives. In particular, it does not maintain a central role for schools such as keeping track of students studying at tertiary institutions as was the case under the former Labour government’s similar Schools Plus policy.

Gainsford denies the union is trying to protect secondary schools from encroachment by tertiary education providers. “We wouldn’t see it so much as patch protection as who is looking out for the kids,” she says. “We’d be pretty loathe to cast them adrift if there wasn’t some comparable level of care.”

She stresses secondary schools’ expertise in providing pastoral care and it is clear she would like to see a return to the previous government’s plan for schools to be students’ minders while they study at polytechnics or private providers.

Gainsford says the union is also concerned that the option of leaving school to pursue vocational training should not be taken too early. “That’s a danger. That’s what we’ll be keeping a very close eye on.”

But the union is not entirely against Youth Opportunities. In fact, it would like to see it provided on a larger, more comprehensive scale. Currently it provides a limited number of opportunities for a limited number of students and the options available under the Youth Opportunities will vary from area to area. Some young people might have access to a trades academy, others only to subsidised places in a polytechnic and those in South Auckland to the tertiary high school.

“There are some real possibilities around Youth Guarantee if it really becomes a comprehensive and school-based approach. But while it’s fragmented and looks to further fragment services that are provided to senior students then...” Gainsford trails off indicating a negative view of the policy.

Whatever the union’s views, the factor that will decide the future of the Youth Opportunities programmes and their subsequent impact on secondary schools will be its first few years of operation. Should the tertiary high school and the Youth Guarantee places in tertiary institutions succeed where schools have failed, you can bet there will be no looking back.

A four-pronged approach

Trades academies: Provide courses that lead to both NCEA and tertiary credits. Involve schools, tertiary institutions, ITOs and employers. Aimed at 16 and 17-year-olds. The first began informally this year at Southern Cross Campus in Mangere. Next year, five will open: at Northland College, Waikato Institute of Technology and Cambridge High School, Wellington Institute of Technology, Taratahi Agricultural Centre and Catlins Area School. Six other possible academies are under discussion.

Youth Guarantee: This year and next the government will fund 28 tertiary education providers to provide zero-fee courses to 2000 16 and 17-year-olds. The places are aimed at young people who are ready to leave school, but still want to study. The programmes on offer this year cover subjects including tourism and travel, agriculture, building, plumbing, hospitality and catering. The providers include polytechnics and private providers and while the students who enrol under the Youth Guarantee will not have to pay fees, they will not be eligible for student loans or allowances.

Tertiary high school: Opened this year, the tertiary high school, or School of Secondary-Tertiary Studies, operates from the Manukau Institute of Technology campus, providing a four-year course of NCEA and tertiary credits for a starting roll of 80 Year 11 students. The students remain enrolled with their school so they can maintain links with the school and its activities. The four-year programme will provide the equivalent of NCEA level 3 and the first two years of a tertiary qualification. The aim is to enrol a further 80 students each year for the next three years to reach a final roll of 320.

Service academies: By March there will be 16 service academies in secondary schools. The academies are military-style programmes for Year 12 and 13 students provided with the help of the New Zealand Defence Force. They provide courses in leadership and outdoor education, and participating students also work toward reaching NCEA level 1 or above in maths and English.