Well before the NCEA experiment was unleashed on New Zealand's high schools a growing sense of unease about developments in the nation's education system was spreading throughout the business community.
Business people--in their capacity as parents, employers, colleagues and participants in the economy--were having grave concerns about the ability of secondary schooling in particular to deliver students well-prepared for tertiary training or with the grounding necessary to participate fully and usefully in the economy.
This concern was triggered not just by personal and anecdotal evidence but by a growing body of data, both local (such as universities needing to institute remedial classes to bring new students up to the level required for tertiary study), and international (our relative decline in OECD education rankings).
But it was not until the NCEA had rolled out into schools that there was a sense of an education system in crisis. There are currently seven separate ministerial reviews being conducted into the new examination system, triggered largely by questions raised by last year's scholarship exams.
Late last year the Independent Business Foundation, a "charitable trust with business educational objectives" which focuses on promoting SME development, produced a paper expressing concern at developments in education. The IBF noted a lack of confidence in "the home grown award" (NCEA) pointing out that "a knowledge economy requires secondary and tertiary facilities that meet or exceed average first nation standards". The report noted that "NCEA is considered insufficient qualification for study overseas [except for Australia and the UK]".
The IBF believed it was significant that, "private and reputable state schools give their students the option of sitting well-established internationally recognised university entrance examinations".
It's not surprising that the current environment is also producing a leadership crisis in school principals' offices throughout the country. There are currently 80 schools under limited statutory management (LSM), compared with 17 in 2002. Last month Secondary Schools Principals Association president Paul Ferris said that the Ministry of Education, fearful of further political embarrassment, was increasingly reactive, moving precipitately to LSM. He was concerned at the increase, arguing that it would put good new young people off leadership roles in teaching. "The field for principalship has declined and it will get worse.
"There's a perception that LSM comes much faster and when that happens the principal's career is over. Bad leaders can't be tolerated but it's the speed with how it happens."
In his book What's Up with Our Schools released last month, Allan Peachey, the principal of New Zealand's largest secondary school, Rangitoto College, claims that New Zealand's central education bureaucracies have squeezed the initiative out of schools, principals and teachers. He is scathing of teachers' colleges for too much emphasis on ideology and introducing bright-eyed graduates to the world of "institutionalised mediocrity".
He calls for a return to teaching students the foundations of education, beginning with reading, writing and arithmetic, while instilling in them a passion for learning. He emphasises the importance of putting in front of every classroom talented and enthusiastic teachers who are well-educated in their subject field.
It's a philosophy shared by Academic Colleges Group's Senior College in Auckland City, one of the independent schools offering an alternative to NCEA that is gaining increasing support from concerned schools, parents and students throughout the country.
Senior College principal Kathy Parker says the decision to opt for the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) was a pro-active move--not anti NCEA. "We wanted to provide for the needs of students with an international qualification that was academically rigorous from a well-established system. …