Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

Kiwi students put to the test

It is easy for parents to feel overwhelmed by schools' claims and counter-claims about academic success. So which qualification should we trust? All have their merits, but only one is designed to equip Kiwi children for study and work in New Zealand

Concerns about NCEA's ability to reflect the achievement of students were widespread when it was rolled out in 2002. Photo / Thinkstock
Concerns about NCEA's ability to reflect the achievement of students were widespread when it was rolled out in 2002. Photo / Thinkstock

James Newland is a little disappointed he only scraped a pass mark of 78 per cent in his latest physics exam. That is because he is top in the world at business studies.

This smartly turned-out 17-year-old is head boy at the small, fee-paying ACG Sunderland School in Henderson, Auckland, where he studies for the Cambridge International Examinations.

James Newland: "I just didn't think I was that smart." Photo / Michelle Hyslop
James Newland: "I just didn't think I was that smart." Photo / Michelle Hyslop

Newland was astonished when he found out two weeks ago he had scored the best marks internationally in business studies. He achieved 94 per cent. About 70,000 students worldwide sat the Advanced Subsidiary-level exam, he believes.

"It blew my mind," he says, grinning. "I just didn't think I was that smart and at first my parents wouldn't believe me."

But what does it mean? Does this world-beating 94 per cent mark him out as a multinational mogul of the future? Or does it just show he's good under exam pressure?

The marketing and public relations machines for top state and independent secondary schools boast of their schools' success in different qualifications frameworks such as the Government's National Certificate of Educational Attainment (NCEA), the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate or the British-based Cambridge International Examinations.

Even at primary level, schools are starting to boast of their success in jumping kids through the National Standards hoops.

Parents are no longer asked to send their children to the closest school. Instead, they are asked to consider which has the best facilities, the most engaging teachers, and the higher level of exam performance.

Hockey-mad Newland enjoys working within the Cambridge framework. Intense focus on passing end-of-year exams suits his way of working, rather than being assessed as he goes along.

Newland, from Titirangi in West Auckland, also believes an internationally recognised qualification will help secure a scholarship to a university in the United States, Europe or Australia.

"The Cambridge qualifications are instantly recognised almost everywhere. If I had gone down the NCEA route I doubt I would have had those opportunities to consider, as I don't think NCEA is very well known yet overseas."

Lauren Millington 17, is a senior student at Avondale College. Photo / Jason Dorday
Lauren Millington 17, is a senior student at Avondale College. Photo / Jason Dorday

Just 5km across the Auckland isthmus, Lauren Millington, also 17, is an academic high flyer at the 2700-pupil Avondale College state school.

Last year, she scored excellence in all her core subjects including English, maths, history and art design. Millington, from Avondale, could have taken Cambridge classes but chose NCEA.

"Being assessed throughout the year is a lot less stressful than cramming for exams and NCEA also offered better options in art," she says. "I didn't like the idea you could have one bad day and it could ruin your chances of getting the qualification you need."

Millington, a school prefect, hopes to go to university in Auckland or Wellington, then perhaps do a degree overseas before pursuing a career in education.

"Some of my friends do Cambridge and it has its merits, but it just wasn't for me. Sticking with NCEA hasn't done me any harm at all. Just the opposite."

Concerns about NCEA's ability to reflect the achievement of students were widespread when it was rolled out in 2002. It replaced the old School Certificate exams.

Eyebrows were raised again recently when Education Minister Hekia Parata announced that the number of students leaving secondary school with at least NCEA level 2 had increased significantly in the past five years.

Sceptics believe that although students can do much better when they are internally assessed rather than sitting end-of-year exams, this perhaps indicates teachers are allowing too many to pass. NCEA opponents think this could diminish the credibility of the qualifications framework at home and overseas.

As the arguments rage on, globally recognised and accredited alternatives such as Cambridge and the International Baccalaureate are proving increasingly popular.

Although the exam-based systems are traditionally associated with private schools, more state schools are now offering them.

Brent Lewis, principal of Avondale College and a Cambridge fan, has been outspoken about flaws in NCEA. He insists his views have mellowed. Not by much, though.

About 80 per cent of his students follow the NCEA route. The remainder study Cambridge, which features New Zealand questions in subjects such as geography and history, and costs parents, on average, about $500 a year in fees.

"I am not against NCEA. It has been continually evolving and I am proud of our school results," Lewis says, "but you have to ask what the qualifications are for. Historically, qualifications were for rationing scarce goods like employment, further education and financial reward, and did that job very well.

"Now we have seen a shift towards something more flexible and adjustable, but does that suit people's needs better? We are now getting inflation in this area and the credential currency is becoming devalued.

"Our school kids are students of the world. Education is a global market and transferable qualifications like Cambridge are in demand, although I accept it is not for everyone."

In 2011, the Herald on Sunday carried a front-page headline: "School revolt: A top college tells its senior students they can't sit government tests".

That school was Auckland Grammar, which had declared all 550 of its Year 11 students would be expected to sit the Cambridge exams.

The headmaster at the time was John Morris, nearing the end of 20 years in the job. "We are confident the change is in the best interests of all our boys," he said.

Morris was regarded by many as old school, a conservative, and has carried that reputation into his new role as an education consultant. He has now tempered his views on NCEA, but only a little - he remains unconvinced about its long-term effectiveness.

Morris was one of the leading lights in bringing the Cambridge system to New Zealand.

It is all very well for us to say that NCEA is finally coming good. But it has been 12 years since it was introduced and how many thousands of kids have been penalised in the time that it has been improving?

- John Morris, former headmaster of Auckland Grammar

The number of people studying Cambridge increased 6 per cent in New Zealand last year. About 10,000 schools worldwide use the method and this year there were 29,000 subject entries from more than 50 New Zealand schools registered to offer it.

"It is all very well for us to say that NCEA is finally coming good," Morris says. "But it has been 12 years since it was introduced and how many thousands of kids have been penalised in the time that it has been improving?

"Because there is so much internal assessment going on at secondary schools it means there are no consistent standards."

Morris believes consistency, transparency, validity and comparability are essential for a credible national qualification.

"NCEA doesn't pass any of these tests," he says.

Try telling that to senior administrators such as Megan Jowsey, deputy principal of curriculum at Auckland Girls' Grammar, which offers only NCEA.

"We are big supporters of its 21st century curriculum, which offers flexibility for our students and recognises a wide range of skills," she says. "We have students going on to big universities in America and Britain. NCEA's credibility has grown here and overseas as people have got used to it."

Seventeen-year-old James Newland was spoiled for choice of qualifications framework at the privately owned Academic Colleges Group.

ACG now operates seven Cambridge centres in New Zealand, including Sunderland School, Strathallan School and Parnell College in Auckland. But the company's Senior College also recently introduced International Baccalaureate, which offers a broad curriculum that is widely recognised in places such as the United States and Europe.

ACG chief executive Ian King believes there is plenty of space for Kiwi students to be offered a choice of qualification pathways.

"International Baccalaureate is good for travelling families as there is a school in every major city," he says. "But for students in New Zealand wanting to study at a university in Australia, Cambridge is a good choice."

There are 22 International Baccalaureate schools in New Zealand, offering one or more of three programmes. The numbers are evenly split between primary school and secondary programmes, with one operating a middle years service.

Schools involved include Auckland Normal Intermediate and Chilton St James in Wellington.

International Baccalaureate is proving successful at the private, 1400-pupil Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland where it was introduced seven years ago. "About 30 per cent of our Year 12 and 13 students take IB, the rest do NCEA," says principal Heather McRae. "There are strengths in both programmes and it is important to offer both to get the best choice and outcomes for our girls."

However, Professor Terry Crooks, former director of the educational research unit at the University of Otago, says the IB is unlikely to take off in a big way here because of the costs involved.

"It is a very good qualification that is probably the best recognised around the world but it would cost parents of state school students about $1000 a year extra to do it," he says. "For that reason it would almost exclusively be adopted by decile 10 schools."

Most education and business experts agree that the practical test of the effectiveness of qualifications lies with how well students are prepared for tertiary education and the job market.

For years, employers have grumbled about the education standards of New Zealanders as they graduate into the workforce.

Michael Burgess, executive officer at the Employers and Manufacturers Association, believes the economy is taking off again - and with it will come a shortage of skilled workers.

"The quality of literacy and numeracy among young people is a concern for our members," he says. "Qualifications need to reflect what employers are looking for and schools need to impart what these requirements are in growth areas like manufacturing, infrastructure and service industries."

To that extent, NCEA may be a good fit.

"NCEA qualifications do give employers a more detailed picture of what kind of skills a person has, rather than just that they are good at certain academic subjects."

Universities New Zealand, which is responsible for the quality of university programmes, hopes the present system will continue to provide the right calibre of entrants in years to come.

"Having more than one set of qualifications does not pose too much of a problem for universities in New Zealand or overseas," says Dugald Scott, chairman of the body's sub-committee on university entrance.

"NCEA, Cambridge and IB qualifications can be translated into comparable grades to ensure minimum standards of entry are met."

He adds: "NCEA is up to scratch. As a minimum standard we are happy with the way it is expressed at the moment and there is no evidence to show that the introduction of Cambridge and IB is driving more people abroad to study."

Hekia Parata insists having three qualification pathways available is not confusing for parents and students, and that despite its flaws NCEA is here to stay.

"As the 21st century progresses the types of careers and jobs that will be out there is unknown, so we have to evaluate people's skills more widely," she says.

"In that respect the New Zealand curriculum is really smart, has a very high level of integrity and encourages lifelong learning.

"It is generally well regarded both nationally and overseas and we are getting better and better at it. But there is room for all three qualifications in our schools and I have nothing against offering parents and students more choice."

- Herald on Sunday

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