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Despite an increased focus on "meaningful" skills-based study some teenagers are still taking spurious NCEA standards - learning about toilet cleaning, household shopping and shift work. The detailed student entry data was uncovered as part of a Herald investigation into soaring high school pass rates. The number of students with the benchmark NCEA Level 2 rose more than 10 per cent in the past five years, and the data showed large chunks of the credits earned came from more skills-based subjects. READ MORE: NCEA: The only brown kid in the room Are exams only for the elite? Inside the world of high school academies Figures showed the most popular last year were hospitality, tourism and outdoor recreation, closely followed by construction trades - largely areas with demand for workers. It follows a push from the Government around its "vocational pathways" policy, to ensure credits earned during NCEA led somewhere useful post-school. However, data showed a miscellaneous category named "Core Generic" also had very high entry numbers - alongside a bunch of standards described as "garbage". Among those were a handful of entries for cleaning credits, including courses where students learned about emptying bins, clearning toilets and washing floors. More than 700 students also took a course on "purchasing household consumables", and 16 took a course on "managing shift work". A standard requiring students to "demonstrate knowledge of law enforcement" had 1700 entries, a course on "anger issues" had 3500, and another on solving issues at rental properties had 8000. Other more popular courses included "making filter coffee", a major part of hospitality, which had 18,000 entries in five years. Most of the standards pertain to industry qualifications, and were offered under the Government's Youth Guarantee scheme, where secondary students can attend tertiary training while still enrolled at school. Some attend tertiary full time, and others go to school for part of the week. Former Auckland Grammar principal John Morris, a long-time NCEA critic, said some of the standards were "garbage", although the number of those kind of standards had been reduced. "Why you'd develop a standard for that kind of thing is beyond me. Some things, like woodwork, that's a skill. The others are just manual labour." Morris thought NCEA needed more rigorous assessment within the vocational subjects, and mandatory core subjects, to raise quality. He also said there needed to be consideration as to which pathways were pushed by schools. "I think hospitality is the flavour of the month. The students will probably get a job, but is it going to be great for the country that we've got a lot more baristas? However PPTA president Angela Roberts said the standards did not mean the vocational side of NCEA should be dismissed wholesale. "The thing that makes my heart sink is that there will be a lot of people who will instantly draw the conclusion that NCEA is broken because there are a few kids doing these standards," she said. "I'm not saying that learning how to make coffee isn't important for people that will employ those students, it's about making sure it's at the right level in comparison with the achievement standards." She believed there needed to be an "alignment" so skills-based standards were more aligned with academic ones. NCEA is made up of skills-based (unit) and academic (achievement) standards. Students need 80 credits to pass and they can come from any standard and any subject. Although achievement standards were recently assessed to ensure each carried roughly the same level of work and difficulty, the same had not been done with unit standards, which were "owned" by industry rather than government. Roberts said any work done should allow it to retain its diverse range of options, including the more vocational subjects, she said. Skills-based standards have undergone a major push in recent years, as the Ministry of Education released its "vocational pathways" programme, which aims to get students studying more a coherent mix of subjects, and towards the government target of 85 per cent passing NCEA by the end of this year. In line with that, more students are able to attend trades academies or other secondary-tertiary programmes. Manukau Institute of Technology's director of external relations Stuart Middleton said the movement was a "quiet revolution".

All figures for year 2015. Source: NZQA
Middleton said criticism of unit standards was "snobbery". The standards, and the vocational path, was vital to keeping students engaged, he said. "In the conventional system you found out how good you were sometime after Christmas. If students are getting a sense of success early on the evidence shows they will be encouraged to keep working." He said the key was to offer standards that would lead to employment - not just offering credits to pad out courses or that were "easy". "Often, it might look like students are doing something, they're doing work, they're getting credits. But it's lacking in substance. It's unintended disengagement," he said. MIT worked hard with schools to ensure they were choosing the right pathways, he said. Head of the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation, Warwick Quinn, said it hoped to gain more apprentices from the pathways this year. The industry was working hard to attract students to fill 32,000 predicted jobs, but it required a mindshift from parents and students. "Trades still aren't considered as a real option. We are still fighting some of that prejudice, that university is held up as the ideal." Previous analysis by the Herald showed that low-decile students were more likely to be enrolled in the skills-based standards, along with more Maori and Pasifika students, raising concerns about equity. For example, the data showed decile 1 Maori students were four times more likely than decile 10 Pakeha to take subjects in the "services sector" field, which includes hospitality, tourism and retail. Labour associate education spokeswoman Jenny Salesa said she worried about the direction some students were taking because although some vocational courses were well-rounded, others were not. "I also worry about where we are headed as a country. We are going to rely on a knowledge-based, high-wage economy with a skilled workforce. And we are not delivering that now, especially in low-decile schools," she said. Salesa quoted figures in her area, Manukau East, where unemployment for 20-24-year-olds was more than 20 per cent. "You would think, with these vocational pathways, we would be seeing an impact on that, but we are not. So while these students are taking tourism or making coffee, it's not adding up. It adds to NCEA but not to a job." The Herald was unable to discover which organisations were offering "toilet cleaning". The only organisation accredited to teach the standard was WelTec, in Petone, but it said it was not using the course. The standard is due to expire next year. The Ministry of Education previously said it it aimed to discourage organisations from picking and choosing so-called "easy" standards by working alongside schools.