Paul Little at large
Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: School system success

Photo / Paul Estcourt
Photo / Paul Estcourt

Like Christmas, NCEA-bashing season starts earlier every year and is now in full swing. Usually the complaints involve accusations of grade-rigging and jiggery-pokery behind the scenes to make schools appear to be doing a better job than they really are.

As is the case with MMP, some anomalies are used as an excuse to damn an entire system.

If it's broken, fix it.

The beauty of NCEA is that it finds out what students are good at and helps them to get better at it. Our education system provides, at most secondary schools, a wide range of subjects for students. Whether their inclination is academic or technical, physical or aesthetic, rural or urban, they can plan a school career that will make the most of their talents.

No one needs to finish school, as so often used to be the case, believing they are worthless because they failed dismally at subjects they had been forced to take. The social benefits of this will be spectacular.

Previous systems were designed to catch pupils out. They were beloved by puritans who believed something was only worth doing if suffering was part of the process. The old exam system rewarded pupils for cramming, absorbing, regurgitating and forgetting the information that was never going to be of any use to them in the first place. They were not taught to think.

It's easy to make fun of a national standard defined as "Compose dance sequences for given briefs" (Dance), but we need choreographers just as much as we need farmers who can "explain the effect of livestock behaviour within a primary production system" (Agricultural and horticultural science).

NCEA is not, as charged, a one-size-fits-all system. It's a tailor-made system.

The other aspect that critics despise is that students who don't achieve a standard first time around no longer have to repeat a whole year of school, as they did in the good old days. Instead they are given another chance, often with a teacher's help.

But that's another strength of the system - it identifies where students need help and provides it. The purpose of education shouldn't be to catch people out or make them do it tough so they learn how hard life is in the real world. The purpose of education should be to help someone reach a certain standard so that they can function in that world, doing what they are best at. NCEA does this brilliantly.


Nothing is as powerful as a good idea, it's often said. Or as dangerous as a bad one, we have to add.

The Islamic world will have noted ruefully this week that the actions of a Norwegian Christian fanatic did not spark off a series of attacks on Christian homes and places of worship around Norway, in contrast to some Christians' reaction to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre by Muslim terrorists.

The problem inherent in any religion is that it requires its followers to believe it is the only true one. If they believe otherwise, the religion loses its reason to be. It has no point of difference, as the marketers say. From that comes the belief that everyone else should follow said religion.

Carry such thinking a bit further and you end up with an Anders Behring Breivik, convinced of his need to save Europe from Islam, using methods sanctioned by his god (Deuteronomy, 13: 6-10).

Breivik's main aim was to draw attention to his cause and have his message heard. The world's media have risen to the bait and rushed to publish and pore over his ranting manifestos.

The best way to honour the victims of Utoya Island would be to impose a media blackout and consign him and his vile beliefs to permanent obscurity.


Te Ururoa Flavell hit the nail on the head when he suggested children who commit suicide should be denied a tangi, to demonstrate "the depth of disgust the people have with this". Good thinking, Te Ururoa. That'll teach the little buggers a lesson they won't forget.

- Herald on Sunday

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