Danny O'Connor, principal at ACG Strathallan in Karaka - a top-ranked Auckland school - believes that, while good exam results are desirable, they are not necessarily the "be-all and end-all" for students, and it's not doomsday if they falter.

He's exactly right.

In fact, he could go further and rightly contend that, far from poor results being a bummer, pedagogic reliance on exams can be a totally counter-productive exercise.

Let's not forget, it wasn't that long ago that we socially engineered the main formal education qualification - the infamous School Certificate - so that only about 50 per cent passed.

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In a devious little exercise called "scaling", if one year's batch of examinees was a bit too bright, a Department of Education slide rule pruned the "pass" rate, or vice versa.

This prize chicanery was all in the name of "education" - an earlier ticket to a "knowledge economy" which declared only half school-leavers had the nous for the really important jobs.

This was made true because egg-heads had School Certificate to prove it, and the dumb-cluck others left school with squat.

However, the low-brows didn't have to despair because - certificate or no certificate - they still went straight into a job. Funny that.

But this wasn't good enough, declared the politicians and mandarins. Here were these poor proles leaving school with nary a scrap of certificate or diploma, when plainly they must be good for something or else they wouldn't now be in jobs or apprenticeships.

Let's redesign things, they declared, so that while they may no longer be virtually guaranteed work post-school, they'll at least have bits of paper to prove they're the very knowledgeable unemployed, and thus vital cogs in the knowledge economy.

And we'll call these bits of paper NCEA credits.

Furthermore, we'll create a whole array of other tertiary institutions to train people up in an expert way for the sort of work they previously learnt even more expertly on the job. Hair-dressing, for example.

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Okay, a diploma may still not guarantee a job, but should you ever get one, you'll at least be qualified to forensically analyse the hairspray that sent the allergic client into cardiac arrest, and also perform - in a manner consistent with Treaty Principles - the in situ open-heart surgery that may or may not revive her.

Oh yeah, and by the way, you'll also be wearing a whopping student loan.

Recently, I referenced the Bali Haque report which proposes, in essence, taking the whole New Zealand education system back to where it started about a century and a half ago.

While we're at it, we similarly need to go back to the future where there were clear pathways into the workplace for all, regardless of formal quals. Gaining NCEA credits has become just another form of examination, requiring highly time-consuming on-going assessments and moderations by increasingly stressed teachers.

Another basic problem is the inequality we've allowed to permeate the system in exactly the same way it's riven wider society.

Education should seek to produce well-rounded kids, with tangible proof of genuine skills where practicable. But there needs to be a shift away from the mentality that says, if only all students could leave with NCEA Level 3, it would be problem solved.

Major collateral damage of this El Dorado quest is that a crucial, core chunk of kids are left marooned, not only with nil or sparse credits, but also without basic functional literacy or numeracy.

Kids who struggle with more formal learning often have good "hands-on" skills, yet we're importing tens of thousands to do basic-skills jobs.

The education system needs to jell with government-incentivised workplaces in a way that communities like Otorohanga have managed, where all students have clear post-school pathways that provide stable stepping-stones into wider society.

Learning on the job can be the best education of all - but first there needs to be a job.