Radical changes to senior school exams have been slammed by the head of one of our biggest schools as "dangerous" and "irresponsible".

Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor, where 60 per cent of senior students sit British-based Cambridge exams, predicts that more schools will abandon the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) if changes proposed in a discussion document are adopted.

He says the document's authors are "in la-la land" in saying that students should have "capabilities and attitudes for lifelong learning" by the end of Year 11.

"I think we are standing in the quicksands of NZ education right now," he said.

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"We are going to be going into a deep, dark place in what I see as a lack of responsibility by the adults for the children in this conversation.

"I frankly believe that the removal of NCEA Level 1 in the manner that they are describing it - literacy and numeracy and even having a conversation about does financial and civic literacy fit into that definition of literacy - is a very, very dangerous start."

Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor says policymakers are in
Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor says policymakers are in "la la land" if they think students have "capabilities and attitudes for lifelong learning" by age 15. File photo

The discussion document, which kicks off what promises to be a fiery consultation period, proposes reducing NCEA Level 1 from an 80-credit, multi-subject qualification to 40 credits - 20 for literacy and numeracy and 20 for a project "driven by learners' passions".

Literacy and numeracy requirements at Level 1 would be tightened, responding to criticisms that students can gain literacy credits from subjects such as art history.

But the document suggests that the meaning of literacy might be broadened to "encompass skills like digital, financial or civic literacy".

It would require at least 20 out of 80 credits at NCEA Levels 2 and 3 to come from "pathway" activities such as trades courses, research projects and community work, often partnering with outside employers, tertiary institutions and community groups.

It would reduce the current complex menu of 9360 NCEA "standards", many of which are worth only two or three credits, down to larger chunks of "coherent courses".

Students' achievement records would be rewritten in curriculum vitae format showing their "capabilities", "attitudes" and extra-curricular achievements as well as the courses they have passed.

Secondary teachers' union president Jack Boyle hopes the new system will reduce the numbers of students dropping out with
Secondary teachers' union president Jack Boyle hopes the new system will reduce the numbers of students dropping out with "nowhere to go". File photo

Post Primary Teachers Association president Jack Boyle said he hoped the new system would offer all students a chance to learn to their strengths, rather than dropping out with "nowhere for them to go".

Secondary Principals Association vice-president Deidre Shea said the changes would "streamline" assessment and provide more time for coherent learning, but she was unsure how much support there would be for the radical changes proposed for Level 1.

Kim Campbell welcomes students spending more time in workplaces or collaborating with tertiary institutions in their senior school years. File photo
Kim Campbell welcomes students spending more time in workplaces or collaborating with tertiary institutions in their senior school years. File photo

Business NZ education manager Carrie Murdoch and Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Kim Campbell welcomed the stress on clearer pathways to further study and jobs.

"Those young people who have had even the smallest or most modest amounts of work experience are the most likely to get employment," Campbell said.

Nikki Kaye says National wants to make the NCEA reform process bipartisan but reserves its position until the National Caucus considers final reform proposals. File photo
Nikki Kaye says National wants to make the NCEA reform process bipartisan but reserves its position until the National Caucus considers final reform proposals. File photo

National Party education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye said she and party leader Simon Bridges were briefed on the proposals and agreed to try to work "across-parties".

"A number of ideas may take more than five years to implement, so we want as much as possible to support the process and get in behind it," she said.

Act Party leader David Seymour, who was also consulted, welcomed what he called "a quality document" but warned that serious tightening of literacy and numeracy standards would require "taking a hit" on pass rates.

The Education Ministry is inviting local volunteers to workshops starting on June 5 to discuss how they can help run public workshops in 20 centres starting on June 25. Public submissions are open until September 16.

Student fears bigger shock at Level 2

Shaneel Lal welcomes reduced pressure at NCEA Level 1, but warns that the jump at Level 2 would then be
Shaneel Lal welcomes reduced pressure at NCEA Level 1, but warns that the jump at Level 2 would then be "massive and truly shocking". File photo

Ōtāhuhu College Year 13 student Shaneel Lal sees proposed senior school changes as a mixed bag - less stress in Year 11, at the cost of a bigger shock in Year 12.

Lal, a member of Education Minister Chris Hipkins' Youth Advisory Group, said in January that the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) put too much pressure on students to accumulate credits.

"I feel like NCEA for me is about getting the most credits as fast as I can, rather than learning the content," he said.

He welcomed a proposal in a Government discussion document to reduce NCEA Level 1 from 80 credits to 40, including 20 earned through a project.

"Making it more project-focused gives the ability to be creative and actually learn," he said.

"However if the number of credits at Level 2 remains the same, Level 2 will become more of a shock."

He also worries that requiring 20 credits at Levels 2 and 3 to come from "pathway activities" such as trades courses or research projects would add to an already stressful subject workload.

"We are not taught how to run projects or do projects prior to Level 2 so it will be a very new thing," he said. "In the coming years it may be easier, but if it's brand new it may be difficult."

But he welcomed a "Make your mark" competition through which school students can win $35,000 in prizes for making submissions on the proposals.

"I personally feel encouraged to participate in this initiative," he said. "I believe my voice will be valued rather than using it to 'tick a box'."