For many of us, this is school prize-giving season. For those who missed it this time, don't worry, in most New Zealand schools it hasn't changed from ones you might have sat through 30 or 50 years ago.

Schools celebrate the achievements of their best and brightest in academics, sport and service, rows of smart kids line up to be awarded armfuls of books and cups by local dignitaries (the kids who aren't so awarded are often "absent") and principals and board chairs extol the school's superior academic results and accomplishments to reassure parents their kids are being successfully prepared for the future.

Are we, though, preparing our students successfully for their futures?


Do the academic, sport and service prizes and the NCEA grades assure anything outside the education bubble? Have our schools focused on grading tests at the expense of less easily assessed skills like creativity, curiosity, collaborative problem-solving, communication, teamwork, tenacity, global competence and growth mindset?

And, if the answer is yes, is that not a concern given that those are the skills that really count in this rapidly changing world of work, affected as it is by automation, globalisation and digitisation?

The 41 per cent of New Zealand employers who are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the work readiness of school leavers, and the 46 per cent who are struggling to find skilled labour, are certainly concerned.

For me, prize-giving season prompts a big question: How might we re-imagine what a celebration of student achievement and preparedness for the next stage of learning and earning could look like in 21st century? How can we recognise academic and vital skills achievement as equally important?

How might we involve the whole community — parents, coaches, employers, iwi, community members — who have supported each student's growth and who await their contribution as employees, collaborators and community leaders?

This is a challenge for each of our communities in New Zealand to explore together, but here are some ideas.

Does all of this need to happen only at the end of the year? Could families, communities and local businesses come together in senior school festivals of learning throughout the year, where each student showcases a project that demonstrates their skills in identifying and understanding issues in their communities and creating solutions, in partnership with experts and stakeholders in those communities?

Could Y13 graduation ceremonies combine awards with video showcases of diverse students talking about the key skills they are taking from their time at school and the passions they want to pursue? Wouldn't our aim be that every one of our students could recognise the valuable skills they have built?


Imagine something like this: "Kia ora, I'm Eva and I have grown strong skills in communication, design, entrepreneurship and teamwork. I did this through my Young Enterprise business where we had to pitch and refine our ideas with the team at a local innovation hub, and through my community project helping a health-focused non-profit design a new website and social media marketing campaign.

"I'm now undertaking tertiary study in design and commerce, and part-time work as a healthcare assistant to explore the interest that I've developed in health and build my people skills."

Transforming our education system from the 20th-century model we know so well to one capable of supporting our young people to thrive in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century is a huge task. Schools cannot undertake it alone.

How can all of us better support our hardworking, dedicated educators to explore and develop new approaches, as many of them are beginning to do?

As a parent, board member, or local business, I propose to you that helping your school re-imagine prize-giving as a celebration of student achievement in work-relevant "21C skills" — as well as success in subjects, sport and service — is one place to start.

To get us going, we challenge New Zealand businesses to sponsor one or more new 21C skills awards for every high school in New Zealand. The awards would celebrate students exhibiting outstanding skills development or achievement in a range of critical 21C skills like creativity, communication, collaborative problem solving, curiosity, growth mindset, global competence and resilience.

Let's send the message loud and clear to our young people, schools, parents and communities that these skills matter, and that building them is the best way to prepare our young people for their futures in this new world of work.

• Justine Munro is the co-founder of 21 Skills Lab and a member of the NZ Qualifications Authority. The opinions expressed are solely those of 21C Skills Lab which can be contacted at