Blurring secondary-tertiary boundaries

March 2010


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It’s the school that is not a school – the tertiary high school. JOHN GERRITSEN reports

One of the brave new experiments under the Youth Opportunities suite of policies kicked off this year – the School of Secondary-Tertiary Studies at Manukau Institute of Technology.

Providing a mixture of NCEA and introductory vocational programmes, the school attracted 45 students for the start of its inaugural year, about half the number originally planned. Not that the school’s head Michelle Hards is letting the lower number get her down. In fact, she believes the figure is probably helpful for the school in its first year.

When Hards talked to Education Review the students had already had several weeks of orientation and work toward NCEA level 1 and the vocational training that is a special feature of the school had only just begun. That training takes the form of six-week block courses each term and at this early stage provides tasters of various areas of specialisation ranging from plumbing and carpentry to art and sport and recreation.

It’s admittedly early days, but Hards says the students are responding well to the environment and the programmes on offer. They are excited about what they are doing, though Hards admits some of the group of 14 to 15-year-olds initially found challenges in the move to a setting with wider parameters than a school.

The ‘school’ draws its students from the southern side of Auckland – from One Tree Hill College to Papakura and Rosehill colleges, east to Howick and Pakuranga and west to Mangere and Aorere College. Each school in the catchment area can nominate up to nine students each year for the tertiary high school and those candidates are interviewed to ensure they fit the school’s criteria and actually want to enrol in it.

The resulting intake represents quite a range in terms of background and interest, Hards says. She says many of the students have a strong interest in the trades and some already know what career they want to follow and want to pursue it more quickly than they could at school.

“We have got a lot of boys who are wanting to be more practical and have a lot of clarity about what they want to do – they want to be a mechanic, they want to be a builder.”

Other students find the discipline aspects of school difficult and for them the tertiary high school may be easier because it does not have a uniform and students are free to leave the campus during lunchtime. She says the school is not an alternative education destination for wayward students, though the bulk of its students were disengaged in terms of not achieving their potential at school. “Sometimes that disengagement does manifest in other issues, but that is not always the case.”

Hards notes that some of the students are not keen on pen-and-paper learning, but she notes that the tertiary high school does not represent an escape from that aspect of schooling. This year the first intake will work toward NCEA level 1 and next year toward NCEA level 2.

But it is vocational education and training that is the heart of this new venture. The brainchild of Manukau Institute of Technology’s director of external relations, Stuart Middleton, it is designed to engage young people by showing them the purpose of their learning – a vocational qualification that will lead to employment.

The students’ first steps on that path, as mentioned above, are six weeks of taster courses. These run from 9am-12pm four days per week in the first and second semesters. In each round, students will sample three different areas and Hards says the trades options have been most popular. They take in carpentry, plumbing and electrics, horticulture, fabrication and motor vehicles. In the third semester the students will specialise in a particular area. In the afternoons they continue their work toward NCEA level 1.

The first year’s programmes are a taster and beginners’ courses developed specially for the students, but next year they will be able to take part in regular polytechnic programmes at MIT.

Hards says the relationship between the school of secondary-tertiary studies and the polytechnic is important. The school provides students with support that helps them in their polytechnic studies, while those studies support the students’ school work.

The students are able to maintain links with their former secondary schools through such things as sports teams and some currently visit their former schools in the afternoon to see friends and former teachers. However, Hards acknowledges it is likely students will want fewer ties with their schools as time goes on.

Hards expects next year’s intake will be larger as the school will begin its selection process earlier and the experiences of this year’s students will encourage greater interest.

The school’s students attract the same funding from the Ministry of Education as regular secondary school students, but also tertiary education funding. Hards is enthusiastic about the opportunities the initiative provides for young people. “These students can stay with us under our umbrella, they can do NCEA level 3, they can do their tech courses... for three to four years with no fees – that is pretty amazing for them.”

Money Critical

Students in trades academies will need to be funded at a higher rate per student than regular secondary school students, says Robin Staples, the director of the first school to host an academy, Southern Cross Campus.

The school’s hospitality academy will kick off next year with about 30 students. However, a new facility specifically for the academy will be opened this year, allowing the academy to run in a sense using the normal funding for Year 13 students. Staples says that arrangement is not sustainable because the academy will require more resourcing in terms of equipment and training than a normal Year 13 course.

Robin and the other trades academies-in-waiting are expecting Ministry of Education decisions on issues such as how the academies’ teachers will be employed, how the students will be enrolled and, perhaps most importantly, how they will be funded.

Staples says the aim of the school’s hospitality academy is to give students direct experience of working life as a chef. It will allow students to find out early if a career in hospitality is for them and then work toward it. They will do this in the academy’s facilities but also through work placements.

He says the academy is for students who have achieved NCEA level 1, so they will be in Years 12, 13 or even 14.

It will allow the school to extend its programmes to be more employer-focused and go a step beyond Gateway (a programme that sees school students on work placements), but allow students to maintain the social engagement and support that is important for many teenagers.

Staples contrasts the planned school-based academy with the Modern Apprenticeship scheme, which he says has a low success rate, particularly for Pacific students. The beauty of the academy will be that participants will find out if a career is for them while they are still at school and can make other choices.

Like his colleagues (see main story), Staples does not believe the Youth Opportunities suite of policies signals a failure on the part of schools or the NCEA. The NCEA has provided the flexibility that has led to the development of trades academies and the like, and allows schools to design courses that link through to industry training organisation programmes. The bit that has been missing is the link to employers and employment and the trades academies will help bridge that gap.

Such links can be extremely motivating for students, and he cites cases of increased NCEA achievement as a result of work placements.

But it is important to send students to those placements with the right skills – employers do not want students who are on work experience simply to kill time or who can do little more than make cups of tea.

Staples also has doubts about the ability of tertiary education providers to meet the needs of young people, observing that similar schemes in the past had issues around quality and measuring performance. From the government’s point of view it is attractive to put kids into tertiary education, but they have to think about how they resource it, he says. Like the trades academies, such programmes need quality staff, good resourcing and the right equipment.

Secondary schooling – who’s missing out?

According to Ministry of Education statistics, only 15 per cent of school leavers in 2008 did not have at least NCEA level 1. However, those figures varied considerably by ethnicity. Of the Ma-ori who left school in 2008, 30 per cent did not have at least NCEA level 1, while for Pasifika school leavers that year the figure was nearly 21 per cent.

Many in the education sector regard NCEA level 2 as the minimum achievement required for work or further education and training. In 2008, 29 per cent of school leavers did not have NCEA level 2 and for Ma-ori the figure was a worrying 50 per cent. For Pasifika school leavers the figure was 37 per cent.

The figures also show that young people with only NCEA level 1 or 2 are less likely to enter tertiary education by the time they are 20. In 2008, 43 per cent of the 20-year-olds with NCEA level 2 as their highest qualification had enrolled in tertiary education as had 31 per cent of those with only NCEA level 1.

Free education

A key point for Stuart Middleton is the unfairness of charging young people who leave school early for tertiary education while others the same age are getting their education for free at school.

He says New Zealand is the last OECD nation to stop charging tertiary education fees to young people of school age, even if they have left school at the legal leaving age. The only fair solution is for all education to be free until the age at which people finish school.