Spotlight on education in New Zealand

22 March 2012

The following article by Ann Puntis, Chief Executive of our exam board Cambridge International Examinations, appeared in SecEd - the UK’s only weekly publication that is dedicated exclusively to secondary education - on 22 March 2012.

Teachers concerned about the impact of a fragmented curriculum with the focus on 'modules' rather than subjects. Students playing the system by opting for easier modules to boost their scores. Universities reporting that their first year students haven't been effectively prepared for higher education, lacking a sound platform of subject knowledge and struggling to form links across subject disciplines.

Does all this sound rather familiar? No, it's not the UK education system being discussed here but that of New Zealand since the adoption of Curriculum Standards in 2004.

Certainly the New Zealand system was up for reform before the introduction of Curriculum Standards. The previous norm-referenced qualification system had continued for a good twenty years longer than in the UK. But the change to Curriculum Standards was radical, rapid and resisted, at least in some quarters. Its introduction in Sir Humphrey-speak could definitely be regarded as 'courageous'. The jury is still out in terms of its success.

There is certainly much to applaud. The system is learner-centric and plays to the development of a personalised curriculum. Teachers play a major part in assessing performance and are able to achieve the holy grail of assessment - a neat segue from formative to summative assessment. The infrastructure provided by the New Zealand Qualification Authority (NZQA) gives support in task-design and evaluation. A system review in 2007 ironed out some of the most contentious weaknesses in terms of the inconsistency in outcomes of students' achievement - both between subjects and across years. And yet the debate continues.

The New Zealand Standards Curriculum culminates in the award of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) at three levels taken in the final three years of school - equivalent to our Years 11, 12 and 13. It's a credit based award with a credit representing about 10 hours of study - very similar to that envisaged in our own National Qualifications Framework. Credits can be internally assessed and externally moderated, or externally assessed. Some are obligatory within a subject but there is considerable student choice - and consequent strategising. Of course, the system allows students to tailor courses to their interests - but those students become pretty savvy at weighing up which courses are most likely to optimise their credit-rating.

Standards indicators are defined at a high-level and leave room for significant differences in interpretation. Level 7 Science (targeted at Year 12 students), for example, requires students to “explore the diverse ways in which animals and plants carry out the life processes” and, at Level 8 (targeted at Year 13) to “understand the relationship between organisms and their environments”. Exam boards may sometimes be accused of being too prescriptive but there is obviously a happy medium to be struck here. If Science standards are open to interpretation, those in English face a different challenge and may be considered to lack progression in line with student maturity. In Year 12, students are required to "select and read text for enjoyment and personal fulfilment" and to "think critically about a text with understanding and confidence" and the same applies in Year 13.

Students who meet the standards early have little left to achieve. University entrance is expressed in terms of the NCEA and reaching these requirements early leads some to leave school after Year 12 or even mid way through Year 13. A taxi driver taking me to the office of the NZQA put it neatly: "This system is costing me a packet. I have to keep offering - first the smart phone, then the 2 weeks on the Gold Coast. Anything to keep him motivated and at school once he's got his standards’.

Some educationalists made their concerns about the new system vocal and in the run up to the introduction of the NCEA, a number of New Zealand schools turned to international qualifications rather than the national system. This paralleled a trend that was also emerging in the UK at this time, with schools turning principally to Cambridge IGCSE, and International AS/A Level and also to the International Baccalaureate instead of adopting the national system. This move away from the state system certainly fuelled the flames of an already fiery debate in New Zealand. There was sensitivity about what might be lost in an international examination system rather than one designed for home students. 

There was concern about the establishment of a two tier system in which high ability students were channelled into Cambridge qualifications and those of a lesser ability steered towards the national system. There were gender generalisations - girls would favour the continuing assessment model of the national system while boys would favour the 'sudden death' of summative examinations. Politicians located themselves in opposite corners - either wholly for international qualifications or wholly against. Certainly the introduction of Cambridge IGCSE and International AS/A Levels threw up some rather unwelcome surprises, with indications in the first years that the New Zealand system had drifted with no international benchmark to anchor performance.

And the New Zealand context pushed Cambridge to develop its own curriculum in response to students' requirements. Syllabuses were amended to include papers in New Zealand History, and to extend the range of New Zealand authors in Literature (not just Katherine Mansfield!). A new take on the History of Art was introduced and, unsurprisingly, given that this is New Zealand, we asked for a Sports Science curriculum. We also had to open up our processes - students' access to their scripts was a New Zealand requirement long before adopted as policy in the UK. 

Eight years down the line the intensity of the debate has subsided and the national system and Cambridge qualifications co-exist. Around sixty schools in New Zealand teach Cambridge qualifications alongside the national system. This co-existence owes much to the vision and commitment of the early champions of the Cambridge system in New Zealand, particular school leaders who were determined to show that international qualifications should have a place in the national context if students were to be effectively prepared for a globalised higher education.