Three of the new and highly controversial charter schools offered NCEA last year. Their results have made for easy headlines – think “glowing report card” - and easy ammunition in the House.
By Catherine Woulfe, click here to view the original article
In July, under Chris Hipkins’ sustained questioning about finances at Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa, Education Minister Hekia Parata lobbed back: “I am sure that the member and the House will be pleased to know that in 2014 it delivered 100% in National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) level 1, 86% in NCEA level 2 and 100% in NCEA level 3…”
This despite the fact that three-quarters of its students were considered “at risk”, Parata pointed out.
“The irony here is that instead of the school being applauded for turning around kids who are most at risk, it is being criticised.”
Meanwhile, Vanguard Military School has been shouting its 2014 pass rates from the Albany rooftops. A press release: “The school achieved a 96.2% pass rate at NCEA level 1 and 100% pass rate at NCEA Level 2 [it did not offer Level 3 in 2014]. Both of these results are well above the average for secondary schools across the country.”
The only other charter school to offer NCEA last year, Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru, has been less than forthcoming about its results. But pass rates are the least of its problems: the tiny school is teetering on the brink of closure. Staff declined to comment for this project.
Nick Hyde, Chief Executive Officer at Vanguard, and Dr Nathan Matthews, principal of Paraoa, were happy to discuss their approach to NCEA, and transcripts of those interviews follow. Statistics on all three schools have been released to the Listener under the Official Information Act and are available here. Also included is the report from NZQA’s first audit of Vanguard ‑ it is the only charter school for which such an audit has so far been published – and correspondence between Whangaruru and NZQA, regarding the awarding of credits for a standard that involved surfing.
The following is a lightly edited interview transcript of an interview by Catherine Woulfe.
Listener: Can we talk about the high proportion of internals? According to NZQA, 91% of credits earned last year were from internal assessment.
So as a first year start-up we had a lot of students we didn’t know, in fact all of our students were new students, so we took a cautious approach in terms of ensuring they were getting enough credits to pass NCEA. We made a conscious decision to use externals for those students that we were confident were prepared well for them, but for those who perhaps weren’t as confident, we stuck more so to the internals. The majority of our senior students did do externals but just not as many maybe as would be the norm.
Listener: Did they do as well in externals as you were hoping? The pass rate in those was about 68% compared to 93.2% in internals.
Yeah so it was maybe slightly down, but there wasn’t a huge variation. The majority of students that sat externals passed them.
Listener: Would some of the failure rate be kids who weren’t withdrawn from the exams – more of an admin issue?
Yeah we did have some who didn’t sit that were still nominated to sit. Actually I can’t give you the figure but we had a good pass rate for those who sat.
Listener: Do you have any concerns about the gap in pass rates between internals and externals?
No, not really, I mean a chunk of that is those who didn’t sit – that would bump it up into the 70s, or even into the 80s. So while there’s a gap and we don’t like that, we’re happy. In terms of our external moderation it’s come back good. So we’re confident that while on paper that doesn’t look good, we were operating good systems and structures and those will be even better this year.
Listener: Do you have a goal to get more kids doing more externals?
Yep, we’ll have a larger percentage doing externals this year. Because these are students we’ve now had (for a year). A lot of our students came with broken programmes, split across two levels – like our year 12s weren’t necessarily doing level 2, they hadn’t completed level 1, so we had a lot of that to manage last year.
Listener: That would have made for a messy timetable.
Yeah we operate one that has independent learning built in so that allowed us to navigate that a bit.
Listener: You have quite a lot of unit standards on offer compared to most schools.
Yep, that’s because a lot of the Maori subjects are still unit standards, so the Maori performing arts are unit standards and the majority of our students did that as part of their curriculum. So that’s where just about all of those come from, the large proportion come from Maori performing arts which probably all of our senior students did last year.
Listener: And those have quite high credits attached don’t they.
Yeah they do.
Listener: Like seven credits for poi? That must be more involved than it sounds.
If they’ve ever done poi they’ll know why that’s seven credits, it’s very difficult to do. Just the ability to do it – I mean I certainly can’t do a poi, it’s actually a very difficult thing to master. We’re obviously a Maori-orientated school so doing the Maori performing arts is an important part of the character of our school.
Listener: Do you think it’s setting your students up for futures in that area, or what’s the goal there?
It’s really just to strengthen their own identity and knowledge of who they are.
Listener: Did you have any way of tracking what students are doing after they leave?
We know where everyone went from last year. So it links nicely to the point that the Save Our Schools blogger was trying to make. (That is: five of Paraoa’s nine school leavers last year left with Level 2 or higher – a figure of 55.9% against their 66.9% contracted rate). So a lot of ours who left without Level 2, they left for either further training or jobs. So they went somewhere, so we had one boy went to university. One went into the defence forces. Another is doing a tertiary course over in Australia. Two went to other schools, so they finished their level one NCEA with us and went to other schools. One family moved out of town and another boy chose to go to another school to do his level twos. Two went straight into employment and one girl is doing further training, so she’s at polytech here doing some sort of health science bridging course. So every single one of our school leavers that’s mentioned in that blog, went to a destination, they didn’t just leave school.
Listener: Yet on paper it looks like you didn’t meet the standard.
Yeah. We can’t do much about that. We’re comfortable that we helped transition all of these kids into the next step in their lives.
Listener: Have you had any pushback from the minister or anyone else about that number?
Oh, not as specific as that but obviously we’re always reporting to them and having conversations about where our achievement levels are at.
Our level one two and three achievement rates were pretty good last year.
Listener: It’s interesting that that’s not the contracted standard you’re supposed to meet.
Which adds another level of complexity to it. We’ve managed to do well in our NCEA results and then somebody’s able to say we haven’t done as well because of that 5 out of 9 or whatever he quotes in his blog. And when they leave before they’re actually at that Level 2, so it’s not that they failed that Level 2. Some of them were year 11s who passed Level 1 really well, and then moved on, so it’s not like they got to a year 12 level and didn’t pass level 2, so it’s slightly skewed because of that as well.
Listener: The PPTA has just released papers warning about credit farming and credibility issues, and the number of unit standards on offer. They’re worried the Government’s 85% Better Public Service target is creating “perverse incentives”.
Oh, maybe, but I’d just ask you to ask them about the participation versus the roll counts that all mainstream schools use at the end of the year. That’s just as likely to create a perverse result, where they pull students out of credits so they’re still on the clock to get high achievement rates and have a number of strategies to get them there.
We’ve got a solid number of achievement standards that we use, we use Maori performing arts because it actually links strongly to who we are, we don’t go out offering farming or other unit standards, but yeah.
Listener: Do you see a difference in the kids once they’ve done those sorts of standards?
Definitely, so they all do Maori performing arts and they all do te reo Maori, whether it be NCEA or just a subject, we most definitely see the changes. Because despite the fact that all of our kids are Maori it doesn’t mean they’ve had much to do with being Maori in their upbringing. So it is something that I think becomes very important to them and a strong part of why they enjoy coming to our school. Much the same as with kura kaupapa Maori and other Maori orientated schools, it’s the same idea that the identity of the kid is really important so being able to help strengthen that for them from a cultural side, really makes them feel like they belong here.
Listener: Did NZQA find any issues during the moderation process?
No we fared pretty well actually, we’ve just had our follow up meeting so yeah we’re sitting pretty well in our development.
Listener: Did you have any non-qualified teachers involved with NCEA?
It’s all registered teachers, all of our teaching staff, other than our student teacher. He’s the only one who’s not a registered teacher.
The following is an interview transcript that has been edited for clarity. Some responses are also drawn from an emailed Q & A.
Listener: According to NZQA, 93.5% of the credits earned at Vanguard Military School in 2014 came from internal assessments. That’s an unusually high proportion – nationally the average is just over 70%.
We taught 60 standards in 2014. Twenty-two were unit standards and 38 were achievement standards – that’s 36% unit standards and 63% achievement standards.
We’re working extraordinarily hard while we have the students in school to try to get them across the line. We put emphasis on the fact that we worked 70 extra half days above normal schools – that’s working in the holidays and stuff to try and assist the kids, bearing in mind that many of them come in without knowing their times tables, or their maths and English is very far below where it should be.
You asked how do we move them on to university, well the reality is that a few of them will go that way but most of them are looking at a Level Two [NCEA certificate]. It would be difficult to take them from a point where they’ve previously failed a Level One, to then change their life around so much that they’re now going to university. We will get the odd one but that’s not going to be the norm because their baseline is so far behind that.
Listener: I see from your (excellent) MNA report that you were expecting a better pass rate from externals – NZQA has it at 54.1% compared to 93.5% for internals. Why do you think there’s such a difference in pass rates?
Yeah we were a little bit disappointed with the exam results, but when we did the review on it, we realised that many of these kids had already got jobs lined up and were going to do things like Camp America, or they had been signed up by the army to start in February and simply had no desire or motivation to do well in the exams anymore. In 2014 every student regardless of ability was enrolled to sit external exams. One of the lessons we learnt from our first year of operating was that our students’ view of external exams was quite different to ours. They’d already got what they required so therefore what was the point? It was a good lesson for us to learn. They turned up but they weren’t interested, they left the exams really early and we thought, “Oh, that’s a little bit strange”. They were some of our better kids, who obviously went on to join the army but because they had an offer of service and were happy to go and do that, I guess from their point of view they didn’t need any more qualifications. So it was interesting.
Listener: It’s quite strange to you and me, thinking about walking out halfway through an exam, right?
Absolutely, and I think this is the thing with partnership schools – I think this is where a lot of the education sector hasn’t got their head around that we’re actually very different. To keep comparing us to state schools is the wrong thing. We’re supposed to try and put something in place to attract those priority learners and address their needs, I suppose they’re the one in five kids that were previously going to fail, so where we take those kids is quite different from where mainstream schooling might be taking them.
Listener: So, why so heavy on the internal assessment?
Well some of the subjects simply don’t have external exams, like engineering, defence force, PE, so that makes it difficult too. So a lot of things we learned along the way. We will continue to press on to try and get those internal and external marks at the same level but in our first year we’ve still got a few things to learn.
Listener: Do you want a more even mix of internals and externals?
No, it’s probably not an issue, most of the subjects that we teach, say for example maths, might have four internals [available] and then one or two externals, so it’s not likely that you’d end up being a three and three ratio. Simply: we work with kids who often take a longer time to understand the concepts of certain things. We work very hard on providing those extra lessons until we believe they are at a stage where they can then sit, and that’s one of the advantages of having internals, is that you can keep working away at them and then they can all sit when you think say the vast majority of level ones understand that concept. With an external you don’t have that ability.
Listener: We’ve recently discovered that the set-up of charter schools is such that non-teachers are allowed to set and assess NCEA internals – they just have to be what NZQA calls “subject specialists”. Did you have any non-qualified or non-certified teachers running NCEA assessments?
No. And we were very aware, I guess from my previous background working in the PTE sector that having our work moderated was absolutely critical. We couldn’t go out and say “Oh look we’ve done all of this” if it wasn’t [credible]. So every single one of our unit standards or achievement standards were actually sent to educational experts, in some cases teachers at other schools, to have them go over and moderate that work. Basically if we said it was say a Merit and they said it was Achieved we said it was Achieved, we went with the lowest mark. So we got all our work externally moderated and obviously we had to do our NZQA moderation as well, so we were very aware of that and we wanted to make sure that wouldn’t be a problem.
One standard had a problem with the moderation. In actual fact we just forgot to send a piece of documentation for all eight of those bits of paper, we had it sitting there, just an admin error more than an assessment error so to speak.
Listener: Have you read the PPTA’s conference paper setting out their problems with NCEA and the Government’s target?
Definitely. I think there’s a little bit of angst from teachers towards unit standards which I think is a little unfair. Something like engineering is always going to be unit standard based and engineering is a good solid subject. But I do understand what they’re talking about with the idea of sending kids on courses just to pick up credits for whatever. At Vanguard we’ve alleviated that by making the core subjects compulsory. So students regardless of their ability have to take maths, English, PE and this year level one science, because we believe that they’re the things that are really going to help them get jobs in the future. And it’s often been their weaknesses. So rather than kind of skim over that and send them off to do information systems [IT] or agricultural courses or whatever people do, we’ve said “Actually, no. You’re going to have to tough it out and this is the benefit of coming to this school”.
Listener: Is it a hard line to walk given that you know you’ve got this numerical target sitting over you, but also trying to deliver a meaningful education for these kids?
Look, you can do this fairly well if your students turn up, I think that’s a really important thing to understand. I think schools that struggle probably have a more transient population of students. We’ve worked really hard to take away the barriers from the kids turning up, and we acknowledge that we have kids coming from all over Auckland and catching buses and trains and leaving really early – you know it can certainly wear you down in winter, travelling from Waiuku to come to our school. But we’ve worked really hard to try and make school enjoyable and build on that success. I think we’re probably lucky in that many of the kids haven’t had success at school prior to coming here and we’ve got this environment that kind of works as a family, it works as everyone’s together and we’re all trying to achieve. I think they’ve really bought into that and it makes it enjoyable to come, and once they keep turning up, obviously we can get a lot out of them.
But I understand the question. I think yeah, I’d be concerned if our students were only getting a 50% success rate but I think there’s plenty of time during the year to get students across the line with enough credits regardless of what subjects they take.
The other thing is, we don’t look at age as being what year level they should be in – we look at what they bring. For example, last year we looked at a couple of 18 year old girls who had no prior education and they started off in level one because that’s basically where they’re at. We talk to the kids about: it doesn’t matter how old you are when you leave school, it just matters about what you leave with. That kind of alleviates that pressure off them and they don’t feel I guess stigmatised by it.
Listener: The crux of all this is obviously the outcomes for students. NCEA results aside, is the school able to monitor past pupils to see how they are doing in employment or further training?
We had 47 school leavers in 2014. Twenty-six entered full time employment – four with the New Zealand Defence Force. One is ‘unknown’. Twenty entered further education or training.
A lot of those ones went into trade-related work, obviously engineering is a popular subject here and a lot of the students do very well at that. We have good contacts with local businesses in the area, so they’ve started off doing printing apprenticeships and things like that. We’re quite lucky that we’re right next door to Unitec, they have things like plumbing and gas-fitting so for the further education and training that’s an angle. Quite a few service industries, particularly the hotel industry, are keen on having some of the students. So a really broad range of employment situations which is really good, because half of what we’re trying to do here is the academics, and half is to create some characteristics in these guys that make them very employable when they leave.
Listener: This real world, outcomes-based monitoring seems to be lacking in the wider school system.
Absolutely, I mean my background was at a PTE where the Government contract said that after three or six months you had to report on what the people were doing. So it’s all very well to get a qualification – often when I talk to parents it’s like, “Well, we’re absolutely going to help your son or daughter get an NCEA level 2, but we also want them to be a productive citizen when they finish. And that means they’re not back on your couch saying ‘I got qualified but I’m going to lie here and play Xbox’.” So we actually work very hard, particularly the deputy principals, to find employment opportunities they want to go into. And it’s a growing system. We’ve done things like send a couple of boys on deep sea fishing vessels because that’s what they were interested in doing, just to taste out whether it would be something for them or not. Yeah it’s tough work but if you think about what they do here, with their physical training, they wanted to go and see what it was like and it’s an industry that struggles to get crew. On the flipside you can earn some very, very good money, you work two weeks on you have two weeks off and earn probably the same amount as anyone else does. So it’s about giving them these opportunities, these taste tests of employment and they can see what they like, and if they do a good job obviously it leads to having full time work.
Listener: What’s your response to the contractual achievement issue raised by Bill Courtney in this Save Our Schools blog post? It points out that the contracted achievement rate for 2014 was 66.9% – that is, 66.9% of your school leavers must hold Level 2 NCEA or above – but you didn’t meet that.
Vanguard achieved a 100% success rate at NCEA Level 2 in 2014. Critics would like to discredit this by saying that out of those 35 students, 21 achieved their Level 2 and left school and therefore that is a 60% mark for school leavers. What they fail to say is that the remaining 14 students also passed NCEA Level 2 but didn’t leave school because they returned in 2015 to do Level 3.
Listener: Can we talk about that contracted achievement rate for charter schools – the proportion of school leavers that hold Level 2 or over. Is that a good measure to have or should it be something else?
Yeah I was a bit surprised, and I’ve been talking to the Ministry of Education about how I don’t really understand the school leaver mark myself. For example in our case, I guess the letter of the law is we’ve got 35 kids, 21 left and therefore it’s 60% – but the other 14 returned to school so surely they’re going to be school leavers at some stage, how does that all work? So I think the amount of students gaining an NCEA qualification would be a much better indication of how we’re doing than our school leaver mark.
Listener: Or perhaps even the more interesting meaningful stuff, about actual outcomes?
Well yeah, an outcome based situation would definitely be something too, when you’re receiving taxpayer money they want to know that, as you say, we are producing productive citizens. I think as you say if 46 out of 47 are going on to do something a little bit stronger than they were previously, that’s a pretty good indictment of the school. Because the other thing with the school leavers is, I’m not sure what happens if two or three of those kids leave after Level 2 but go to another school. How does that work, I mean there are too many variables…
As you say there are easier statistics to measure, which are what are they doing after school, how many qualifications did you get for the number of students, yeah, which would make a lot more sense to most people.
Listener: Any thoughts on NCEA more generally?
It’s been a big learning curve for us to dip our toes in and see how other schools are doing things. I don’t know whether you call us naïve or too honest or what but for us to enrol every single student in externals seems to be something other schools don’t do. And their ability to look at a student and decide that they’re not going to pass, so they withdraw them from enough credits so that they don’t even show up on the system … there’s a number of things which were just mind blowing to us when we started last year and we’re obviously learning about these things. Participation rates, roll based rates, and it does seem very strange to me that everyone goes on about their participation rates when they’re probably the easiest ones to score from. It would make much more sense to use roll based figures and it would make a lot more sense to talk about where the kids are going once they leave school.
Listener: Is there anything you think would add credibility to the system overall, that could realistically be achieved?
To be honest, I think that the core subjects should definitely be more valuable, I know it’s a delicate one but I look at the way things are written and you can pick up six credits in I don’t know, tourism, and then I look at kids who will spend a whole term doing maths and get three credits here. It just seems bizarre to me – that’s maths, it’s a whole term, and it’s a tough subject and you can get three credits, and then you can do something else in two weeks and get six. It just, I don’t know what the answer is …
Listener: Students will tend to take the path of least resistance too, right?
I think that’s exactly it and I think that’s why when I started Vanguard I was very clear on the fact that sorry, you guys are taking maths, English, PE, you don’t get out of it because left to their own devices you’re right, they will take whatever they can to get their credits as quick as possible and do the least amount of work.
Listener: What do you think of the work and study skills standards that can count as numeracy and literacy credits?
We didn’t deliver them. I think they’re there for students who are really struggling to have an ability over a period of time to prove that they do have some knowledge in those areas, to get those basic numeracy and literacy skills. If we had a student who had attempted the achievement standard and was getting nowhere, I would definitely look at trying to assist them by going to that system. But as you can see, we didn’t need to do that. And surprisingly to me, a number of numeracy and literacy credits are picked up through other subjects. So regardless of being relatively poor at maths and English, if you can do say history or PE or te reo Maori or even science, you can actually pick up numeracy and literacy credits through those. Again that seems strange to me.
Listener: Would you change that if you could?
I think to be honest if I could, I believe that employers are probably looking for some kind of marker where a student has a definite ability in maths or English, and I think maybe that could be generically imposed a little bit better. It does seem strange to me that you could almost get maths and English with the numeracy and literacy requirements of NCEA by default, by doing other subjects. As I say, a lot of learning has gone on in the last 18 months for me. I mean I guess, because I’m old-school it used to be School C, you sat your exam, and that’s the mark you got.
Our school is based very much on the old-school mentality where you should be taking core subjects because it’s going to benefit you in the long run. We don’t use portable devices; it’s all instructional approach. So it does seem a little weird to me, the way things can be manipulated, and we’re trying to obviously maintain our way of not going down that path. Because I think the way you’ve done things, it’s about credibility and partnership schools have a lot more pressure on them to be able to prove that they are credible. I think that to be able to go to employers and ask them to take on our students we’ve got to be able to produce results and I guess an educated student who can do the things we say they can do. We’ve also got to be able to talk to parents and say “Look, we are going to make maths and English compulsory, it’s going to benefit your child”, and then those who want to go the full way and go to university, we’ve got to have a pathway and a system that has prepared them to be able to pass University Entrance and get them in there. And if you’re avoiding maths and English which are obviously two of your University Entrance subjects, that will make it very difficult.
A breakdown of 2014 charter school results obtained under the Official Information Act.