'Capability' Conference

  • Brian Donnelly
Education Review Office

Thank you for the invitation to open your conference.

cI must admit, that when I saw the name 'Capability Conference' all I could think of was the English
landscape designer 'Capability' Brown.

The story goes that he had a favourite expression when viewing a garden he was going to redesign,
that it "had capabilities"... in other words, it had potential and hidden assets... he could do
something with it.

Once I read more of the material I realised that this obviously wasn't the Royal New Zealand
Institute of Horticulture's annual conference.

And I didn't notice any teams of gardeners and earth moving machinery anywhere around the hotel.

I was intrigued by the definition of 'capability'.

From my reading you make a distinction between 'capability' and 'competence'.

If I have understood it correctly, 'competence' is having the skills to do the job you are doing now.

'Capability' is having the skills to do whatever life or your job or career might throw at you.

It is about being flexible and adaptable and having the potential to grow.

Perhaps there isn't very much difference with what 'Capability' Brown meant when he used the
word, after all.

I was interested in the employment changes that prompted the development of the notion of

It's well understood that people nowadays tend to make more career changes, and make them
more often than a decade or two ago.

As Professor John Stevenson has pointed out, people entering the workforce today can expect to
change jobs every two years, and careers every 10 years.

Add to that the purging of whole layers of middle management from firms and the increase in the
number of part time or self-employed workers... and we have a labour system where people can
be less secure in their chosen careers and, at the same time, freer to explore other options.

We have a situation where we have 'downsizing'... 'upskilling'... and a whole host of other ugly

How do people cope with this? Is a general secondary education enough? Given the
near-universalisation of tertiary education... it is obvious that young people don't believe it is.

Although I concede that the government has done much to encourage more people into tertiary
education or training.

What sort of post-compulsory education do people need? And should we continue to make a
distinction between vocational training and education.

It's my view... and some of you might have heard me say this before...

that we need to break down the distinction between training and education.

It is an historical anachronism... based on British class-ridden society ... and serves no-one very

It has also caused many problems that society and government continue to struggle with.

In my portfolio area we have an issue that is an entrenched example of that ... namely the pay
differences between primary and secondary teachers.

This is obviously a result of the education system in a more sexist society ... in which men went to
university and became secondary teachers, while women went to training college and became
primary teachers.

Fortunately, we have a more enlightened attitude to education and government policy in recent
years has been to increase access as much as possible.

And I was interested to read that you believe that the concept of capability is equally applicable to
vocational and non-vocational learning.

It reminded me of something I was reading recently that suggested that formal learning was just the
tip of the iceberg of informal work-related learning.

It also suggested that general work-related informal learning was more common than unpaid
job-specific learning for many workers, especially service and industrial workers.

What does that tell us? It suggests that people want to learn... but that they often want more
general skills and knowledge, rather than the specific "this will help me in my job" skills.

Computer skills are an excellent example.

Employers sometimes complain that workers aren't keeping up with the new technology.

But if you speak to people who use computers, you will find that they are always pushing the
boundaries of the technology and often complain that the programmes they use can't do what they

At the same time, they will tell you that they know how to do all sorts of fancy things on their
computers... but they don't have any need to do them in their job.

One of the significant points about this... ignoring the learning potential that employers probably
aren't exploiting... is the individual nature of it.

This fits in with some of the buzz words in 'capability'... such as 'learner-focused' and

Alongside that, the concept of life-long learning and a seamless education system is now firmly
established in New Zealand.

Now, I know that the notion of 'capability' doesn't mean that people should do endless general
interest, work-related study simply because that will make them more adaptable and flexible.

My own experience has been one of regularly updating my knowledge.

As a former school principal, I am very aware of the need for professional development, especially
for people who will be leaders in their profession.

I took... both as a student and as a tutor... courses in educational administration.

While they were specific to education, I believe they stood me in good stead when I became an
MP and then a minister.

Given the rapidity with which I transformed from school principal to minister, I can assure you I
asked myself often at the time, "Do I have the capability for this position?" I guess... at best... that I
had potential capability.

I can assure you over the past year I have been on a huge learning curve and I look forward to the
day it starts to level off somewhat.

This raises an important issue for people wanting a post-compulsory education.

Namely, are they better off doing focused, vocational study, or more general study that
concentrates on generic skills.

If a young person wants to go to university... and wants a career in business... should they do a
business studies degree, or a liberal arts degree? We are in an era of great specialisation.

Many people lament that fact.

They say that... because people don't know what they don't know... they have no idea that their
specialised training or education means that they miss very important clues in the problem they are
trying to solve.

There is obviously a need to organisations to develop capability and to help their employees to
develop their own capability.

The principles that apply to individuals seem to apply equally to organisations.

But if we concentrate on organisations and people in work we are ignoring those people who are
unable to make it into work or tertiary education or training.

And there are obviously very high hurdles for many people to jump over.

Last week the government released the results of an OECD study into adult literacy in New

The results were nothing to boast about... although they were about the same as Australia, the
United States and the United Kingdom.

Only 20 percent of adults had a high level of literacy. although over half of adults operated at a
literacy level that allows them to fully meet the demands of everyday life.

Twenty percent of adults had considerable difficulty with printed material.

There are efforts taken by the government and community groups to address adult literacy.

This year there are at least 54 TOP courses that are specifically literacy and numeracy, English or
English as a Second Language.

A total of 371 courses offer a National Qualifications Framework unit standards in "Reading"... this
equates to 4,130 training places over the year.

Now, TOP gives opportunities to the most disadvantaged job seekers.

But there are plenty of people who currently have jobs who don't read well.

This is perhaps the most striking example of 'capability'... or the lack of it... that I can think of.

If people don't have a basic skill like reading, they are hardy adaptable and flexible and able to
engage in individualised learning to a high level.

The task for the education system is to give students the ability to develop their capability.

As a former teacher, I have this at the forefront of my mind when discussing new curriculum
statements with Ministry of Education officials, for instance.

As John Stevenson says... "using skills appropriately requires wisdom, knowledge, judgement and
a sense of values." People also need confidence in their abilities.

And they need to be like the four-year old who constantly asks 'Why?'...

who is programmed to learn and grow and wants to know everything... which will help them cope
with the future.

When we consider capabilities, there are obviously important issues relating to knowledge and

However, probably the most significant difference between the notions of competence and
capability is the inclusion of personal qualities in the concept of capability.

I believe our education system has undervalued social intelligence.

We have emphasised IQ to the detriment of EQ... the emotional quotient.

If our educational system is to operate at its maximum level, a better balance between IQ and EQ
is needed... a better balance between cognitive skills and social skills.

This is not to undervalue the need for emphasis upon cognitive skills, but I am saying there is a
need to consider capability in terms of the whole person.

This is a challenge... but not an insurmountable one.

With a combination of enthusiastic adult educators and schools doing the groundwork, the future is
more assured.

The very fact that a conference such as this is taking place tells me that educators are moving in the
right direction.

I wish you well in your conference and only wish I could stay to hear more of the presentations.

Thank you.