LAUNCH OF FRAMEWORK COALITIONEducation
Thank you for the invitation to be with you today. The talk these days is often of coalitions. Today we launch a different coalition - the Framework Coalition. You are here to support the Framework.
I speak to you of course as a caretaker Minister of Education. We have still to form a government in the wake of the general election. Everywhere I go, people ask me what is going to happen? I give the same answer to them all, copying Sergeant Schultz of Hogan's Heros: I know nothing. It is the only safe answer.
Perhaps by way of an aside, since people frequently ask me the question, I should point out that current interpretations of the caretaker government convention very tightly limit decision making. Fair enough under the old First Past the Post system when a caretaker government would not run more than a couple of weeks at most and the personnel who would make up the alternative government were obvious and therefore easy to consult.
Neither of those conditions now apply. We may be some time yet before a new government is formed. I hope not, but that could easily happen. The ongoing operation of normal government requires decisions to be made. I had to go through a convoluted process to provide the funding for tertiary institutions next year. The realistic limit on caretaker government decision making under MMP should be that it cannot launch new policy initiatives, but it should be able to properly ensure the ongoing operation of the status quo.
So to the Framework Coalition. You are here to support the Framework.
Right from the time I became the Minister of Education, it was clear that there were also many critics of the Framework - the debate has become very polarised. Critics of the Framework frequently felt their concerns were being brushed aside without consideration. For the future we need to engage in a high quality debate. I thought it would help if I put to you the many arguments I have heard as Minister both for and against the Framework so you can consider them here.
A signal feature of this debate has been the very strong views of people on both sides of the issue. The first manifestation I experienced was the reaction to the February Cabinet paper. This paper noted that the Framework should be broadened to include provider qualifications where they met the test of having clear outcomes, quality standards and could be given appropriate levels and credits on the Qualifications Framework. In this paper, Ministers were asked to note that it has always been the intention that the natural evolution of the Framework would mean that it would be broadened to include provider qualifications. To some in industry that came as a big surprise.
Whenever I get into a debate like this, I am always reminded of that old adage that said: When you are up to your neck in alligators, it is easy to forget that your original intention was to drain the swamp. We can become so consumed with the immediacy of the issues that surround us that we ignore the original vision for which we launched a public policy initiative. This is an easy trap to fall into. In many respects I think the qualifications debate now has fallen into this trap.
At the time the original decision to proceed with the Framework was being made, I was the Revenue and Customs Minister. I was not involved in social policy at all.
As I listened to this new qualifications idea being explained, a number of points seemed to me to give abundant justification for change.
Under the old qualifications system a large proportion of our young people had no hope of leaving school with any other qualification than having failed School Certificate - no qualification at all. We might have got away with this in the days when there were plenty of low skilled manual type jobs available for qualificationless people to fit into for their lifetime earnings. But this can hardly be appropriate for the Twenty First Century when skills will provide the basis of the standards of living our people enjoy in a way they did not in the past.
To me a qualifications system must endeavour to provide an opportunity for all to emerge from school with a qualification that will set them up so they have a good basis to earn a living and contribute to the New Zealand economy. We need a qualification system with a wide range of subjects and many levels of qualifications to offer a real opportunity for that group of people. Our qualification policy will not serve the New Zealand of the Twenty First Century if it fails to offer that opportunity. It would not be in the countrys longterm economic and social interests.
We also need a system that can be built on over a lifetime; where qualifications are portable between education providers - where what is learned in one place, say school, complements what is learned in another, say polytech.
Who sets the content of qualifications is an unspoken issue in this debate. Our industry training policy supports an industry led strategy. Many in industry feared that allowing provider qualifications would be a reversion to the system prior to the development of the industry led strategy. It is important in any further development of the policy that we keep industry involved so that the skills learned by the trainee/student are the skills industry needs.
All too often in public policy in New Zealand we go for "one size fits all" solutions. In the qualifications arena, this manifested itself with the idea that all qualifications, degrees included, could be broken down into unit standards. This is the genesis of the framework broadening debate.
The unit-standards-only approach was never going to work as far as the degree awarding institutions were concerned. Universities and degree awarding polytechnics were determined that they should determine the content of their degrees and the way that their students are assessed for being awarded those degrees. To them this is at the essence of their academic freedom.
Some advocates of the Framework went so far as to say that if tertiary institutions were not prepared to adopt the standard format they should remain outside of our qualifications system. To me it really does seem we would have an absurd situation if our degrees which are generally recognised throughout the world for their quality were not recognised here on our Qualification Framework.
Other critics of unit standards believe that the unit standards approach itself does not work for subjective disciplines. This group believes that unit standards are fine as far as vocational skills are concerned where it is quite clear that a certain standard can be set and measured. Where we are talking about a subject that essentially involves degrees of understanding the setting of an arbitrary standard at which you are qualified to know about the subject and below which you presumably know nothing of it defies reality in their view.
And setting unit standards for these subjective disciplines certainly has raised some difficult assessment issues. Take history for example. At what standard should we assess a person as knowing about, say, the French Revolution? Two people equally knowledgable on the subject of the French Revolution could have a different view about the interpretation of the events surrounding the French Revolution. The unit standards imply you know 100 percent about the subject. Is it really possible to know 100 percent about any subjective discipline?
Supporters of unit standards do not readily accept these arguments, but they are genuinely put and it would be a mistake not to address them seriously.
Perhaps the major criticism from the opponents of unit standards is their preference for norm reference over competency based reporting. To these people the world is a competitive place and young people might as well learn about that at school because they will have to face it sooner or later. Norm referencing has the added benefit not only of allowing for a competitive element to come in, but also accepts better the logically reasonable notion that people have different degrees of understanding of many subjects. It distinguishes good, better and best achievers.
There is a history to this. More hard line critics believe that the Qualifications Authority has been nothing but an elaborate plot to remove all examinations from schools, while some advocates of the qualifications system clearly believe there is no place for examinations in schools any more. Government policy in this area is settled. We have said for a long time we intend to retain School Certificate and the Bursary examinations within the schools.
The Government moved earlier this year to put in place a pause in the implementation of curriculum and qualification developments, so that the policy and the technical issues that were arising from its implementation could be properly considered and remedied.
As well as policy issues, there have been many practical issues raised about the proposed qualifications framework from people who are not at odds with the philosophy behind the unit standards approach. They look at the assessment and moderation proposals and see in them the development of a bureaucratic nightmare. They look at the workload implications and see a system that will bog people down in assessment and moderation that they will not have time to teach. To those who have successfully implemented the Framework these fears seem unfounded, but they are widespread and they are real and it would be short sighted not to address them.
Many people who support unit standards tell me that they believe it is a shame that they do not allow for awards for merit. I spoke to a computer teacher recently who told me that there were children in her class that she believes should have some recognition over and above just having received the unit standard for the way they approached their work, and the skills that they had built. The idea of merit awards are inconsistent with the current approach.
The question that arises now is where to from here? At the time we put in place the pause in the implementation of the new Framework and the curriculum developments, we said we would look again at technical and policy issues involved. That work has been going on for some time.
It has been my intention since the implementation pause was put in place that we release a discussion document towards the end of this year that outlines a vision for how the qualifications system might work in the future. That document would serve as a basis for a consultation process that will allow all to have input. Following those submissions we would settle on an agreed approach to the future that would hopefully resolve the differences and bring us all together behind one approach to qualifications.
It is important that we come together on this subject. I say this because one thing is clear to me. Much of the debate that is going on about the Framework is a debate between educationalists over the best way of assessing the skills and abilities of our young people. Debates of that nature will always be present in society. They are philosophically based and contrast different views of the world.
But at the end of the day the qualifications system that we decide upon is not there to serve the people who are active in the debate. It is there to serve the future generations of New Zealanders, and we owe it to all young New Zealanders to put in place a system of qualifications that is durable and creditable. What can be more undermining to the confidence of a young person than to be going for a qualification that might not be there in a few years time.
Qualifications must endure through many administrations. The debate needs to be depoliticised. All sides need to see within the qualifications system approaches that they can accept. Politicising this debate will risk undermining its credibility.
We must see that we all come together and resolve this debate in a way that works for a better future of the young people of New Zealand. As I sa y, at the end of the day they are the ones that finally really matter.
Thank you very much.