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Educating New Zealand’s future workforce

22 January 2020
Judy Kavanagh

Do you remember your first day at school? The education I received was for a very different world than the world of today. Along with huge social shifts there have been big changes in the New Zealand economy and the work people do. There are occupations unheard of in the 1970s, while other occupations have all but disappeared.

On the first day back in 2020, a host of eager five-year-olds will form part of the 60 000 strong cohort of Year 1 students starting their learning journey at New Zealand schools. These young people will not finish their secondary schooling until at least 2030, and not retire – if there is still such a thing! – until approximately 2080.

It’s inevitable that a lot of change will happen between now and 2080, both in terms of models of education as well as in the world of work. But a core role of any education system should be to prepare young people for the work of the future – as uncertain as that may be.

How well the education system does this task is the topic of the Commission’s latest draft report, out today. So, what did it find?

First, the report highlights the desirable characteristics of an education system for the future of work. Instead of attempting to predict the future, one of the goals of the education system should be to prepare people to be adaptable and manage change as it happens.

A good education system empowers people to learn new skills, and enables them to make well-informed choices and avoid closing off viable options inadvertently, unnecessarily or too early. An education system that does this provides a strong foundation of core skills, a well-implemented and coherent curriculum, well-guided and clear learning and career pathways, with the ability to keep options open and change course.

Taking a “future of work” perspective, the report notes several areas of concern.

The system is not performing well in developing core skills for some learners or in addressing the persistent long tail of underachievement between the highest and lowest performing students.

There has been a system-level failure to properly implement the national curriculum in all schools. Phased implementation of the New Zealand Curriculum’s key competencies is far behind intended timeframes. I’ve included here, a diagram showing how far behind we are.

Fig 1: Where schools with Years 1-8 students are in the teaching of key competencies in 2018

teaching of key competenciesSource: ERO (2019); McDowall & Hipkins (2018).

Research undertaken for the inquiry shows how alternative pathways into work can be obscured by the more “well-lit” pathway towards university. In schools, timetabling constraints and regulatory requirements (especially those related to University Entrance) mean that vocational pathways receive less attention, respect and resources. More on that in my next post.

The Commission identifies opportunities for reform (given that we appear to be in a period of reform to the New Zealand education system – there’s the reform of vocational education, and the review of Tomorrow’s Schools):

  • Improving the promotion of innovation and good practice. Changes as part of current reforms offer opportunities for greater identification and diffusion of innovation and good practice throughout the education system.
  • Supporting better curriculum implementation. More and better-quality professional learning and development for teachers and school leaders relating to curriculum development is needed.
  • Removing constraints on learning pathways. The regulatory requirements of University Entrance constrain the ability of schools to offer relevant alternative learning pathways into work, so its rationale should be reconsidered. Current gaps in careers information, advice and guidance are a big gap for the TEC’s leadership of this area to fill, but will require ongoing and focused effort, leadership and coordination to succeed.
  • Improving learners’ ability to switch in tertiary education. The vocational education reforms could offer more flexibility and mobility for learners in polytechnics and industry training. But barriers to credit transfer and switching remain between sectors and between individual institutions
  • Addressing digital inclusion for young people. Many New Zealand children do not have home internet access. The report discusses the differences between the two main options to address digital inclusion for young people.

As well as empowering and enabling young people to adapt for the future, a good education system is one that is itself adaptable. An education system that is able to learn and adapt to changing circumstances is likely to be better at supporting successful approaches and initiatives and dropping those that are less successful.

That doesn’t sound like the New Zealand education system to me. The system doesn’t seem to have the mechanisms for continuous adaptive change without major disruption. Disruption is usually the result of big policy shifts.

The Commission’s report is open for public submissions, and will also be followed by one further draft report – Technology adoption by firms.

Yes, that’s a photo of me on my first day of school on the first day of the school year 1963. I used the photo a few years ago in a presentation at the Ministry of Education. The presentation was about what a “world class school system” meant to me. My answer was “a world class school system is the kind of system that would expand the possibilities available to a small girl with a red ribbon in her hair”. I am happy to say that accords pretty well with the Commission’s aspirations for an education system that prepares young people for the future of work.

ERO 2019, Developing key competencies in students Years 1 to 8, Education Review Office, Wellington, New Zealand.
McDowall, S & Hipkins, R 2018, How the key competencies evolved over time: Insights from the research, New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Wellington, New Zealand.

About the technological change and future of work inquiry.

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