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I dropped maths at school – what happened?

23 January 2020
Dr Amelia Sharman

In my final year of school, I completely dropped maths and science – resulting in a conference with the dean about the potential effects on my future education and career options. I however was resolute, feeling with the confidence of youth that my future lay squarely in the humanities (having given up one-time plans of pursuing volcanology when I realised just how much chemistry (my second least-favourite subject next to physics) was involved…).

In one sense this was a huge risk – what if I had got to tertiary education and wanted to change course into something that did require a more numbers-oriented background? But luckily, I was well-supported by my school and parents to understand exactly what the entry requirements were for my course of choice, as well as what I might need to do if I decided to pivot direction.

However, many young people are not so fortunate. Either their intended career path isn’t well-understood or it isn’t supported by the subjects offered at their school, or even worse, there is no communication of what the relationship might be between their choices at school and how these might map onto future education or work prospects.

In our latest report we highlight the important role of the education system in providing clear learning and career pathways that enable people to make well-informed choices, and to avoid closing off viable options inadvertently, unnecessarily or too early.

To help us assess how well the New Zealand education system performs at this role, the Commission contracted the New Zealand Council for Educational Research to look at the ways in which secondary school subject-choice systems, and students’ subject choices, are positioned to respond to future of work trends.

Research literature

The research was divided into two parts. First, Rosemary Hipkins and Karen Vaughan shared insights from the research literature (both international and local). In its very useful summary chapter, the report provides six “short answers to big questions”. These comprise (in condensed form):

  • Do institutional biases funnel students towards certain pathways? Yes – especially the general bias towards university study known as the “well-lit” pathway. Timetabling can exacerbate this problem and less-esteemed vocational pathways are insufficiently highlighted.
  • How do policy and regulatory settings limit flexibility? While NCEA is very flexible in theory, when combined with bad advice it can result in poor choices of subject combinations (which can limit future options). Regulations for University Entrance can also close down the university pathway for students unaware of the consequences of choosing eclectic subject combinations.
  • Is keeping options open until the end of secondary school a good strategy? Yes and no. On one hand, there’s good evidence that STEM subjects do keep pathways to university study open. But on the other hand, as noted above, students may think they’re keeping their options open by choosing an eclectic mix of subjects but this can actually narrow pathways. Focusing on key competencies in the New Zealand Curriculum should help to keep options open, but these are “developed patchily in some subjects and schools, and are essentially ignored in others” (p. 27).
  • Does the system architecture in schools unnecessarily limit future choices? It can – timetables are often constructed to privilege the well-lit pathway to university.
  • Does staying in school longer help or hinder? It depends on what the young people are hoping to achieve – Hipkins and Vaughan note that it’s “not the staying that counts, but rather the alignment with aspirations” (p. 28).
  • How much variability is there between schools, and what drives variability? Keeping pathways open can be harder for low-decile schools, and presumptions about the abilities of “academic” or “vocational” students can be deeply embedded and hard to challenge.

Focus groups

In the second phase of the research, Jan Eyre and Rosemary Hipkins carried out two focus groups, one in the North Island and one in the South Island, with 12 different schools. Curriculum leaders such as deputy principals attended, with the aim of the focus groups to contextualise the earlier findings from the research literature.

The insights from focus groups report contains some excellent quotes that do exactly as intended and “make real” the nature of current challenges. For example, talking about the difficulty of creating a timetable that meets the needs of as many students as possible, one school noted:

“The flip side of it is if you want to have a very broad curriculum, you have to try to be creative with your timetabling, because bums on seats are the other thing. You know, you haven’t got an unlimited amount of cash to ensure that every subject runs, and things like that. So it’s a real balancing act. (school 4)” (p.17)

And another school highlighted the potential consequences of the proposed changes to NCEA (in this case, the need to have some externally assessed standards) to students’ ability to change course:

“I’m thinking about one student in particular who’s decided, ‘No, I’m going to try and get into university’ part-way through the year. We look at his courses going, ‘Okay—so we need to re-hash your timetable.’ We’re fortunate that we have got a few courses at Year 13 where they can get University Entrance internally. My concern is with the changes with NCEA coming out, what will that look like? You know they hamstring us into these four standards, and two of them have to be external … At the moment, this young man’s in media, and a PE course, and a social science course. And actually, he’s working his butt off, which is nice to see, and he’s on track to pull UE off because we can offer those internal-based courses. But if he was going to courses which had external-based stuff, and we’d already taught it, how’s he going to catch up on that? At the moment there’s an element of flexibility; we can accommodate those changes. (school 12)” (p.11)

The focus group report concludes with three key messages:

  • Schools need guidance on how to introduce more flexible pathways
  • Central education agencies need to work together to reinforce key messages about pathways
  • There is a need for more parent/whānau education about pathways and the future of work

Both documents are valuable additions to the ways in which we understand the pathways of young people. Have a read of the NZCER reports and also don’t forget to have your say about our inquiry’s draft reports – submissions are open until 17 February 2020.

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