Lifting our game: Launch speech outlines recommendations
Dr Peter Coolbear spoke at the launch of Lifting Our Game: Achieving greater success for learners in foundational tertiary education – the report of the Priority Learners Educational Attainment Working Group.
The key points from his speech follow.
We are pleased to confirm that Minister Joyce endorsed this report in his speech to the NCLNA symposium last Thursday (June 28), with an expectation that agencies and providers read it. We are now pleased to release it.
There are 2 key messages from this report:
- Although this is a difficult and very diverse area of education, the variability of performance of providers is unacceptable. We need to ensure that the threshold of acceptability for delivery of these programmes in terms of qualifications achievement is much nearer the top public and private performers in the sector. If everyone could work like the best providers we would be more than half way there.
- However good our qualifications success rates are, providers and government agencies need to work together to understand outcomes of these programmes in a much more meaningful way than we do at present. Gaining a foundation level qualification is, in many ways, of little value in itself – it’s what future success it leads to (whether meaningful work or future study) that is important. And we simply don’t have the right data at present.
I think we can justly claim that this report represents a broad consensus view on how we can enhance the success of learners studying in post-compulsory education at Levels 1-3 on the National Qualifications Framework, not forgetting learners in degree preparation programmes some of which are at Level 4.
Who are these learners? Why are they a priority?
There are 160,000 plus learners studying at these levels each year. Around 25,000 will be on targetted training / work-placement programmes, with the vast majority of the rest studying for qualifications at Levels 1-3. More than a quarter of these students are Māori and 15% are of Pacific ethnicity.
Almost by definition these learners have either been academically unsuccessful at school or have made subject choices that do not now match their career aspirations. 57% of learners at this level had either no qualification or the equivalent of NCEA Level 1 only (with the corresponding figures for Māori and Pacific learners being 75% and 61% respectively).
These programmes provide, or should provide, opportunities for a second chance at education for many learners – although many would argue that the way the school system is currently set up they never really had a first chance.
This means that it is imperative that providers in this space provide education of the highest possible quality.
What are the issues?
Poor completion rates: by the beginning of 2011 less than 39% of learners who had begun studying at Levels 1-3 had completed a qualification. If this is a prerequisite for moving to the next stage of study or gaining meaningful work, this is not an impressive result.
Wide variation in success rates between similar providers: approximately 80% of learners at this level study in either the ITPs or the Wānanga, but the data show that there is enormous variation in qualification success rates. In public providers at levels 1-3 this was between 80% and less than 10%. There is no reason to believe that the variation in performance within the PTE sector is significantly better with respect to this parameter.
Most priority learners do not progress to enroll in further study: just over one third (35%) do. It is also of concern that we have little meaningful data on progression to success in that further study. What we do have suggests that successful progression may be frighteningly low.
Little if any social and economic benefit: we know that the value to the individual of holding qualifications at this level is minimal and often lower than that for holding only school-level qualifications.
All this adds up to the fact that these qualifications are not ends in themselves, they are just stepping stones – critical stepping stones – to higher levels of study or meaningful employment with career opportunities (usually again through further study).
So what do we need to do?
From a teaching and learning perspective, the working group have made detailed recommendations in four areas:
1. Better advice and support for learners
- effective communication from providers about the purpose of the programme and what to expect while studying it
- appropriate diagnostics and pre-assessment: e.g. literacy and numeracy needs; understanding and working off learners’ existing strengths.
- active support: these learners are at risk.
More often than not the 2 things that need to be reinforced for each learner are day-to-day motivation and confidence that they can achieve. For many, if not most, it’s about unlearning what they have learned when they have not been successful at school. There are many examples of successful programmes within the sector where support for learners comes to the learner: they are not left in a position where they have to seek it out for themselves.
2. Real, purposeful and personalised learning programmes
By purposeful, we mean that programmes have specific purposes. This is a key to learner motivation. It provides the answer to 'why should I keep on with this?' The programme design specification should be very clear about what happens after successful completion. If a programme is intended to provide skills that will lead to employment, what are the specific jobs a successful learner can do with these skills. If it is intended to staircase into higher education, what programmes will accept graduates from this programme?
Just as motivations need to be personal, so should the learning programme, building off strengths and identified learning needs. Such individualised programmes need to be dynamic and flexible as learners needs and capabilities change through the programme of study.
3. Improved data collection and use
- There are 3 dimensions here. Each is about collecting the right kind of data in a timely way to inform decisions and action:
- In-course monitoring of progress, detailed enough so that the earliest signs of difficulties can be addressed before they become a real problem.
- Tracking meaningful and important outcomes for each learner. Did they succeed in their next programme of study at a higher level; were they successful in gaining a job with prospects; how well are they meeting employers expectations; how well are they developing to achieve more skills?
- Presently targeted training programmes require reporting on two month outcomes only. In our view this is a ridiculously short timeframe and provides no certainty that meaningful outcomes have been achieved. We recognise that providers may need the support of agencies to do this by providing access to official datasets held by other agencies.
4. Genuine transparency and accountability within a ‘joined-up’ system
Finally, and related to the 3 other recommendations, there is a need for better connectedness across the whole system. We need better information to inform investment decisions in terms of both outcomes and quality of provision. This information will not always be fully available when the next round of funding decisions are to be made.
We need therefore need more sophisticated monitoring systems that can account for both programme specific outcomes and the value added for learners on a continuing basis.
In sum, the fundamentals are:
- Effective foundation and bridging programmes are critical to ensuring an inclusive, equitable society, particularly in addressing the needs of learners who have not been well served by the school system.
- Foundation and bridging programmes are not end points in themselves: they are critical first steps to outcomes – higher levels of education and/or meaningful employment – which will be of real benefit to individuals and to New Zealand as a whole.
- To be successful, they must be highly purposeful and designed to address the needs and strengths of individual learners.
- These design features need to be tested by much more sophisticated data collection and monitoring of outcomes in order to ensure best return for the individual and for the taxpayer.
The final point to make is that this is eminently doable. Apart perhaps from the last item on data collection and monitoring, the best providers (both public and private) are already meeting our recommendations and we include some examples of that good practice in our report. The challenge is to share that good practice and require it of all those working in this area and then test our assumptions about outcomes.