Monday, 11 May 2015

NZ Herald Reports on Scholarship Fee Changes

More than a year ago that bastion of good journalism, TVNZ's website, reported on the scholarship fee changes that will affect Schol candidates this year. Just under a month later, I provided some commentary on that article. Today, much of the way through the school year, the NZ Herald has opted to get in on the game and has also covered this breaking story. 
NZQA divisional manager Kristine Kilkelly told the Herald that the fees change would enable the authority to better plan the necessary number of exam booklets, markers, and exam supervisors.
As if this was some good work by the Herald. You could have found this out, for instance, by reading TVNZ's article.
Many students signed up for scholarship early in the year, then realised how difficult the curriculum was and decided not to sit the end-of-year exams, he said.
"We still have to print the papers, contract a supervisor and a marker and then, when students don't turn up, it becomes very costly."
Naturally, the Herald, if the people it talked to suggested any alternatives, did not mention them. I stand by my remarks in that post:
User Pays systems are something that we expect and have come to terms with in New Zealand, but there are cases where it's inappropriate to impose what basically amounts to a socio-economic punishment: Scholarship (Schol to students) is one of those. What should happen, instead, is that a cost-plus system is used for no-shows. Costs of printing, shipping and compensation plus, say, a 10% penalty.
Adopt a penalty system NZQA. Do not disadvantage those from low socio-economic backgrounds any more than they already are. 
Now, the article's not all old news. Chris Hipkins (the Labour spokesman that they interviewed) did mention some stuff about problems with the systems in place to deal with inequity that were important to the broader point that I made (and he also made) that I did not know about. But, I feel, as if this is tempered by the face-value reporting of the principal of Edgewater College:
Secondary Principals' Association chairman Allan Vester, principal at Pakuranga's Edgewater College, said he did not think $30 was a major barrier, and was confident top students would be supported by their school if necessary.
Okay, yeah, $30 isn't too bad but, as I said before, it's generally going to be more like $60 or $90 as pupils seek to test their mettle in all their good subjects. The really top ones will probably try basically everything and will feel as if their investment is less risky. That's the bit that the NZ Herald should have been a bit more critical with.

The school assistance is, in my opinion, a mixed bag. Why? Well, it really depends on the school itself and how much it's got floating around for such purposes. Furthermore, in my experience, school administration is pretty crap. As an anecdote, a friend of mine fell in a dead-zone... too many credits for one stream of English and too few for another... but really wanted to do that subject, was happy in the lower stream for a while and then the school decided that, no, he could not do either. The experience was, in my eyes, created firstly by the stupidity of the dead zone's existence, secondly by unfeeling administration that preferred that he drop out (which he did because of this; and there weren't any behavioural issues either) and thirdly by a failure to account for the popularity of English (he was not the only person in this situation; another friend of mine basically wagged until they put him back in it). I believe the dead zone is now gone, but the point remains. And, also, what if it wasn't a top student but one who wanted to grow as a person?
"NZQA are correct - lots of student enter and then some/many don't turn up. There might well be a temptation to enter just in case you decide to give it a go and certainly Mum and Dad might be pleased with you for entering."
There you go, he acknowledges that it is not just top students who are affected. The reason for the non-attendees is probably related to the Standard Not Attempted concept. A lot of pupils get it into their heads that it is better to not try at all and get recorded as an SNA than risk failure and get a Not Achieved recorded on their record. I don't have that mentality and, in fact, have absolutely no sympathy for those who do/did, so I cannot really shed any light on why this happens. Indeed, I actively attempted to maximise the number of things I sat and failed one thing as a result (due, in my eyes, entirely due to its being an unfinished essay rather than any academic inadequacy on my part). But, while this is a blog, enough about me... back to the point. The SNA is, in my view, one of the big remaining issues with NCEA, along with the deeply related withdrawn from standard/optional standard issue. Most of NZ's college pupils are used to NCEA and are exposed to these ideas (which are, shall we say, not uncommon among pupils or staff), so I believe that it is reasonable to extend the thinking to the optional Schol exams (which are sat during the normal exam period as well, so studying for Schol comes at the cost of studying for other exams in many instances*).

But, I don't have entirely negative comments to make. Mr Vester's interview yields the remarks that allow the NZ Herald article to end on a meaningful note:
"Staffing and time tabling is much easier in large higher-decile schools, as is staffing the extra scholarship sessions that help the candidates. That might well be a factor in the concentration of scholarships in a small number of schools," Mr Vester said.
 "Schools might well argue that their success is attributable to the great programmes they run, but I don't think there is any question that economies of scale can assist.

"In schools with smaller numbers...staffing and timetable constraints make that much harder. Students may still get scholarship, but that would have to be an add-on to an existing timetable and involve teachers running most of the support in addition to the normal class."
I have spoken about these ideas as well:
In my experience at a mid decile state school (as opposed to a high decile or private school where a factory like approach to Scholarship is taken -- this is partly why so many of the top awards come out of the same schools year in, year out), those who do Scholarship are those who put their hands up to do it.
What Mr Vester described is exactly what happened. As far as I recall, the people who wanted to try Scholarship English worked in a group during lunch/after school but certainly in their own time. That was probably the most structured approach my school (with around 1800 pupils, so not, in my eyes, small) took with my cohort. Calculus, as far as I recall, had at least one meeting during lunch. With Economics we had a couple of meetings and Classics we had a couple more. The Classics ones were, in some sense, probably the most helpful. History was half-arsed. I basically asked my teacher what it was like, got an answer and then was left to my own devices (as, indeed, I felt was the case with one of the normal external standards so take what you will from that).

Now, I would say that those schools are right to discuss programme quality. Scholarship is, in my eyes, not something that can be learnt by rote (hell, classics takes flair into account when it's being marked) so I think that there absolutely must be quality in the programmes. However, Vester is also correct. The mere existence of structured programmes, especially if represented (as he seems to suggest) through different streams of classes, is a big boost that a lot of schools, the one's most likely to cater to pupils affected significantly by the schol fees. can't provide. So, my factory doesn't refer, so much, to rows and rows of pupils studiously taking in notes and outputting exams but instead to the existence of formal, structured programmes (like the difference between a production line in a tin-shed versus a modern industrial factory). I would also agree with Vester that this is a larger problem with the Schol system. Schools outside the current core of frequent Schol success ones should be able to get more support for dealing with scholarship. This would require money from somewhere, so would probably require a change in government priorities to happen.

I think we can also discuss the scholarship class programmes in terms of a different manifestation of inequality. That is, the lecacy of inequality whereby those from poorer backgrounds tend to not be as academically able on entering college, thus secondary schools face this:
[Lower and mid-decile schools] [...] have to be far more focussed on passing. That's as opposed to building on success. Two big reasons are internal and external pressures to get good pass percentages. One of the flaws with school choice is that parents won't send children to schools when they think their children won't get a decent chance to succeed. New Zealand's approach school choice has been a half in, half out thing. Many lower decile schools don't have zones or have very large ones because they have very few pupils. This is largely because parents have some ability to get their children into other schools (whether through private options, out of zone applications, lying about where they live or moving house). As a consequence of this, and tables published by the likes of Metro, there is a fair amount of pressure on schools to get good results in things like NCEA that is external. Naturally, within a school you're going to be generating pressure to help pupils pass (without resorting to unethical actions) anyway. This is particularly true if many of the pupils are marginal or behind... as is quite likely when you're in a school system as inequitable as New Zealand's. This adds up to environment where the majority of resources are focussed at trying to bring people up to where they should be, rather than trying to bring them up to where the pupils (hopefully) would like to be.
So there's that as well. But, basically, the scholarship fee issue can be summarised like so:

  • By introducing a fee, the inequities in NZ's education system are increased.
  • However, there is a problem with people putting their names down and then not turning up.
  • This is likely caused by the same mindset as that which creates a preference for SNAs over trying (can we relate this to an increasing interest in introducing mercy rules in youth sport?).
  • Therefore, a fee doesn't address the root problems (Infosys 110's problem trees are lacking in NZQA, methinks) and creates inequity.
  • This is in contrast to some sort of penalty system that would only punish those who don't show up and, thus, also introduces some financial pressure to show up.
  • This has the same flaw of not addressing the causes but minimises the impact of the other flaw. This is, logically, better (and there are many ways to implement a penalty system)
  • However, scholarship fees are not the only issue around inequality in the scholarship exam system.

I would not be surprised if the Herald writes/publishes some sort of opinion piece in this week on this issue. Although, I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't either. What I do know is that I take issue with the way that this article seems to present itself as new news. And I do know that I have, in this blog post, created something that takes a broader view of the issue. Is that not better?

*One of the reasons why I didn't try Calculus Schol, when I was choosing which three to attempt, was that it fell on the same day as one of my other more sizeable exams. Economics was on a day when I had another exam but it had only two standards in it. Also, calculus looked hard but I believe I would have tried it were it on a day when I had no other exams. 

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