New Zealand model shows benefit of schools reform plan

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Politicians were agreed: the country's education system was failing too many of its youngsters. Thousands were leaving school every year with no qualifications, too few were staying in full-time educ-ation. At the other end of the scale, universities were finding it difficult to distinguish between the numbers of candidates with the highest marks.

Politicians were agreed: the country's education system was failing too many of its youngsters. Thousands were leaving school every year with no qualifications, too few were staying in full-time educ-ation. At the other end of the scale, universities were finding it difficult to distinguish between the numbers of candidates with the highest marks.

The concerns resulted in a massive reorganisation of the examinations system.

Familiar though it sounds, this is not Britain, but New Zealand - the only country pioneering the kind of diploma proposed by the former chief schools inspector, Mike Tomlinson, in his exam reform inquiry published in October.

It is very similar. It may have a different name - the New Zealand Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) - but the broad outlines are the same. It is overarching - bringing academic and vocational qualifications under one umbrella. There are four levels: level one, equivalent to GCSE: two, AS level; three, A-level; and four reserved for high flyers and taken as they finish secondary schooling. Three to four per cent of students are likely to sit level four - roughly the same percentage sought by Oxford or Cambridge for popular courses.

Already there are encouraging signs emerging from the level one exams, introduced three years ago. "The biggest problem was that more than 20 per cent of youngsters were leaving school with no qualifications whatsoever," said a New Zealand education policy adviser, Steve Benson.

"There were others leaving with low-level qualifications - about a third of youngsters were leaving school with little or nothing to show."

"We'd had a flat line in these figures for 10 years - nothing changed," said Mr Benson. "We're beginning to see the first flick-up - more youngsters staying to gain qualifications.

"Among Maori and Pacific students there was an even bigger flick - about a 5 per cent improvement."

The reasons are twofold: pupils bored with academic work felt motivated because they gained recognition for courses such as catering and hospitality. Also, the exams were no longer age-related - another feature of Tomlinson.

If a pupil is struggling to achieve a qualification at 16, he or she can spend extra time obtaining it.

Similarly, high-flyers can skip the level and go on to level two or even level three if they and their teachers are confident of success.

The drawback to the New Zealand system is that several of the country's top academic schools have boycotted it and taken up international A-levels instead. Cambridge International Examinations (an offshoot of the OCR exam board) has said that international A-levels would still be available to schools here if the Government opts for the diploma.

The schools boycotting the certificate allege "dumbing down" and feel their stance will give their students an academic advantage when it comes to applying to university.

The boycott is not universal, though. For instance, Auckland Grammar School - a top boys' school, is boycotting the certificate, while nearby St Cuthbert's, an independent school for girls, is backing it.

New Zealand believes its trump card is that the NCEA has been seized on by all the country's universities, which have based their admissions criteria on it.

Mr Benson rejects the idea that the new certificate is less academic in content.

In order to obtain level one, students have to obtain a basic standard of literacy and numeracy - echoing Tomlinson, who has insisted that no one will be awarded a diploma without passing tests in the two subjects plus communications. In another mirror image of the proposed British diploma, every student will have an electronic transcript of what they have achieved.

It will be more detailed than under the present British system or the old New Zealand system.

For instance, any employer or university will know whether an applicant has achieved a pass, merit or excellence - the three levels of the diploma - in each aspect of a subject. Previously, they would just have been given a mark or - in the UK system - a grade.

Mr Benson has been visiting Britain to see what he can learn from Tomlinson's plans. He thinks the insistence on a 4,000-wordproject for the advanced diploma, aimed at developing thinking skills, is worth poaching.

The signs are that, if is adopted in Britain, the diploma will help address the problem of teenagers dropping out of education early. In a league table of 30 Western countries showing the proportion of of pupils staying in full-time education beyond the age of 17, Britain is 27th out of 30.

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