UE key to educational equity

Some of the processes in New Zealand's secondary schools are not speaking to the post-secondary aspirations of Māori and Pacific students, writes the University of Auckland's Melinda Webber

Disturbing numbers of Māori and Pacific students leave school without University Entrance, the highest award you can get at secondary school, even those who complete school through to Year 13. In 2016, only 31 percent of Year 13 Māori and Pacific students were awarded UE compared with 58 percent of Pākehā and 67 percent of Asian students. These students have every right to choose, follow and successfully attain the same educational pathways as their peers. So what can be done to ensure they have every opportunity to achieve UE and, if they wish, choose a university education?

After many years working with numerous low decile schools as an education researcher, I have noticed a distinct lack of emphasis on UE as the end-goal for secondary school students. Instead, NCEA Level 3 is promoted as the pinnacle of success, even though it isn’t. To meet minimum entry requirements for a New Zealand university, students must achieve NCEA Level 3 and achieve University Entrance in their final year. UE includes 14 credits in three subjects on the approved subject list, and the literacy and numeracy requirements. In essence, a student can complete secondary school with excellent NCEA Level 3 results, but still not attend university if they did not take the right subjects.

It seems some of the processes in our secondary schools are not speaking to the aspirations and post-secondary school goals of Māori and Pacific students. The vast majority of Māori and Pacific parents aspire for their children to succeed in education and have the opportunity to go to university. We should be encouraging these students to complete UE even if they don’t intend to go directly to university because it demonstrates they are hard-working and it keeps their options open for later on in life. Yet our education system is not prioritising UE and readying this group for tertiary study. Visit the NZQA website and information about UE is largely invisible, taking a number of ‘clicks’ to find, yet NCEA is front and centre.

Increasing the numbers of Māori and Pacific university graduates is critical for New Zealand’s future, with various studies showing that a tertiary qualification brings private benefits (for example, employment and work satisfaction) and societal benefits (reduced poverty and increased rates of community service).

At the University of Auckland, the Starpath Project is investigating the enduring question: What will enable significantly more Māori and Pasifika students in low decile schools to achieve University Entrance that allows progression to degree-level study? Through our work in lower decile schools we have found a high proportion of students who did not achieve UE either did not attain UE literacy, did not achieve 14 credits in three UE approved courses, or were not even enrolled in a programme of learning that allowed them to attempt 14 credits in three UE-approved courses.

We strongly believe many more students would achieve UE if early identification, careful tracking and monitoring of course offerings and credits attained, and increased opportunities to resubmit or re-assess standards became a priority in all schools. The Starpath data tells us that students who achieve NCEA Level 2 with Merit or Excellence have a 65 to 100 percent chance of achieving UE, whereas students who have NCEA Level 2 with Achieved have only a 7 to 8 percent chance. With careful tracking and targeted support, students who attained an Achieved at NCEA Level Two are those most likely to make a difference to a school’s UE attainment rates.

In fact, achievement gains can be accelerated even more if we start monitoring when students are younger. Starpath has long argued that the ‘forgotten years’ of 9 and 10, the first two years of high school, are a critical time for tracking towards UE. Schools already have useful data by the end of Year 9 to identify students with promise, and should begin tracking and supporting their progress right through to UE. In addition, we cannot underestimate the importance of regular academic counselling, involving whānau, and tracking student progress in the key core subjects such as English, maths and science.

Within the recent past, significant changes have been made to the New Zealand education system in an attempt to counter disparities evident in student achievement outcomes.

Although some might argue these changes have broadened and improved students’ opportunities to attain qualifications at the secondary level, there is still much work to be done to address enduring disparities that lead to inequitable achievement outcomes for our Māori and Pacific student populations.

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