Seriously, I’m asking you.
People are always complaining about how bad New Zealand’s education system is, yet it’s ranked amongst the best in the world by the OECD. And I got through it okay.
I moved to New Zealand from the UK at the end of July, 2001. I was ten years old and had just finished Year Five. In New Zealand, the school year begins in February, not September, so I was short-changed on my summer holiday and thrown straight into the local primary school. The question was should I be put into a Year Five class or a Year Six class – do one-and-a-half years of Year Five or half a year of Year Six? The problem was solved by putting me in a combined Year Five and Six class with the intention of deciding where I belonged on the basis of how well I did.
As it turned out, I did very well. It seemed to me that New Zealand was about a year behind the UK in terms of the things I was learning. I felt like I didn’t learn anything new until Year Seven, which I entered the next year. In the UK, of course, Year Seven is usually the first year of secondary school, but it’s usual in New Zealand to have two years of ‘intermediate’ and enter secondary school in Year Nine. I hated intermediate, which, in my case, was merely an extension of primary school. I was bullied for being smart. (Tall poppy syndrome is a well-recognised epidemic in New Zealand. It’s not an entirely bad thing, as it curbs arrogance. New Zealanders tend to be very down-to-earth people.)
I was glad to finally get to secondary school. I lived in a small town, so the college I went to was the same one that both my parents taught at. According to them, New Zealand’s education system is neither better nor worse than the UK’s.
My dad says that teaching in New Zealand is less rigorous than in the UK; my mum says that New Zealand students tend to be more respectful towards their teachers than British students.
School in New Zealand is easier than school in the UK, but literacy and numeracy rates in the two countries are pretty similar. In fact, a greater percentage of New Zealand students enrol at university – although, admittedly, a greater percentage of those drop out after their first year. A big reason, I think, is they are simply not prepared for the amount of work they are required to do, or how hard they have to work.
When I arrived at the University of Auckland, one thing I kept hearing from lecturers and tutors was, “Forget what NCEA taught you.” NCEA does not prepare you for university standards.
NCEA is New Zealand’s National Certificate of Education Achievement. It’s the assessment system used by the majority of secondary schools. In Year Eleven, you work towards NCEA Level 1; Year Twelve, Level 2; Year Thirteen, Level 3. You have lots of different tests and assignments throughout the year, each one worth a certain number of credits, depending on how much work is involved. There are only four grades: Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit and Excellence, but you get the same number of credits regardless of whether you just pass or get full marks. There are exams at the end of each year, each made up of different sections that are worth different amounts of credits. Whether or not you get each successive NCEA level depends on how many credits you get all together.
The system is great for people who aren’t very good at exams. It means you aren’t doomed if you miss an exam, or if you uncharacteristically bomb. However, it doesn’t encourage students to push themselves. Of course, you’ll always get the swots like me, but for most people it’s a case of, “I’ve already got enough credits; I don’t need to bother learning that.” Many don’t bother turning up for exams because they’ve already passed. It really takes the edge of the stress.
Spelling, the correct use of English and general knowledge are not New Zealand’s strongest points. They’re not overly encouraged in school. Mediocrity reigns. Some complain that high-achieving students are disadvantaged by the system, as they’re left doing nothing, waiting for other students to catch up. I quite liked having nothing to do while others caught up, as it gave me time to read, write and revise other subjects.
NCEA is easy to pass; how hard you work is up to you.
New Zealand’s education system as a whole has its flaws, but so does the UK’s, and let’s not even mention the US. (Oops, I did.) Neither of my parents thinks that education in New Zealand is bad, and I suppose they’d be the ones to ask.
But I’m asking you too: What’s wrong with New Zealand’s education system? What’s right about it? Do think it deserves to be called world-leading? And does anyone out there actually like NCEA?