There are lessons to be learnt from this year’s flawed NCEA scholarship exam. We all learn from failure as well as success. I failed my first attempt to get driving licence. Doing U-turn on the Cashmere Hills, I got the front wheel jammed in the gutter. The traffic officer took over. He said, “You’d done everything right until that moment. Have few more lessons and come back.” I passed at the second go.
But although I had reached the necessary standard, I was by no means an effective driver. Years later on becoming secondary school inspector I took defensive driving course. Complimenting me on my driving skills the instructor said I was natural defensive driver. Even so my skill was far below that of Stirling Moss. In terms of driving he was scholarship material. I ranked well below him in mastery. The driving licence told an employer I could drive, but it did not say how well. That requires different assessment criteria. This is the crux of the issue. The juncture of scholarship and NCEA was always going to be challenge.
The ranking formula of School Certificate was outdated. Despite its apparent fairness it did not measure effort or actual skill attainment. The raw marks were scaled both within subjects and between subjects. Because of this I have long supported something like NCEA based on actual achievement. I was pleased when in the 1990s the National led coalition introduced the concept, and have supported it ever since.
But the arguments for and against have been lost in problems with the policy implementation. Any major change has teething problems. In the old system, every so often there was an outcry over particular question or exam. While serious in themselves, these were small blips considering the magnitude of the task.
Until this year, the implementation of NCEA seemed to be on course. The ship was being refitted while it sailed. But the revelation that this year’s scholarship exam had ‘major flaws’ put that refit in jeopardy. The size of the problem has led to hunt for scapegoats. My understanding is that previous NZQA management told successive governments that the changeover could be cost neutral, and could and should be done in three years. There were large reservations about both these statements among NZQA rank and file, but both governments made policy based on the advice they received.
It was not good advice. Such change is resource hungry. The process needs consultation and interaction. There also needed to be effective publicity on the reasons for and the nature of the change. All this requires time and cash, and teachers said so from the outset. They worked extremely hard to come to terms with the new processes and to do the best they could for their charges. They feel let down.
While the Tomorrow’s Schools administrative reforms were being developed, four independent educators were appointed to ensure that the changes were educationally sound and that no student was disadvantaged. The change to NCEA also needed outside monitors. Implementation should have been stepped, with gap before the next level was applied, so that one group of students did not carry all the burden of the change.
The Picot report, the basis of the administrative reforms, called for an overarching Education Policy Council. I believe such council, made up of the chief executives of the Ministry of Education, the Education Review Office and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority with three ministerial appointees would have been particularly useful in the NCEA change. However, the original recommendation was rejected. Contestable advice was not needed, it was claimed. Putting such council in place now could help prevent similar problems in the future.
The issue of advice to ministers is ongoing. Obviously, some streamlined chain of command is necessary. There have always been disgruntled officials concerned that their advice was not being relayed to the minister. But I seem to have heard more such talk since the 1980s’ public service reforms, some of it about major policy matters. The government eventually makes the final decision, but surely contestable advice will enable better informed decisions – as with the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq where governments in this case were told what officials believed they wanted to be told.
The critics of NCEA have now been handed sledgehammer to attack it with. Sadly, it will be harder to sell. When I was schoolboy, nearly all my elders seemed to regret the recent abolition of proficiency, whereby only those who reached certain standard could go on to secondary school. There was criticism then of the new-fangled School Certificate – not the sacred cow it subsequently became. It takes time for new processes to bed in.
I hope the inquiries put in place can deal with the NCEA issues and problems quickly and sensibly. Hounding NZQA will not help morale. An effective and efficient system of student assessment is the aim of all involved and/or interested in our education system. The means of achieving that goal still need considerable work and sensible advice from cool heads.

Harvey McQueen is Wellington-based education consultant and writer.

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