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BusinessOctober 24, 2017

NZ education’s top of the class? Don’t believe the hype

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Getty Images

New Zealand recently topped an international study for ‘educating for the future’. But education futurist Frances Valintine says that, far from punching above our weight, our system is preparing students for a world that no longer exists.

This week I found my 17-year-old son busy sanding (yes, with sandpaper) his name off his calculator, as he had been informed that his engraved name contravened the rules of ‘no notes’ in his upcoming exam.

Come again? It’s the sort of rule that exemplifies a New Zealand education system that claims to be fit for purpose yet has long since passed its use by date.

The education world I work in has young students overflowing with enthusiasm and excitement as they discover, discuss and create solutions using the technological tools of their time. Research is active, involving testing and trials, searching and validation. Creation involves 3D modelling, web development and the creation of videos and games. Maths is a living concept that provides solutions to engineering problems and helps guide robots around spaces and places. Skills are learned, shared and developed, not measured, compared and judged.

I have seen too much. I have run out of patience. Not for these incredible young minds, but for the analogue, rigid system that continues to prepare them for a world that no longer exists. I do not say this to be alarmist – I say it because in the past four years my organisation has taught over 100,000 students and I can tell you we aren’t fooling them. These students are highly connected, informed, inquisitive and part of the single largest demographic grouping of humans the world has ever seen. These young people watch world events play out in real time and they are all privy to the massive technological, social, demographic and environmental changes that unfold every day of their lives.


So who are we fooling? Ourselves? Are we really that committed to the status quo that we are happy to pretend that the world isn’t a very different place than it was when we grew up? So with this opinion as a backdrop, I was dismayed recently when I woke to an article that claimed ‘New Zealand has the most future-focused education system in the world’.

Compared to what? Are we happy to play the game of comparing our country to every other nation which also offers an analogue, industrial education system that ignores the increasing number of students who leave school demoralised, unconfident and ill-prepared for the new world of work? Are we so obsessed with measurement and comparisons that we will seek justification of our dated practices and failing education models just to deflect the hard conversations that we should have had years ago?

I stopped believing our national hype many years ago. We don’t punch above our weight, and number 8 wire isn’t going to get us out of this one.

This year the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report stated for the world to see that the third biggest issue for New Zealand is our ‘inadequately educated workforce’ followed by our ‘insufficient ability to innovate”. No filing of my son’s name from his calculator is going to solve this problem.

Across New Zealand, there are businesses looking around the world for talent to fill skilled jobs New Zealanders are unable to tackle, while at the same time we have over 90,000 young people defined as ‘NEETs’, who are not in education, employment or training. These are just some of the young people that our existing education system has failed.

Imagine if these NEETs were lucky enough to be educated in a country that truly was the most future-focused education system in the world? Imagine if students left high school as confident as when they started? Or if they felt like they could take on the world by showing what they could do, or were able to share their knowledge by articulating what they thought? Instead, we continue to defend the process of measuring all students on how much they can retain in a three-hour hand-written exam.


Why as parents, educators, and employers are we not banging on the doors of government demanding rapid change to the broken assessment system? Why do we clap our hands in delight with headlines claiming our place in the education hall of fame, when we are failing so many?

A couple of weeks ago I championed a nationwide initiative kicked off by KPMG and ASB that wants companies to remove the requirement for applicants to have a qualification in order to apply for job vacancies. In two weeks we had more than 200 sign ups-from businesses who value skills and great attitude over qualifications. With around 40% of technology and digital roles left unfilled in this country, you can see why employers are starting to feel the impact of long-term education neglect.

I want us all to be restless about what we know to be true. Let us be champions of a new path for our children and our grandchildren rather than accept ‘what is’, on the basis that it has always been done this way.

The headline may claim that ‘New Zealand is the most future-focused education system in the world’, but I know this is not true. I didn’t need to read the small print to know that this study didn’t measure student preparedness, confidence or skill levels. Turns out this study evaluated “inputs to our education system”.

There is it. A system, that on paper, looks all shiny and fit for purpose. What a shame we have to go and make it all complicated by putting students into this same system?

Frances Valintine is an education futurist and founder of The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab.

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