Mother helping son code a hobby electronic project.

High School 2.0: It’s time for education to prepare for the new normal

As New Zealand looks toward an uncertain future in all areas of life, Auckland school principal Claire Amos sees an opportunity to change high school education for the better. 

The last week has been an interesting one for school leaders. Monday arrived, it was all on – schools were closing the next day, schools across the country were to go “full remote mode” by Thursday. How did our schools fare? It is safe to say that they landed on a continuum ranging from “we got this” to “bugger, we better start planning”. For the most part, schools and educators have rallied together and have managed to patch together an OK plan for the time being. 

And therein lies the problem:

a) It was, for many, patched together and
b) nearly universally, it is a plan that will suffice for the time being. 

As the days pass it feels like our understanding of what we are dealing with and going to be dealing with is becoming clear. This won’t be a four-week pause before we return to business as usual. Depending on the modelling you look at and how well we all abide by the lockdown rules, we could be looking at further weeks of lockdown and will most likely face a future of further regional lockdowns as the Covid-19 waves roll through.

On one level this is kind of terrifying, on another it gives us once-in-a-lifetime chance to prepare for a “new normal” in all areas of life. As a secondary school leader, I am interested in how we might reimagine secondary schooling, so as to ensure it has a hope of rolling with the punches and coming out of this fight fit for purpose.

Addressing our IP infrastructure and the digital divide

Before planning goes any further we need to address the foundations on which much of these changes rely on. We need to address the shortcomings of our national infrastructure for internet provision (IP) and address the digital divide. In 2014, I was part of the 21st Century Learning reference group convened by then associate minister of education Nikki Kaye. I look back at recommendations made in the paper we published and can’t help thinking that, had they been implemented, we would have been better prepared for what happened last week.

Delivering remote learning relies on two things – affordable reliable internet for every household, and every learner having access to an appropriate device for learning. There is more you could do, but without those two things you are pushing the proverbial up hill. If I was in charge, my first priority would be laying some seriously good foundations and laying them yesterday. 

Empty classrooms could be the new normal (Getty Images)

Reimagining what school looks like in an age of uncertainty

The second thing we need to collectively address is our reliance on both timetables and our physical school institutions. I personally believe school-wide one size fits all timetables are not designed for remote or flexible learning. I have noticed many schools have clung to these in the remote environment. How does that acknowledge the complexities of life in lockdown? Teachers also have their personal wellbeing and whanau to care for, and students have the same. 

Life in lockdown shouldn’t have a predetermined timetable, and neither should learning. Replicating a timetable in a remote context is not kind, and haven’t we all been asked to be kind?

Secondly, timetables aren’t actually serving the purpose they do in schools (managing resources, teachers and teaching spaces). And what an opportunity to develop trust in our teachers and agency in our learners! I believe one way of changing this exists already in the model that some Canadian schools used for nearly 50 years as part of the Self-Directed Schools movement. The following is from the Calgary Catholic School System website: 

“What sets Bishop Carroll apart from other high schools is its unique self-directed learning environment, which puts students in the driver’s seat of their educational journey. Here, students have the freedom to customise a learning program that they feel is best suited for their unique goals, abilities and interests.

“With the guidance of a teacher-advisor and their parents, the student will choose the program and courses they want to follow. Students can then progress through these courses at a personalised rate reflecting their individual needs and learning pace.”

I visited Bishop Carroll in 2013 and was blown away. This is not a newfangled experiment where learners are guinea pigs, this is a well-researched, well-structured and well-resourced system where students have exercised learner agency for the last 49 years. Basically, it means the students do not have a timetable (although they do have a number of scheduled masterclasses and workshops) but the teachers do. The teachers’ timetable represents when the teachers are “on the floor” and able to help students when and if they need it.

This structure was combined with a strong support system that meant all students had a sit-down fortnightly one-to-one with their teacher, who monitored and reported on progress and provided more structure if needed. You can imagine how much easier it would be for those learners to switch into “remote mode” when and if they need to. If we face a future of moving in and out of remote mode, we can still value the physical space – when and if we can – and provide strong pastoral care for learners. 

Getty Images

NCEA and reimagining definitions of success 

It’s important to address the other elephant in the room: NCEA. While it’s possible for the next few weeks to relax and let students simply learn, we will, as the year progresses, need to address what the heck we do with NCEA within our new normal. I would happily bin it, but though I may be a dreamer I am also a realist who understands that simply won’t fly. 

Firstly we need to ask ourselves: Why is NCEA actually important? What’s the purpose? The NZQA website is says the following:

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is the main national qualification for secondary school students in New Zealand. NCEA is recognised by employers, and used for selection by universities and polytechnics, both in New Zealand and overseas.   

NCEA is basically a “sorting hat” for tertiary providers and some employers, and it’s a national qualification that produces a record of learning and, for many, a badge of honour. If we are imagining a “new normal” for teaching and learning, surely it’s time to imagine a new normal for how we measure success.  

What could we do? We need to remove the complexity of NCEA and recognise that if we are moving in and out of remote mode (and “examination centres”) then doing a lot less (but doing it better) would be wise. 

My suggestions:

  • Get rid of Level One NCEA altogether (let’s just focus on learning).
  • Make Level Two NCEA the base level national qualification for University Entrance and tertiary providers. Who knows if this will remain relevant considering how tertiary providers will need to adapt. 
  • Replace Level Three NCEA with a focus on students developing their PoPE (their personally curated Portfolio of Personal Excellence). Year 13 could also become the second year of Level Two NCEA (if needed) or simply a time to focus on personal excellence and personal pathways.

In terms of our current Covid-19 context, these suggestions would mean no group of students would be needing to stress about gaining their definitive NCEA certificate this year. Current Year 11s could exhale, Year 12s could know that there is no rush, and Year 13s could refocus on their personal interests and pathways capturing evidence of all their learning happening in the bubble they find themselves in. 

Now is the time to plan at a system-wide level. We can do all of this with the workforce and the resources we have now, as long as we sort the technology provision. It will require strong national educational leadership and nationwide collaboration. We need a schooling system that is genuinely agile and capable of moving in and out of physical spaces. I don’t know about you, but I’m totally up for preparing for that.

Our lives has changed forever. The sooner we face reality and seize the opportunity to dream – and maybe even make our dreams a reality – the better. 



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.