NCEA Level 2 corruption: John Roughan, Herald, Pamela Stirling, National Radio, John Morris, TV3, PPTA, Manawatu Standard, Dominion, Michael Johnston … Uncle Tom Cobley and all

I had written a posting before Christmas saying that with the drop in UE results for NCEA, many schools would be organising quickies to boost their marks. It would be, I implied, the NCEA equivalent of a fierce, murky front-row scrummage.

Two weeks into the secondary school term a newly appointed teacher was in tears at the prospect of what she was being told to do to get students through a quickie assessment. The school of education had not prepared her to participate in a practice now central to 21st century secondary education – students inserting into their work answers provided by the teacher. On this occasion, a tearful resort to the principal relieved her of the need to do so.

This is what Hekia Parata calls the ‘democratising of education’; Peter Hughes ‘a greater opportunity to show what they have learned’; and Bali Haque, former deputy secretary of the Qualifications Authority, ‘a widening of the net’.

This is your education system now, not ours, and you are running helter-skelter to protect it.

NCEA Level 2 has been declared the level for success and nothing is going to stop it being so, certainly not something as trifling as concern about root and stem cheating.

If the target is not met all kinds of calls for change will be sent out, the last thing the government wants. As well, charter schools might have their Level 2 way to proclaim success taken from them.

If an education system can justify cheating as central to its functioning, no matter the reasoning for it, it can justify anything.

But it was left to me, an aging former senior inspector of schools, and long-time writer for an authentic and far more challenging education system, to campaign on the matter.

The media are near hopeless on education, finding it all far too messy to delve into – easier just to more-or-less take government education media releases at face value – surely they wouldn’t be fibbing.  That is the narrative that governs the way the media approaches school education and has allowed the National government to get away with in education the biggest governmental cock-up since Think Big.

The two articles above were written to test the integrity of various institutions and the media.

Leaving aside corruption as a moral issue, my main concern is for the harm inflicted on education at all levels and children from all socio-economic statuses and ethnicities.

For primary education, the education review office has devised and imposed a curriculum that has children tracking well below a genuine NCEA level by the time they get to secondary; and has set expectations by them and of them well below their potential. If children aren’t taught how to think by the time they get to NCEA, only certain NCEA units will be available to them. 

The pass rate for NCEA Level 2 has to be considered in the light of so many children, largely because of inadequate primary education (especially in cognitive and imaginative challenge), being diverted to subject streams well below their real potential.

Anyway: Why bother knocking yourself out getting children to do genuine learning when you can cheat with the government’s complicity at all levels of the system to get the children up to standard. It is not as though the government is funding schools in a way that communicates they really expect schools to close the gap.

You see, all through primary, the government sends out signals that what is valued is the bifurcation to fragmented, measurable learning, as represented by national standards; the bifurcation to thinking, problem solving, and imagination is ignored largely because it isn’t measurable.

Anyway it perfectly suits middle-class children comparatively (though still, of course, seriously under-challenging them cognitively).

That’s it really – this is your education system. Cheating is central to its functioning.

Someone like me, of course, who left the formal education system 25 years ago to try to maintain the other bifurcation, is just a bloody idiot and all-round general nuisance.

Now let me see: Who did I approach with the two postings listed above; and how have others responded to the issue?

John Roughan

I was in an e-mail conversation with John Roughan, editor, New Zealand Herald (he rather amuses me); we were disagreeing as usual. I had written ‘Neoliberal education has one central tenet: teachers must be excluded from decision making and while that tenet reigns, neoliberalism reigns.’ He said no: ‘The central tenet is that goods and services are better if they have to respond to the actions of consumers in competitive markets’. (My point in response would have been – fine – as long as teachers are not excluded from decision making.) However, my actual response was to say OK, but what about what the postings have to say on NCEA?

A big silence.

Herald editorials

Nothing from the Herald editorials, probably because the editors are awaiting advice from the recently retired Auckland Grammar principal John Morris, a central proponent of EDUCANZ and IES. No doubt Morris is conflicted: under his reign, he directly contravened a direction from the precursor to EDUCANZ; while his successor at Auckland Grammar has withdrawn from IES calling it a distraction, and thumped the credibility of NCEA.

Pamela Stirling and Catherine Woulfe

When Catherine Woulfe was an education journalist for the Listener (therefore, under the editorial leadership of Pamela Stirling) the cheating in NCEA was well and truly opened up, but since the fiasco of the John Hattie articles on pre-school education,  and Catherine’s maternity leave, the Listener has shut up shop on education. I think there has been an ownership direction.

I sent the postings to Pamela as source material for a reporter to pick up the issue again.

A big silence.

John Gerritsen

A few years ago I spoke by phone to John Gerritsen of National Radio about his timidity in education reporting. I accused him of self-censoring for institutional and personal comfort. Unsurprisingly, he was deeply offended.

A big silence.

Kim Hill

Illustrious elitist broadcaster and probably because of that only interviews at professor level, and mainly American (and Ivy League). To even hint at a criticism of Kim Hill is lese-majeste.

Kathryn Ryan

Truly well-meaning and blood good sort but in education requires leadership from National Radio’s education reporter. Treads carefully at times. She is like a cat on a hot tin roof with Rod Oram (not for Tennessee Williams’ reasons though).

Wallace Chapman

Sunday morning’s Kathryn Ryan equivalent; is interested in education but just hasn’t got round to it yet. Like a big lion cub for a Sunday morning.


Only does titillating of government education handouts.


Campbell Live used to do issues like this, though never quite got around to this one.

Has now started titillating government education handouts.

Manawatu Standard

Something of a media hero on this one, with two good articles, but lacked follow-up killer instinct.

Chris Hipkins

Too many cross-currents for Chris and Labour to deal with.

A big silence.


There is a narrative amongst teacher organisations, if they move away from it, even to the advantage of the teachers and children they represent, you can sense the discomfort.

A big silence.


I am very unpopular with the executive who consider me a jumped up primary school prat (not without reason, I suppose). I campaigned against their supporting IES, begging them to use the money for tutorial classes to help children in their learning.

A silence of cosmic intensity.

Principals Federation

New president very good but has she the subtlety of curriculum knowledge from where the most telling comment originates?

Secondary Principals Association

So many intelligent and generally caring people but so uninspiring in policy and distant in stance.

Peter Lyons 

A highly intelligent and respected secondary school teacher and sometime columnist for the Herald. I sent the postings to him for comment.

A big silence.

Dominion and Stuff

Excellent but then focus disintegrated under piles of verbiage. The editors obviously lost confidence and sought to regain their political positioning.

Michael Johnston

A senior lecturer at Victoria University’s School of Education and a former NZQA senior statistician said of NCEA Level 2 improvement ‘it just doesn’t happen that fast’.  (He had a lot more to say as well.)

James Cole

An expert on grade inflation. He said ‘A similar target imposed by the Government in the Canadian province of Ontario had damaged the school system there.’

Roger Menzies

Principal of Feilding High School.  It was ‘causing schools to turn to shonky practices.’

Peter Hughes

Secretary of Education. As has become the practice, he was trundled out to use some of his slimeball credibility to defend another symptom of a failing education system.

In effect, what Hughes is saying is that rather than an education system that truly educates children for NCEA there is no harm in having an NCEA system that provides success based on shonky practices.

Hekia Parata

‘I am taking a very hard line on NCEA, I insist on the figures being roll-based.’

A perfect example of Parataesque half-truth. This was in preparation for her saying next day that NCEA has ‘high integrity’.

Bali Haque 

Former deputy chief executive of NZQA and recent hard-hitting book author critic of school education.

‘Surely that is better than consigning half our students to failure.’

Rather Delphic don’t you think?

Thank-you soft-pawing former deputy chief executive. I was a big talker yesterday.

By using corrupt figures to adjudge the success of the education system, we are corrupting the whole education system.  School education needs truth in evaluating children’s learning at every level. We need this truth to send out signals to get the right kind of learning in place. In particular we need attention to learning that encourages flexible and imaginative thinking and makes learning engaging; an engagement based on learning being challenging.

Truth in evaluating an education system requires genuine independence in undertaking that evaluation – the kind of evaluation provided by the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) but which was disbanded because of that independence. Children when they get to secondary school should not have their NCEA destinies pretty well decided. Some children by temperament, skill, and ability might well be best suited to a less academic stream, but more should, on the basis of their potential, have the choice.

To label as anti-democratic and elitist those who want an examination system free from corruption is perverse. Three things are needed, the first is obviously a system change that has children better prepared for NCEA Level 2 and beyond; the second, is an assessment system that is combination of exam and performance carefully supervised throughout; the third, a different marker of the success of an education system (think NEMP as a model).

The likely outcome of all this? nothing. Who really puts children first nowadays?

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2 Responses to NCEA Level 2 corruption: John Roughan, Herald, Pamela Stirling, National Radio, John Morris, TV3, PPTA, Manawatu Standard, Dominion, Michael Johnston … Uncle Tom Cobley and all

  1. Bruce Hammonds says:

    You must feel a bit like the boy calling out the Emperor has no clothes? Those who are too close to the Emperor are, for obvious reasons, prefer to keep any criticisms to themselves.

    Education is in dire straights in New Zealand and other Western counties that have been captured by a neo-liberal ( ‘market forces) ideology where everything must be measured so consumers have the data to compare schools to make their choices.. That the targets chosen distort and narrow education ( schooling is now a better word) is only part of the problem as they also only measure what is easy to measure and, as a result, other equally important areas of learning are ignored. Then there is, as you point out the massaging,the cheating and the rorting of the data..

    What a mess. Who would what to be a teacher in this emasculated corporatised world.

    As one business philosopher ( is that an oxymoron?) wrote , ‘the trouble with targets is not the ones you hit that always count but the ones you miss because you weren’t looking’.

  2. catharina says:

    My recommendation is to implement the equivalent of the compulsory academic integrity online course at Ak University, requiring all teachers and principals primary and secondary to complete it, and all students pref in Year 7 to complete it as a prerequisite for NCEA 1.

    Corruption is rife. It must be stopped. NZ’s reputation depends on it.

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