HB Today just reported that 38% of Hawke’s Bay pupils leave school with the 42 credits at NCEA level 3 required to make university entrance.

Is this good news? Bad news? Or is it one of those statistics that, after getting our attention and alarming us, ultimately fails to focus us on the right issues?

I think the latter.

Local secondary principals had varied reactions. Some said the percentage of university bound students was too low; others said the figure obscured the fact that many students could prosper just fine in the region with other forms of post-high school training.

Who’s right?

NZ certainly needs a healthy share of university graduates. But what it needs more fundamentally is some national voice to articulate what the most pressing challenges facing our society are that we hope our best educated young minds will address.

What are the problems to be solved … the opportunities to be seized … the services to be provided by our next generation or two? And what knowledge and skills do they need to get the job(s) done? In other words, education for what?

Do we need more lawyers, or more agricultural scientists? Do we need more art historians, or more medical doctors, or more midwives? More computer engineers, or more people with sufficient IT skills to ensure the optimal functioning of a mid-sized business?

Who will make the most important contribution to the future of NZ … the lawyer who negotiates better dairy product access to foreign markets, the scientist who figures out how to reduce methane emissions, or the farmer who most productively and sustainably manages his dairy operation? How many of each of these do we need?

Then ask this question in field after field, from alternative energy to health care to education itself … until we have a better set of future job descriptions for the nation.

Assuming we can identify the needs and opportunities NZ faces in a global economy, we must then make sure programs are in place to guide our young people as best we can — perhaps through generous rewards and incentives — into educational paths that will equip them to play a meaningful role in our evolving society, as well as enjoy prosperous personal lives.

The most rewarding path, for both society and the individual, might not be a university education and degree. It might be a technical certificate. It might be a trade apprenticeship. It might be providing a business mentor.

And the truly smart, motivated kids will excel whichever the path they take. I say that knowing full well the evidence that more education generally does translate into greater personal economic well-being. As I look around Hawke’s Bay, I see plenty of instances where smart and motivated trumps formal education.

So I’m not especially worried that “only” 38% of pupils have qualifications to enter university. Actually, I’d be really worried for society at large if they all wanted to be lawyers, and none wanted to be doctors or engineers.

I’m much more concerned that pupils leaving high school might not have the qualifications to enter life! Do they have the writing and math skills essential to be taken seriously by any future employer or educational or training program? And are they motivated to excel, and not just accumulate credits?

If not, then we need to grade their schooling — and the educational system — as having failed.

Tom

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