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Pick your battles, Rich

Politicians can bicker about such small things somethimes.  The two latest NCEA incidents have been blown considerably out of proportion.  That there is nothing better to criticise shows, I guess, how much progress NCEA has made in the past two or three years.  But it wouldn’t be right say to NCEA’s reached adequacy: all that has happened is that people, for some reason or another, have stopped caring about how the system is fundamentally structured.

The last two years has seen a major change in education politics.  The cabinet reshuffle after the 2005 election saw Steve Maharey replace Trevor Mallard as minister, and then the National Party leadership change in late 2006 resulted in a reshuffle that saw Katherine Rich take the place of Bill English as opposition spokesperson.  Both changes, I figure, were in the Labour Party’s favour.  Mallard defended only with attack and never seemed to know what he was talking about.  Maharey just gets on with fixing NCEA’s problems.  English worked hard and fully understood the flaws that encompass the NCEA.  Rich just seems to argue about anything possible.

Consider the schools alleged to have breached NCEA regulations, which NZQA is refusing to name.  NZQA deputy chief executive, qualifications, Bali Haque said quite clearly that the authority’s priority is to “work with schools to address issues” and that “naming schools could be counterproductive to this normal operational process”.  But Rich has embarked on the classical parallel argument.  Without regard to the longer consequences, she argues only that the students have a right to know.  Now, this isn’t to say that she’s wrong—just that, while the problem is fixable (and clearly, in NZQA’s opinion, it is), there is little point in shaming the school for the next decade: it would completely undermine the fixing process.

The latest issue, some papers being returned unmarked, is a concern, but it’s a bit Rich to say it’s a flaw in the system (pun intended).  There are some 1.9 million papers to mark—I’d say the chances of a few papers going astray are pretty high.  What is important is that they have systems in place to cope with mishaps—which they clearly do.  I’d extend sympathy to those who drew the short straw, of course, but is it really reasonable to throw such a fit?  Mistakes such as those, I would bet, occur with the logistics of any examination system of such a scale; it’s just they don’t get heard about.

The common thread that links those two issues, however, is that they are not problems with the NCEA itself.  They are little things—insignificant to what really is worth debating.  On the big picture, does it really matter that a small group of students didn’t get their papers marked?  Is naming the schools that are undergoing remedial instruction really going to help?

For the easily brainwashed, it will matter, and in this way, Rich is irresponsible to be making such a big fuss, that will undermine our national qualification, over nothing.  The NCEA is truly a political football.  Rich argues with little concern the greater good, and with no concern for actually fixing the system to make our school leavers’ qualification properly meaningful.  If this is the approach that the new shadow education spokeswoman has, then public confidence will fall for no good reason and the NCEA’s road to reliability will really be blocked.  Pick your battles, Katherine.  Argue about the things that really matter.

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