Our education system is not working

New Zealand needs to rethink its education priorities and start spending money where it matters, writes Jim Doyle .

Our education  and training system is not working.

While the failure is not ubiquitous, it is malignant and remorselessly embedded.

We know it's there, we play around the edges of trying to do something about it from time to time but we have failed to make any inroads into it.

About one in five young people leave the school system with no qualification. That equates to 10,000 people every year.

Even more alarming is the recent research which shows that over the past six years more than 60 per cent of people learning at the lower levels of tertiary education, failed. This equates to almost 98,000 people.

The levels we are talking about here are at the levels 1-3 - in other words the same as the last three years of school.

Not only are these people failing at secondary level they are also failing under the system designed to rescue them.

We constantly hear complaints such as: too many of our schools are failing our young people, schools are not preparing young people for the workplace, far too many people are failing in our tertiary institutions, too many people are leaving tertiary education without the necessary "soft" skills, tertiary institutions are not responsive to the needs of industry, the industry training system is not delivering, and so on. Those depressing statistics would tend to lead one to conclude that the concerns expressed have some validity.

There are two striking aspects of the New Zealand education system when compared with other developed countries.

We perform very well at the top, academic, end but we also have a very long tail of relative failure at the other end.

These facts are well known to officials and politicians and there have been efforts made to address the problem but we can be certain that those efforts have, to date, failed. However, there is another striking aspect of our education system that may be highly relevant here. For a very long time now we have bought into the myth that when it comes to investing money in tertiary education, the best place to put it is at the top end.

Higher-level qualifications are seen as of being greater value than lower-level ones. Longer qualifications are of greater value than shorter ones.

Recently it was announced that $40m of training money will be made contestable. In other words it will go to the lowest bidder, all other things being equal. One can only imagine the outraged uproar we would get from the university sector if such a scheme was applied to PhD study.

One of the problems we have had in dealing with this failure may be that we have not adopted a "joined-up" thinking approach to it.

Part of the problem lies in our schools, part of it is associated with the tertiary sector and part of it rests within the industry training sector.

Most efforts to date have tended at any one time to focus on just one of those three components and we have simply failed to adopt a holistic approach to it. The problems are real and they are cumulative and they are relentless.

The economic and social costs associated with these failures are almost too disturbing to contemplate.

The fact is that there is no low- cost or easy solution to the problem.

If the problem is to be properly addressed, then a significant investment will need to be made. Cheap and nasty will not do it.

If new money cannot be found then perhaps a redirection of existing funding might be called for.

When it comes to measuring the quality of investment we should not be looking at the absolute number of dollars applied but rather the value added from the investment. It is hard to imagine any greater value added than that resulting from investing in addressing this particular problem.

If that investment is not made, and we continue to stumble from one ad hoc solution to the next, we can be sure of one thing: we will end up paying far more in many other ways.

Jim Doyle is the executive director of the New Zealand Shipping Federation

The Dominion Post