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Just catching up on my ‘official’ reading, including the Education Review. The November 13th issue (see? I said I was behind!) included a series of articles to do with the government’s draft Tertiary Education Strategy (or TES for short). One in particular caught my eye as it was related to something I wrote a while ago, on choosing school subjects carefully so that they support your future study plans. (Yes, it’s that time of year again – we are frantically busy in the Dean’s office working on students’ applications to enrol for 2010.)

The New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (NZVCC) indicated more could be done at secondary schools to realise at least two of the goals of the TES. It said subject choices and performance at secondary school were among the barriers preventing more young people and more Maori and Pasifika people from gaining degrees.

"… a particular block toyoung people advancing successfully from secondary to degree level study s the lack of continuity between secondary school and university. Students need advice from year 9 onwards to prepare them to go on to university study, particularly about appropriate subject choices."

I’m not going to open the ‘performance’ can of worms; there are so many factors that can affect how well a particular student performs, and at least some of them are outside the reach of the school. But subject choices – well, let me start by saying that yesterday I had to decline someone who wanted to enrol in the Bachelor of Engineering on the grounds that they hadn’t taken maths or physics in their senior years at high school… It really is so very important to think carefully about your future career options and aspirations, & make sure that the subjects you study at school will support those intentions.

Of course this applies to all students, whatever career they intend to enter on leaving school. I know perfectly well that not all those in year 13 will be coming on to university study (& perhaps NZVCC could have recognised that in their statement). But you still need to start planning ahead, so that you don’t close any options off too early.

And I want to say up front that any ‘lack of continuity’ cuts both ways. University lecturers need to be aware of school curricula in their particular subjects, & to structure their first-year courses so as to bridge students in to university learning. As a secondary-turned-tertiary teacher,  I know all too well that there can be some quite significant gaps between students’ prior learning at school and what tertiary teachers assume their ‘new entrant’ students to know (& this personal anecdote is strongly supported by the findings of a PhD thesis that I supervised),

Because of the wide range of students’ future career aspirations, universities can’t expect that schools will focus solely on preparing their senior students for university study. There are so many differences – not just in the curriculum – between the final year of high school & the first year of university, & I believe those of us responsible for first-year teaching have a responsibility to assist students in making the transition between the two. This is spelled out by the Australian Learning & Teaching Council:

The curriculum and its delivery should be designed to be consistent and explicit in assisting students’ transition from their previous educational experience to the nature of learning in higher education and learning in their discipline as part of their lifelong learning. The first -year curriculum should be designed to mediate and support transition as a process that occurs over time. In this way, the first-year curriculum will enable successful student transition into first year, through first year, into later years and ultimately out into the world of work, professional practice and career attainment.

And this would be a win-win outcome for all concerned.