NEW ZEALAND QUALIFICATIONS AUTHORITY AGAINST NORTH & SOUTH

Case Number: 2007

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2007

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: North & South

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint laid by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) against North & South that an article published in the June, 2007 edition headed “So What’s To be Done About NCEA” breached the Press Council’s principle of accuracy, fairness and balance (Principle One). Additionally, it has not upheld the complaint that there was a breach of Principle Six, that publications should as far as possible make proper distinctions between reporting of facts and conjecture, passing of opinions and comment.

Background
The article, written by a senior staff writer, was accompanied by a photograph of a model dressed in school uniform with “NCEA SUX” apparently written by the model, in large writing on a white board behind her. This picture also appeared on the cover of the magazine. The standfirst stated
“Taxpayers have spent $600 million on NCEA but five years after it replaced School Certificate and Bursary, the Minister of Education acknowledges it needs help, the All Blacks coach (and former secondary school principal) Graham Henry says it’s wishy-washy and non-competitive, and parents nationwide have all but lost faith”.
NCEA is the National Certificate of Education Achievement, administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).
In summary, the 8-page article was highly critical of the NCEA, and by implication the NZQA, with approximately three quarters of the content giving a negative impression of the rigour and suitability of the qualification to stretch high-achieving students. It also suggested that the qualification was “dumbing down” standards and shifting goals. As well, comments from those interviewed who are critical of the NCEA questioned how standards are being enforced.
After an extensive profile of the principal of Palmerston North Boys’ High school, Tim O’Connor, his philosophy, his opinions, and his success in achieving high standards and results for his students, this section includes the following: “So it’s unsurprising O’Connor has little time for NCEA”. It goes on to note that as well as using the Cambridge International Exams he is instituting an examination and assessment system in the school, in defiance of Ministry of Education guidelines.
The article then goes on to explain how both the NCEA achievement standards and unit standards differ, how the Cambridge examination works, and provides brief comment on the NCEA from several people, including the president of PPTA, principals, and the Minister of Education. Included in this section is reference to a column written for the New Zealand Herald by Dr Rosemary Hipkins, chief researcher with the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. The article states: “(her) opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald seemed to back up the long-held suspicion NCEA was meant to drag potential neurosurgeons down to the level of burger flippers….”.
There are interviews with two other secondary principals whose schools are also offering the Cambridge International Examinations alongside the New Zealand qualification administered by NZQA. In addition to the initial profile of Palmerston North Boys’ High School, interviews with the principals of Avondale College, and Senior College are extensive.
The article also includes comments made by the Principal of Avondale College questioning the veracity of research undertaken by Professor John Hattie of Auckland University. This research compared the NCEA with Cambridge qualifications, and concluded that the NCEA is better than any other system at identifying students who will do well at university.
The Avondale College principal is also critical of other academics and researchers who support the NCEA qualification.
The final segment of the article is essentially given over to the politicians: Katherine Rich, National Party spokesperson on education, who is essentially supportive of the qualification, but would increase the rigour of interschool assessment procedures; the Hon. Steve Maharey, Minister of Education who supports NCEA but indicates that some changes are forthcoming and also a comment by Graham Henry, All-Black coach who says that the brightest students are not challenged and extended (attributed to the April issue of SkySport magazine).
The article concludes with another summary of the criticisms of the system, and a damning final comment from the Principal of Avondale College.
At the end of the article is a box entitled “Rescuing NCEA” with opinions on how NCEA could be fixed from five educators.

The Complaint
Dr Karen Poutasi, Chief Executive of NZQA made the following points in complaining that the article breached Press Council’s Principles 1 (lack of balance and fairness) and 6 (lack of distinction between comment and fact).
The magazine cover featured a supposed young woman student with the words “NCEA SUX” but nowhere in the article were there any students’ responses to NCEA.
The introduction to the article stated: “parents nationwide have all but lost faith”. The views of parents were absent from the article.
The writer states as fact that unit standards for academic subjects are in a “dumbed-down and easy-peasy form”. This statement is clearly comment and should not appear in what is presented as an objective news feature.
There are inaccuracies of facts, such as the costs of the NCEA fees.
Students are quoted on “official NZQA forums” – no such forums exist.
Dr Poutasi also advised that an interview arranged with the Deputy Chief Executive, Qualifications, did not proceed as the article writer was unavailable. Despite extensive written material being provided to her by NZQA in answer to her written questions, only a fraction of this was used in the article. This represents lack of balance.

The Magazine’s Response
The magazine responded that article was sparked by the Minister of Education, Hon. Steve Mahary, admitting in an interview with a Herald reporter that NCEA needs help. Additionally, several leading state schools had announced that they would be offering Cambridge International exams to their leading students, alongside NCEA.
When Graham Henry, the All Blacks coach (a former secondary principal) came out against NCEA, the magazine judged it timely to proceed with an article on the angle – what to do about NCEA. How can it be fixed, if at all? In order to pursue this angle the magazine needed to show what are considered to be the failings. The final box gave expert opinion on how it could be fixed.
The cover and article picture showed a typical female student of the type taking the qualification. It is ludicrous to suggest that because a student was shown, students’ opinions should be sought.
Parents’ views were represented in the interviews with principals, and in comments attributed to Katherine Rich.
The use of the words “dumbed down and easy-peasy” is a justified opinion formed from facts published in the months leading up to the North & South article. Several specific examples of statements and articles were given.
North & South accepts that the writer made a mistake in the costs of NCEA.
The writer sourced her student quotes from www.studyit.org.nz, which is a website dedicated to a discussion forum about the NCEA. There is nothing on the website to suggest that it is not recognised by NCEA.
The writer phoned the communications manager of NZQA 10 days before the deadline of April 25 to request an interview with Dr Poutasi. She had a further conversation with him and sent a list of questions to be answered. She needed a response by the deadline of 25 April and was told that she could speak with the Deputy Director, Qualifications at 9.00 am on 26 April. When he did not keep that appointment by 9.15, she had to leave due to personal reasons. When the written response finally came through on 27 April, a special effort was made to include some of his comments for balance. It is regrettable that Dr Poutasi did not make herself available when first requested, as her comments would almost certainly have been included.

Further comments from the disputants
North & South
The story tried to move beyond the simple weighing up of pro and con arguments.
NZQA’s claim that the cover image was a misrepresentation of the story was taking a far too literal approach to an image, which can only ever convey a mood and impression.
A story of this complexity can’t possibly quote all parties and still be readable.
The writer’s claim of NCEA being “dumbed down and easy peasy” was as a result of her research.
The failure of the CEO of NZQA being available for comment was inexplicable given the time frame offered.

NZQA
The request for the interview was referred to the person in charge of NZQA Assessment. Arrangements were made for the interview to take place as soon as the writer provided an outline of what she wanted to discuss. This occurred on 23 April, two days before the stated deadline.

Discussion
It is apparent that concerns about the qualification prompted this article and the headline and standfirst made it clear that this would be the angle explored. That those who have the concerns would therefore feature most prominently is reasonable.
The article did include comments from an NZQA Deputy Director, the Chairperson of PPTA, and others which show qualified support for the NCEA. These had little impact on the overall impression that NCEA has some problems, and that there is strong opposition to it from some quarters.

The Press Council notes that North & South published three letters in its August edition from writers who were critical of the June article. The first was from Dr Rosemary Hipkins, Chief Researcher for the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. She stated that the article writer had not contacted her when writing it. Quotes attributed to Dr Hipkins were strung together from a previously published article, and distorted her research findings.
The second letter was from Dr John Hattie, Faculty of Education, University of Auckland. He stated that the Avondale principal’s discreditation of the Faculty of Education’s Starpath Research was unacceptable, and that while NCEA does need some improvement, there is a growing body of evidence that it is the best system to work from to prepare students for university.
The third letter, signed by 28 principals from the Central North Island Secondary Principals’ Association, supported NCEA, protested that some vocal principals’ views were included at such length, and stated that in the principles of fair and balanced journalism, views of those supporting NCEA should have been sought.
Other published letters were also critical of aspects of the article.
The Press Council also acknowledges that North & South has published a letter from Dr Poutasi, protesting about the accuracy and balance of the June article. This letter was misplaced, and could not be published until the October edition when it appeared.
The Press Council notes the published concerns of the two researchers referred to in the article that their research was not reported accurately. If they were to be quoted it was important to interview these researchers and give them the opportunity to ensure that their views were properly represented.


Decision
The Press Council notes that this is the fifth article North & South has published on NCEA. The magazine was entitled to publish an article giving voice to critics of the scheme. The Press Council noted in the 2001 Annual Report that there can be circumstances where “balance can often be provided over time, or across a broader canvas, than one article in a single publication”. This is such a case.
Therefore, the Press Council does not uphold the complaint on the basis of lack of balance and fairness.
The Press Council additionally does not uphold the complaint about facts and opinions. The major tone of the article makes it clear that it is the opinions of those interviewed which are being reported. It is also clear that the writer of the article is highly critical of the qualification, and that this is her opinion.
The Council’s Principle 7 on advocacy is quite clear: “A publication is entitled to adopt a forthright stance and advocate a position on any issue”.
The factual errors around the cost of the NCEA entry fees, and the website are not substantial in the scheme of things.
The Press Council recognises that debate about the NCEA is healthy, and ongoing. However, it is aware, both from the article, and from subsequent correspondence that there is a strong wish from educationalists and others that the debate around this issue should present a range of views. This can be achieved over time and in other articles.

Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.