Global Education Episode 23: Engaging high school students with study and job skills

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Hello and welcome to this podcast from Teacher magazine, I’m Jo Earp.

This particular episode is part of our series on Global Education, and we are venturing to New Zealand’s South Island, to Central Otago, to find out about a Year 11 program that’s keeping students in high school while setting them up for job success. So, when the Central Otago Youth Employment Program (or COYEP for short) first launched as an education ministry pilot there were 54 NEET students – that stands for Not in Education, Employment or Training – in the region. Today, that figure is zero.

So, there’s obviously a lot that’s going right with this program, and on Episode 23 of the Global Education podcast we’ll find out more. I’m joined by Sarah Hill, Deputy Principal at Cromwell College, to find out about COYEP and the impact it’s having on students, families, teachers and the local community. So, let’s get started.

Jo Earp: Hi Sarah, thanks for joining us at Teacher. Now, you're an Assistant Principal at Cromwell College in Central Otago, which is on New Zealand’s South Island. So, it would be useful if you could start by telling us a little bit about the area and the community that you serve, and then maybe some of the popular local industries as well.

Sarah Hill: OK, thank you. So Central Otago and the lower South Island – we are a little mini climate environment; so, we have super-hot summers and really cold winters, which makes it an ideal environment for viticulture, horticulture and agriculture. So, we have specific ranges of grapes that only grow here and grow really well because of that. We're also probably, you would say, the booming area for trades and building in the country at the moment. So, with those things combined, that's really what makes up the bulk of the employment here in Central Otago.

JE: So, we're going to be talking today about the Central Otago Youth Employment Program – or COYEP for short. And it began as a pilot program actually at Cromwell and another school in the region, Dunstan High School, back in 2018. So, that's 5 years ago now. Things have certainly grown since then, and we'll talk about the impact of that in a moment. But what was the original aim of the pilot program in 2018? What was the context behind the decision to set it up?

SH: So, back in 2018 I was previously at Dunstan High School at the time, before I moved to my Deputy Principal role at Cromwell, and we noticed that there was a growing number of disengaged students at the school. Not necessarily were they not capable or able of succeeding, but their abilities were in another skill set that wasn't really represented by the current school system. And so, with the growing disengagement came behavioural issues – not always, but just that was something that from student voice and our family voice and community that was missing as well. Previously in Central Otago, 20 years plus ago, I think it would be fair to say that we were quite active in the trades world and that's something that with the push for our National Certificate of Education, NCEA, it sort of dropped off being so engaged in the community with employment opportunities like that. So, I think the disengagement was probably just a reflection of us not meeting those needs.

JE: So, you ended up with this sort of cohort of students who were not in employment, they weren’t in education. They were just sort of, I don't know it’s a bit of a cliché isn’t it, but slipping through the cracks basically.

SH: Yeah, absolutely. And I don't think that's something that's localised to our area. It was just that we were definitely noticing it and having a measure of that as well. So, yeah, those students that can just sort of stop attending frequently, and then the attendance rate plummets until the point that they are just taken off the roll and not necessarily followed up in any way of whether they're in employment or if they're seeking education opportunities through polytechnic and online courses. So, through a little bit more tightening up of the attendance statistics with that, I guess the whole COYEP program is really about pulling together all of your services within a community, rather than us working in silos alone, being a school separate to employment and separate to tertiary providers and things like that; it's really about everybody coming together.

JE: And we know that that's effective, isn't it, when people can collaborate on things as well. So, it's a year 11 program. What does the course involve? There's a mix, isn't there, there’s a mix of school, there’s a mix of work experience, and then there's some other skills as well?

SH: Yeah, absolutely. So, the program as it runs is that we have one day a week the students are working on site with their chosen career path. So, whether that be building and the trades, hospitality, viticulture, bike mechanics, the gem industry – the world is your oyster. Essentially, if the kids can think of it, we can coordinate for that to happen. One day a week they are on site at school, but in a separate classroom with just the 10 COYEP students and 2 teaching staff. And in that time, they're working through the Polytech-designed work packages. So, this is level 2/3 of the curriculum work that is something that is not offered in mainstream classes. So, this is work packages around employment law, or creating CVs, or leases and contracts for rental properties; things for readiness into that next stage of life that students need but isn’t actually currently offered in mainstream classes. So, they do that for a full day with support, and then the other 3 days a week are spent in their mainstream classes or a hybrid of those programs as well.

JE: So, they’re still getting that literacy and numeracy, all those other skills as well, but you’re working in those really important life skills as well and then also that work experience connection. So, what's the normal intake each year then and how do you go about selecting students for the program?

SH: Hmm, that's such a good question. It's capped at 10 students per school currently, and we always fill those quotas – we have a waiting list because it is such a popular program and, you know, 5 years in families, community, students can all see the value of this. So, it starts actually for a lot of students a few years out. We have kids in year 8 identifying that they want to be a COYEP student in year 11, and so we're really lucky to be able to give them a taster of that when they're a little bit younger.

And from there we go through an interview process. So, family and student coming in in their year 10 year, towards the end of the year. So, these interviews are starting to happen now. Jenna [Faulkner] – our facilitator for the COYEP program across all of the schools – is integral in talking to the students and coordinating a meeting with the families, just because we need to have the family support. To stay and remain in the COYEP program you need to have 85% attendance of school or higher. So, it's not something for a student that has already maxed out with disengagement and attendance issues, that is not our target. This is reengagement and something that cannot be offered on site at a school. So that's really, really important.

So, there's a panel of us that will sit them down and go through those interviews and explain really explicitly what the requirements are going to be, so that we don't have any disappointment for any other key stakeholders in this. Some of those things need to be about the commitment to your work experience. So, one of the amazing things is that if you sign up for a particular work experience and you don't like it, you can change every term. So, you can commit to it for 10 weeks, and at that point, if you think, ‘oh, actually, you know, cheffing at the restaurant isn't really for me, I'd like to give painting a job’ then we can do that and we can change it as well. But we need to know that we have that commitment. So that's why it's really important to have families and the students really explicitly understanding that as well. Also, Code of Conduct and representing yourself and the school in the best way that you can is really important as well. So, all of those things that are discussed and signed before we are accepting people on the program.

As I said, there's always a waiting list, so that feeling of urgency with the students is really there – they know that they don't want to slip up, to lose their spot, and that starts in their year 10 year. So, Jenna’s a frequent visitor to school, she's on staff, and obviously myself and others that are involved as well. So, if we randomly call into classes and you're not there and it's not an explained absence, the students know that that's jeopardising their potential to make it into the program. And I guess the message there is that we care and there's a lot of people wrapping around these kids to make it successful. So, yeah, it seems to be really successful.

JE: Yeah, and we'll talk about the success in a second. Just on the point of there still being the element of school there. I should imagine that having that link with the school, with their friendship groups, with their support groups, that's good for students too, isn't it? Rather than just taking them away from that.

SH: Oh, massively yeah. As I said, it's everything; it's that whole community coming together. A lot of the boys in our program were part of the Under 15 rugby team, tournament team, so they're working towards that. Which is great because all of their employers then get to hear about this event that was coming up; that grows the support in the town for a school event as well. And yeah, all of those things are combined. I guess for any child growing up to have a pool of adults and people, a care support network around you, in whatever your success is, is really hugely important. And there's so much learning that's happening for these kids as well, that gets sort of transferred across their schooling, their work experience, and their sport too.

So really, really important, especially at that age that students do still have that ability to connect with their peers. But what's really cool is them bringing their stories back. You know, stories of what happens at smoko, and ‘oh, the feeds that you get given!’ or, you know, they’re sat and the next thing that you hear the kids talking about out in the schoolyard at breaks on their school days as well, which is really awesome.

JE: You mentioned there about the range of industries in the area. Do you have a … how does it work? Do you have a list that sort of sign up? Or it sounds to me like really it is driven by this student and then you go out and do everything possible to try and match them with something suitable?

SH: Yeah, it's absolutely the way it is. I mean, there's a number of employers that love the program and just say ‘Yep, send us somebody every year’. And then, over and above that, we have students that come on each year and throw something that we've never heard of before. And so, you go out looking to make that happen as well. Again, extremely lucky in the Central Otago area to have such supportive employers that are just really behind this, happy to give up their time and energy. We even have some employers that come back with the students after hours to give them, you know, additional support on things if it's required. We’ve had employers come to our break-up evenings, prizegivings, come and watch the kids’ sports. You know, that's not just a one day a week work experience, it's a huge connection. And, you know, more often than not, it leads to full-time apprenticeships and jobs at the end of the year. So, pretty incredible.

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JE: So, let's have a chat about what the impact of it then. Part of that aim, then, as you said, the central aim is about engagement. Part of the aim was to reduce the NEET figures – so that's stands for Not in Education, Employment or Training. It's had a massive impact, hasn't it? What are the figures for that?

SH: Well, at Dunstan and Cromwell College, now it’s zero, we have no teenagers that are not [Not in Employment, Education or Training] currently. So, yeah, I mean the numbers don't lie, that's pretty incredible for us to have that as well, and that's been consistent for a couple of years now. That's, you know, it's not just by pure luck, because these are the same students who would have been filling those numbers, just because that feeling of disconnection and that sense of belonging that wasn't there, that has now been created. And it's not seen as a course for students that cannot achieve. It's not seen as something for the ones who are not academically able. It's absolutely a reflection of probably the current education system being quite outdated in not reflecting a measure of really what intelligence in the real world is like.

And so, this is a program where students are able to shine with skills that they have. We've got some students doing engineering, for example – a boy who's done welding and made his own dog box. I mean, these things that you just simply couldn't do on site at school. But where he might not be able to articulate and write an essay, so therefore his literacy grades would be far, far lower and not doing very good things for his own sense of confidence and mental wellbeing, for thoughts about himself; however, in this opportunity this year he's been given to be able to see about his amazing strengths and some of the things that he's able to do that a lot of adults can't do as well. So, yeah, those are the strengths.

JE: And it's not just about sort of that, like you say, there's some really good skills involved there, quite complex things going on in some of these workplaces, it's not just sort of labouring and all that kind of thing. I was watching part of a documentary – and I'll put a link into that into the transcript of this podcast, which is over at – and one of the kids was on a farm and he was using very complex machinery there. So, the latest tech, learning how to use that – because we know that farming is actually way out in front in terms of tech – and the other thing was he was saying about, you know, proportions of feed and that kind of thing. So, there's a lot of numeracy involved there as well. So, it really is giving them some quite complex skills, isn't it, but on-the-job training.

SH: Absolutely. And for the flip side of everything, the information that schools are receiving back about what we need to be doing and modifying and staying more on point is really, really valuable. So, I do a worksite visit around all of our employers during the year and last year made a point to have some summary questions for them to answer for me. And some of the feedback from the employers on the building sites was, ‘Why do you teach your students to measure in centimetres? Nobody in the world uses centimetres, it's confusing and it's outdated. We use millimetres, we use metres, don't confuse them by doing centimetres.’ And then proceeded to get out a ruler and said, ‘If you're measuring 60 mil, you put your thumb on the 60 mil and you measure backwards to the zero and then you can't muck it up as well. Please, can you show your kids how to use the ruler this way around? We get them here and we have to retrain all of the sort of mistakes that you guys have built into them. That's not functional measurement.’ So that one little tip about measurement I've been able to take back to our maths departments and feed that down. We also have, in our communities, they’re called Kāhui Ako’s – or Communities of Learning – where it's a high school attached to your primary schools and your early childhood centres; so, to form a community of 0-18-year-old learning that is the overarching guide for education. So, then that's something that's filtered down all the way through, that we're all focusing now on making sure we're using millimetres for measurement and we're using the ruler in the same way that they appreciate in the trades.

So, that's just one tiny example that has a really big flow-on effect. We're learning as much from them, if not more, to support the kids for the future, which is great.

JE: Such a good example.

SH: Yeah.

JE: So, from that early pilot, then things have expanded. There are now another 2 schools involved – Mount Aspiring and Wakatipu High. Do all the schools run the same program, is it delivered in the same way, essentially?

SH: Essentially. One of the schools – so Wakatipu and Mount Aspiring, in Queenstown and Wanaka, are much, much bigger schools than the rest of us; so, we're talking 1,400/1,600 students at each, whereas we are sort of sitting at around the 640. So, they still only have the 10 spaces as well. At Wakatipu they run it slightly different, they do it in lines, so it's one hour a day that the students are coming over for that tuition and all the other schools run a one-day block to deliver the work packages. Everybody does the one-day work experience and 3 days of pure classes at school as well.

JE: And I should imagine having that group of schools involved now, that's good for you, isn't it, in terms of a support network for educators. Do you all get together and share what's happening in the program then?

SH: Yeah, technology being what it is has allowed for really good sharing of resources now – so, sharing Google Classrooms; coming together for planning and moderation on a regular basis as well; also sharing of ideas; some of those sort of challenging problems that can be shared and problem-solved together as well, to do with motivation or attendance or anything like that, so that we're front-footing the whole way along and, I guess not letting anything become a problem. Because, you know, a problem shared a problem halved and all that sort of thing. And generally, a problem is not going to be new for anyone – when you share it amongst all of the schools, somebody's already experienced something along those lines.

And we're also, because we are close together, sharing of employers as well. So, Dunstan High School in Alexandra, but we have some of the students that cross over into businesses in Cromwell, and same for the Cromwell kids down in Alex, and that's absolutely fine. And also, for the sharing of resources for specialist training. So, next term we've got the Dunstan High School and Cromwell College students are all coming to Cromwell to the Conference Centre, and we've invited in a range of employers to conduct some mock interviews. So, we're going through the interview process ahead of time with their students, and then we've got these employers coming in – they're giving them the 101s of employment law, of etiquette in the workplace, of cell phone management, and then they're going to set them down and run through a mock interview. So, we'll have the interviewer, the interviewee, and then one of our students will be the observer, and at the end of the interview the observer can give back things that they've noticed and things that they might wonder about and question. And then they swap over. So, just some really good learning opportunities for our kids before they go into that next step of their life as well.

JE: And you mentioned that there's a waiting list as well, and that kids are interested, really, from year 8. You've expanded it to a year 10 Junior COYEP. How does that differ then? What does that involve?

SH: So, the year 10 program is simply the one-day work experience. So, when we're noticing that there's a little bit of disengagement happening, and those behaviour issues start to flare – so, you know, referral numbers for that student or teachers are all mentioning that something's off with them, they just don't seem like themselves – having those conversations and whipping them into something that they're engaged in. We've got a junior student at the moment who's out doing pest control, so he's out rabbit and possum shooting. And since the day that he started doing that once a week, he's not had one referral at school now. Previously, he was having a couple a day – and that's, our referrals are sent out of class for regulation time. And so, just by having one day a week, it's obviously meeting his needs for engagement, that obviously wasn't there. And, you know, that's something that's not possible for us to offer at school. We can't take kids out with firearms and offer all of that sort of thing that these companies can and to do it in a safe way. So yeah, now I'm having discussions with him about turning it into a business and what could he use possum meat for, maybe making dog food. And so, he's coming up with a whole business model behind that and he's identified some skills at school in maths and computing that he now needs to learn and have under his belt so that he could be successful to run a business like that, which is now engaging him more in his learning because he sees a reason for it.

JE: Sounds great. It's that applied use of the knowledge and skills, isn't it? So, as we've talked about then, you've had great success with this model. It certainly sounds like it. I know you're keen, yourself and Jenna Faulkner are keen for it to be rolled out nationally. So, I thought, as a pitch to other education systems then, what would you say are the benefits from having a program like COYEP?

SH: I think, for me, in a nutshell it might sound a little bit cliché, but you are actually changing somebody's life. Every student who has been through this program, it has been life changing for them. We've had students that, you know, home life might not have been ideal, they have been offered job experience that has got them then into a job where they have moved into a new home, a new town, and completely turned their lives around.

Even for the students who it may not be that extreme, when you see somebody whose engagement in life is being met and their wheels are being spun, there's nothing better than that – and that's what I'm seeing with every student that comes into the COYEP program. It's real learning in real time and that connection with their community, which you know is something that is not temporary, which is pretty cool.

JE: It’s great to hear that it’s having such a positive impact – not just on the school, not just on the community, but obviously for the students and their families. It's been great to speak to you today and find out more about the program. Best of luck for the rest of the school year – we're nearly on the home stretch, I guess – and with the COYEP program in the future, Sarah. Thanks again for joining us at Teacher.

SH: No worries, thanks very much Jo.

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Thinking about your own community, are there opportunities to connect with local employers to help students make the transition from school to work?

In this podcast, Sarah Hill says the COYEP program is ‘about pulling together all of your services within a community, rather than us working in silos alone’. What are the benefits of bringing different services and providers together? How would this benefit your school, teachers, students and their families?