UEG and compulsory vaccination grapples as school year end nears

The final weeks of the school year are upon us, with senior students sitting NCEA exams across the country and some surrendering to Unexpected Event Grades, while schools continue to grapple with compulsory vaccinations. 

Time will tell the impact the unexpected events of 2021 have had on students, staff and our school communities. But, for now, one of these impacts is the application of UEGs (Unexpected Event Grades) as Year 11-13 students in Auckland hit exam time. Reports this week indicate some students are choosing not to sit exams, deeming their UEG (based on their previous assessment standard and teacher input) to be satisfactory. If NCEA students have achieved an Excellence UEG, for example, sitting their NCEA exam can seem futile. 

Auckland Year 13 student Amy said, “I’m choosing to focus on scholarship exams, because there isn’t really any point in sitting most of my NCEA exams. My Unexpected Event Grades have mostly been Excellence. I’ve got enough credits for uni, and I’ve already been accepted, so there doesn’t really seem any need.” 

New Zealand Qualifications Authority wrote to schools last month to invoke the unexpected event grade system (previously called the emergency grade) process, in line with the Assessment (including Examination) Rules for Schools, 7.1.6: “NZQA reserves the right to apply an emergency grade where a group of candidates is significantly disadvantaged by extraordinary circumstances beyond their control.”

NZQA contacted schools in October to ‘reinforce the Government’s clear expectation that students should attend NCEA exams as normal’. Approaches taken by different schools across Auckland has varied, however, with some giving students the choice of whether to sit the exams or not, if they were happy with their UEGs.  

The NZQA briefing stated, “The Government’s intention is not for exams to be seen by students as optional, but to give students comfort that they will be able to receive a grade if there is a specific covid reason that means they can’t attend an exam.” The Qualifications Authority told national media late last week that valid reasons for using the UEGs would be widespread and it did not wish to increase workload for schools, saying, “In line with this, while schools are required to have quality-assured the standard specific evidence they use to establish the grades, they are not required to verify the need to use an unexpected event grade for each student.”

Meanwhile, schools continue to grapple with the legalities and logistics of the vaccinate mandate for staff. This week, New Zealand Principals’ Federation President Perry Rush published an informal poll gleaned from principals’ associations across the country, which showed ‘pleasingly high COVID vaccination compliance rates in our schools across the motu’.

The survey found 2.2% of teachers had not yet had their first vaccination, as of Wednesday 17 November, two days after the mandatory vaccination deadline. It also showed ‘4% of support staff, including administration, cleaners, caretakers and teacher aides were non-compliant with the mandatory vaccination requirements’. 

NZPF President Perry Rush

Though Rush pointed out his survey ‘was not fully representative and does not represent some low vaccinated areas’, he added, “That said, 54% of the schools participating have 100% of their staff members vaccinated at least with their first dose and 46% of the schools had at least one non-compliant staff member.

“Principals responding to the survey also indicated that according to informal conversations they have had with staff, the introduction of the Astra Zeneca vaccine is unlikely to have any impact on vaccination compliance.

“Principals also reported that high numbers of non-compliant staff received their first vaccination during the weekend, to meet the November 15th deadline, enabling them to continue teaching on site. Many reported that having a deadline was a helpful incentive.”

Rush acknowledged the work that principals have been doing with their unvaccinated staff. “Encouraging them to be vaccinated, respecting them and showing them that they are valued colleagues within the school community.” He said school leadership has ‘helped many hesitant teachers and support staff to retain their positions in your schools and avoid the stress of having to fill staffing shortages at this late stage in the year’. 

On Friday, Rush said he was awaiting further information from the New Zealand School Trustees Association to assist principals with the next steps.

“While dismissal for a non-compliant staff member may well result, it is critical that Boards of Trustees and principals acting on behalf of their Boards, ensure there is no predetermination and that consultation with non-compliant staff continues and is documented until all options and alternatives are exhausted. Non-compliant staff have the right to support and representation,” he said.

Heather Barker Vermeer

Heather has worked as a journalist, writer and editor in England and Aotearoa New Zealand for over 20 years. She fell in love with words when she received a 'Speak & Spell' tech toy for Christmas in 1984.
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