Our racist education system

New Zealand has one of the least equal education systems in the world, and experts tell Laura Walters colonisation and racism are largely to blame.

A new report has found New Zealand has one of the least equal education systems in the rich world, with Māori children lagging behind Pākehā.

Further analysis of the report found Māori students falling significantly behind on every measure of educational outcome including secondary school retention rate, school leavers achieving NCEA Level 2, and rate of youth in education, employment or training.

But those who attend Māori immersion schools do much better at reading, and achieve much higher in NCEA and at university or in employment.

While there has been a lot of focus on the impacts of coming from a low-socioeconomic community or household, research carried out in New Zealand (as well as in the United States looking at African American students) has found poverty cannot entirely account for the gap between Māori and Pākehā.

Experts, including the Children’s Commissioner and Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin, say racism and unconscious bias in the mainstream education system play a part in gaps in achievement.

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said the enduring legacy of colonisation – “the c-word” – was behind a lot of the long-term disadvantage.

“Coupled with modern systemic bias, and unconscious individual bias, you put those two things together and they are a potent cocktail for ongoing disadvantage for Māori,” he said.

“It’s an uncomfortable and unpalatable reality that is hard to swallow as a New Zealander in 2018.”

The statistics

The UNICEF Innocenti Report rated New Zealand 33rd out of 38 OECD countries when it came to the gap between the top 10 percent of students and the bottom 10 percent.

The report looked at enrolment and participation in early childhood education, primary school and high school reading scores.

Further analysis by policy researcher Jess Berenston-Shaw found Māori and Pasifika children were disproportionately represented in the group of children who under-achieved.

Māori and Pasifika students were more likely to be excluded, or expelled, exacerbating inequality.

Berenston-Shaw’s report showed there were improvements across all ethnic groups between 2009-2016 in educational wellbeing, but the gaps between groups (inequality) were static.

Meanwhile, 71 percent of Māori stayed at school until 17, compared to 85 percent of Pākehā.

And NCEA level 2 attainment is 67.9 percent for Māori, compared to 83.8 percent for Pākehā, according to the Education Counts website.

The impacts of colonisation

Systemic and institutional racism, as well as individual bias and racism, can manifest in many ways.

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin recently spoke about a Parliamentary inquiry into dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorders, which received more than 400 submissions, but none from Māori.

That means there is an awful lot of Māori and Pasifika students who are somewhere on the dyslexia scale – if we just take dyslexia – but it hasn’t been recognised.

“And for whatever reason; unconscious bias, people have decided there’s another reason they can’t read.”

University of Waikato Te Kotahi Research Institute director associate professor Leonie Pihama (Te Atiawa, Waikato-Tainui, Ngā Māhanga a Tairi) said the education system, and the intentions that underpinned it, had failed Māori children for 200 years.

She said both strands of the argument around inequality – socio-economic deprivation, and racism – could be traced back to colonisation, and the institutional racism and bias, which made its way into the system.

The intentions of New Zealand education have had a detrimental effect on Māori since the system’s inception in 1816, Pihama said.

“It was an assimilatory intention, a civilising intention, a colonising intention, and a Christianising intention…

“To be honest, in my view, in 200 years we haven’t moved much further away from that fundamental underpinning philosophy of education.”

Common manifestations included comments on the playground, and in the past te reo banned in schools.

In recent years, there have been debates about whether te reo Māori should be included as a compulsory subject in New Zealand schools, along with the history of the land wars.

But so far, there has not been the will from government or the Ministry of Education to opt for compulsion.

The current Government has a plan to improve staffing and professional development in order to offer “comprehensive te reo in schools by 2025” but would not commit to it being a compulsory subject. While Nanaia Mahuta and Willie Jackson both uttered the word, they were rebuked by Winston Peters, who is against compulsion.

Meanwhile, the Green Party recently launched a revamped policy pushing for compulsion by 2025, but this is not on the coalition agenda, and Green MPs do not hold any ministerial education portfolios.

Issues in the mainstream

Pihama said children in the mainstream education system were not given the opportunity to be fully Māori.

“While we’re waiting, we’ve already lost 200 years, and we’re about to lose another five,” she said.

“We are depriving a whole generation of children the ability to be bilingual. I think there needs to be some urgency around this, because Māori children are continuing to hear the message that their language is not important, therefore they are not important, and their history is not important, therefore they are not important.”

Studies had also pointed to the "Pygmalion effect" – what National’s Nikki Kaye referred to as a “poverty of expectation”, where there were self-fulfilling prophecies regarding low expectations of children in certain groups.

A 2016 study called Unconscious Bias and Education: A comparative study of Māori and African American students raised this as an issue with Māori children in New Zealand.

And earlier this year, the Children’s Commissioner carried out a study of New Zealand students, where racism was one of the key points raised by students.

“I think it is a very painful topic for some educators to talk about.”

The Education Matters to Me report found many young people experienced racism at school and said they were treated unequally because of their culture.

“Racism exists – we feel little and bad,” one student in an alternative education unit said during an interview for the study of 2000 children, including 150 face-to-face interviews.

Becroft said he was surprised by the consistency of the message from non-Pākehā students.

“Whether we like it or not, or even agree with it, that is the lived experience of some children and it is significant to them.”

Some teachers would be horrified to think there was systemic bias, or racism, but it existed, he said.

National’s Kaye said while it was important not to overstate the prevalence of what she referred to as unconscious bias, it did exist.

“I think it is a very painful topic for some educators to talk about.”

She said National and ACT’s charter school model was a way of catering to students who did not fit into mainstream education, to help improve equality.

These schools had the freedom to cater to students’ needs outside the usual state system.

The coalition has since abolished charter schools, with the majority transitioning to special character schools, or state-integrated schools, under the mainstream system.

Culture matters

While Māori students generally achieve lower than non-Māori when looking at core statistics like NCEA level 2 achievement, ECE attendance, and reading scores in primary school, students in Māori medium education do not.

Those in Māori medium at high school, achieve much higher in NCEA level 2 (79.6 percent, compared to 67.9 percent for Māori in mainstream schools).

UNICEF child rights advocacy director Andre Whittaker said culture mattered.

Culture and the way of building relationships and learning needed to be affirmed in the classroom.

Children who went through Māori medium education also achieved higher in the mainstream and university and in their career, he said.

When students feel like they belong, they do better.

Whittaker said UNICEF was currently working on recognising the impact of colonisation on indigenous communities.

During this process, which included increasing engagement with iwi and whanau, rangatahi had described specific instances of bias and racism in mainstream education.

Pihama said that racism and bias did not exist in Māori medium schools, where kids were free to be themselves, and “fully Māori”.

Changing the system

All factions agree culture and language are a key factor in fighting racism and bias, and helping children feel a sense of belonging – something that helps them achieve better in education.

However, there is not consensus on how to get there.

All political parties have different views on te reo in schools, and whether it should be compulsory, and how that would be delivered.

However, all agree there needs to be better access to language and culture, which includes improving teachers' skill levels.

There needed to be more of an emphasis on language, culture, New Zealand history and how to recognise and combat racism and bias in teacher training programmes, Pihama and Kaye said.

Better yet, if teachers were taught more on these topics when they were at school, they would come into the profession with a different perspective – one where they were less likely to hold racist or biased views, they said.

Current education reviews meant there was an opportunity to change the mainstream education system for the better, Pihama said.

“I actually think it’s really exciting. We’re at the point where we could see some really exciting changes… Rather than continuing this kind of white supremacy view that came out of racism – that colonial hierarchy of race – that Māori language is somehow deficient, and somehow lesser than, and inferior to English.”

Using the lessons already learnt from Māori medium education, New Zealand had the potential to close the gap between the 70 percent of children who did well in education – and life, generally – and the 30 percent who struggled because of challenges, including poverty and racism, she said.

Can you help our journalists uncover the facts?

Newsroom is committed to giving our journalists the time they need to uncover, investigate, and fact-check tough stories. Reader donations are critical to buying our team the time they need to produce high-quality independent journalism.

If you can help us, please donate today.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.

With thanks to our partners