Education

Government makes a start in tackling education inequality

New Zealand has one of the world’s least equal education systems, which has led to a significant gap between the highest and lowest achievers. Laura Walters looks at what the Government is doing to close that gap for Māori.

This year’s five Budget priorities include supporting Māori and Pasifika aspirations, and improving child wellbeing.

As part of this, the Government has given a funding boost to supporting Māori learners and addressing racism and unconscious bias in the classroom.

However, the long-term issue cannot be solved in one Budget and those working in the area say widespread racism and unconscious bias is a product of colonisation – something that will take decades to address.

UNICEF’s 2018 annual Innocenti Report Card, a study of wealthy countries, ranked New Zealand 33rd out of 38 in terms of educational equality.

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.

Policy researcher Jess Berenston-Shaw found Māori and Pasifika children were disproportionately represented in the group of children who under-achieved, and were more likely to be excluded, or expelled, exacerbating inequality.

"Racism exists – we feel little and bad."

While there were improvements in educational wellbeing across all ethnic groups between 2009 and 2016, the gaps between groups (inequality) were static.

This disparity was also highlighted in the review of the Tomorrow’s Schools model, which promotes a model based on competition.

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.

The one place where Māori students did not achieve lower than non-Māori in core statistics like NCEA, early childhood education (ECE) attendance and in primary school reading scores was in Māori-medium education. This shows culture matters.

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft, Associate Education Ministers Tracey Martin and Kelvin Davis, and Māori education academic Leonie Pihama are among the experts who say racism and unconscious bias in the mainstream education system plays a part in gaps in achievement.

Associate Education Minister Kelvin Davis says governments must stop doing things "to" Māori when it comes to education. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s 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.

Last year, Becroft told Newsroom 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.”

In order to tackle the unconscious bias and racism in schools, the Government has broadened what used to be known as Te Kotahitanga, backed by $42 million over three years.

"We really need to stop doing things to Māori."

The new-look programme, named Te Hurihanganui, is aimed at delivering high-quality teaching that reflects culture and identity, and strong engagement from whānau and the wider community.

“The education system has underserved Māori learners. Te Hurihanganui will boost the capability of the education workforce to better support Māori achievement, and transform the learning experiences of Māori students,” Davis said when he unveiled the details of the programme earlier this month.

“These are the attitudes that hold people back and hold Māori back,” he said.

Other initiatives include $12m over four years for Te Ahu o te Reo Māori, which seeks to increase the capacity of te reo teachers and normalise and integrate te reo in schools.

There is also a total of $32m to better support kōhanga reo, and $1.5m over four years to improve outcomes for Māori learners attending kura kaupapa.

The Government has also launched a $2m initiative called Te Kawa Matakura to grow and encourage Māori leaders.

‘Stop doing things to Māori’

Davis said the core of the inequality stemmed from the design of the education system, which was designed neither by nor for Māori.

“It goes to show that governments, for too long, have gone out and said to Māori: ‘This is what the solution is for the problem, and you’re going to love it’...we really need to stop doing things to Māori."

Davis said fixing the system relied on four main factors: creating a relevant curriculum, which included New Zealand and Māori history; research-based best-practice in schools; building stronger and more meaningful relationships between teachers, students and whānau; and valuing language and cultural capital.

“We, as politicians, have to create the conditions where teachers can weave their magic, and teachers have to create the conditions where students will achieve.”

Davis acknowledged there were deep-seated issues borne out of colonisation, land confiscation and urban migration which further dislocated people from their land.

In order to lift achievement, the Government needed to work with Māori and iwi, where they could exert rangitiratanga, and if the Crown worked in partnership as part of a reciprocal relationship, Aotearoa should be able to achieve article three of Te Tiriti: autonomy and equitable outcomes for everyone.

System needs 'disrupting and dismantling'

University of Waikato Te Kotahi Research Institute director Leonie Pihama said the Government could talk about rangatiratanga as much as it liked, but until the Crown saw itself as a partner, rather than a parent, things would not change.

“That paternalism is what’s holding us back.”

The Government’s Budget 2019 initiatives, including Te Hurihanganui, were a starting point but more needed to follow, Pihama said.

Te Hurihanganui was a way to address racism and bias in individual teachers, but it did not get into the embedded fundamental foundations of racism.

It was an “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” approach, and issues around bias should be addressed in teacher training rather than once they manifested in classrooms.

Māori students would be better served by a genuine kaupapa Māori approach, focusing on Māori knowledge and Māori children, Pihama said.

Wholesale reform of a system built out of mission schools about 200 years ago needed to take place in order to address education inequality.

“We need to be disrupting and dismantling the fundamental systems upon which the current system is founded.”

The kura kaupapa and kōhanga reo approach worked because it moved away from the individualised focus of schooling currently used in mainstream schooling.

“That is the philosophy of English language, the philosophy of western thinking, the philosophy of the individualisation of children, the philosophy of competition, of some people being able to succeed and others not, a class structure that is inherent to schooling and racism.”

"We see a disconnection from land; from culture and language being a really big player.”

While addressing the wider, 20-year challenge of rebuilding the system, teachers could also be doing day-to-day things to improve children’s experiences at school.

This included the provision of more Māori resources and making te reo and New Zealand history compulsory, she said.

Davis said it was important to recognise students’ “cultural capital”, which included the inclusion of te reo and understanding history and the impacts of that.

However, he did not believe the Government could make the subjects compulsory when the education system was built on self-governance.

Pihama said the idea that schools would make good choices about language and culture on their own did not play out in the majority of cases.

Sixty percent of Māori children in schools in the Waikato-Tainui region either had no Māori language exposure at school or got only a few words a day.

“In terms of the history of this country, we have deeply embedded historical trauma that impacts on a whole range of other things: dislocation, disconnection, mental health, homelessness, underachievement, incarceration.

“If you look at all those things, we see a disconnection from land; from culture and language being a really big player.”

Davis said the Government would continue to build on initiatives aimed at improving Māori education outcomes, while tackling social issues that exacerbated inequality.

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