Māori students are failing in our education system. Or reframed, the system is failing Māori students. Which is it? A new approach in Hawke’s Bay suggests an answer.

Two decades ago a black teenager in London was murdered by a group of white kids. The police investigation was so poorly handled that a Royal Commission investigation led by Sir William Macpherson concluded that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”.

The fallout from the Stephen Lawrence murder and its investigation sent a shockwave of response through the Metropolitan Police Service. Issues in the Met had bubbled for decades, then a sudden impact forced change and the Service undertook a determined and systematic process of compulsory professional development for all 50,000 staff, unpicking inbuilt prejudices and deep-set perceptions of society and culture. It took acknowledgment of the problem, identification of the remedy, and a lot of in-your-face confrontational home-truths. It was a mammoth undertaking, but not an impossible one.

Institutional racism is “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”.

Anecdotally, statistically, and in massively general terms, our Māori students are failing in our education system, or, reframed, the system is failing Māori students. Which is it?

At the University of Waikato, Professor Russell Bishop (Tainui/NgatiAwa) is deconstructing underlying prejudice in education. His ten-year old Te Kotahitanga programme is viewed by many as a shining light in New Zealand’s education system. It is certainly creating a metamorphosis in teaching practices, witnessing huge successes in Māori students and turning traditional classroom constructs on their heads.

Four Hawke’s Bay secondary schools have adopted Te Kotahitanga as an integral part of their professional development programme: Napier Boys’ High School, William Colenso College, Flaxmere College and Hastings Boys’ High School.

Te Kotahitanga asks teachers, and students, to rethink negative stereotyping of Māori as learners, or more particularly as non-learners, who achieve less than their classmates. It challenges participants to put aside deficit thinking and become conscious enablers of success.

The expectation is that students who experience a more culturally responsive educational environment will be confident to continue with their learning, through to Year 13 and beyond.

Making culture count

The single, unifying principle is that teachers must do away with any negative theorising about a preordained lack of achievement from Māori students, and instead adopt a position as an agent of success where they believe whole-heartedly in their students’ ability to achieve.

Te Kotahitanga positions the teacher – personally – as an agent of change rather than simply a facilitator of the status quo, and the students as active participants, even co-leaders in their own goal setting and accomplishment.

“Research started with talking to students, listening to them, developing an effective teaching profile. If you can get teachers to be culturally responsive, that makes a significant difference for Māori students, and for all students,” says Principal of William Colenso College, Daniel Murfitt.

How that plays out in the classroom depends somewhat on the teacher and their students. Group work, roleplay and student-led discussions all feature. Classrooms become places where power is shared in a non-dominating way, where culture counts, and where success is helped along because of the cultural background of the student, not in spite of it.

The first step is for teachers to leave prejudice at the door.

“Removal of the deficit thinking that goes on, that’s quite a challenge. Society and certain people have ingrained deficit thinking. If you’ve still got that kind of thinking, you can’t make change,”
says Murfitt.

Deficit thinking can get in to the heads of not only teachers but students as well. The methods introduced through Te Kotahitanga see students becoming more engaged, and more enthusiastic about their own success and learning.

The programme has defined layers of professional development. Te Kotahitanga facilitators, working within the school, observe and analyse the methods each teacher uses in the classroom, then feed back to the teacher on potential improvements to their practice. Together, they then set goals and a path for achieving them.

All this means students are receiving an enriched, student-centric experience of school that celebrates their cultural differences, pushes them past what is the accepted norm, even past their own internalised racism, where they may see themselves as a failure even very early on in their education journey.

“It’s about understanding individual need better; adjusting things, even slightly; and having aspirational conversations with students,” believes Ross Brown, Principal at Napier Boys’ High School where 300, of a roll of 1200, identify as Māori.

There are 75 staff at Napier Boys’, and all of them have been through the training, but in stages, so some are nearing completion while others have just begun. It is a resource-hungry programme; the school has four Te Kotahitanga facilitators.

“I can see the good in it. The good is in the quality and nature of professional discussions. Formally; but also informally, around the photocopier. We’ve now got a much richer discussion with our staff, thanks in part to this programme,” says Ross Brown.

Making change

A defining element of the programme is ‘co-construction sessions’, where teachers look at individual challenges, both their own and their students, and methods for steering a way through; what has worked, what has not; the issues and the wins.

Daniel Murfitt describes the importance of co-construction meetings as a place where teachers can openly discuss challenges and potential strategies to overcome them.

“This programme has helped us develop learning communities within our school, to help teachers help each other. It’s opened up doors,” he says.

A key focus is on building effective relationships between teachers and students, and peer-to-peer with teachers supporting each other to adjust and improve their teaching practice.

Te Kotahitanga can be confronting, but even staff who are initially negative towards the ambitions of the programme are impacted by it.

Ross Brown, who himself has been through the training, understands how it can, at first, be challenging for some teachers.

“It is intense, but generally staff are very positive. Their opinion is that we’ve got to do something. One of the early steps is asking ourselves ‘Have we been teaching in a way that works for our students?’ Our teachers have been challenged to look at the way they teach, and maybe consider new ways and approaches. We’ve found it to be useful, productive, positive, rich.”

Traditional vs Tribal

Daniel Murfitt believes a real issue with our education system is that it is fundamentally Euro-centric, or Anglo Saxon.

“Our education system is very Anglo Saxon, and the people who have driven change in the past, who have made a difference, have been Anglo Saxon.” Murfitt describes two differing approaches to teaching: one traditional and one referred to as ‘tribal’.

The first places the ‘What’ at the forefront of learning – ‘What am I learning’ – and then ‘Why’.
The second places the ‘Who’ at the beginning – meaning personal connection is the most important factor in the learning equation.

In many ways this is the crux of Te Kotahitanga. A tribal approach is focused on connections, then purpose and methodology, and finally knowledge, whereas the traditional Anglo Saxon approach values What, Why and How, and often fails to consider the Who at all.

In a culturally responsive environment, learning is all about the Who, and the relationship that
ideas have with the central figure of the student.

Working in Hawke’s Bay?

From its oversight position, the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) was, in its first few years, pessimistic about Te Kotahitanga, feeling the programme was too resource intensive to be sustainable. The programme also relies heavily on strong school leadership and change management skills, two elements sometimes lacking in the very schools that could benefit most from such a programme.

All four Hawke’s Bay schools were in Phase 5 of the programme roll out, three years ago, there are now over fifty schools signed up. Daniel Murfitt believes that if Te Kotahitanga can survive through to Phases 6 and 7 (there are no Te Kotahitanga schools in Taranaki or anywhere in the South Island) then a ‘tipping point’ might be reached and the programme will trigger a wave of change through the whole New Zealand education system.

“I strongly believe it’s something the Government should continue to fund because it can make substantial change to New Zealand society. If we’re lifting Māori kids then we’re lifting everyone,” says Murfitt.

“At Colenso, there’s been a 100% increase in the number of Year 12 Māori students achieving NCEA Level 2 between 2009 (pre-Te Kotahitanga) and 2011. A number of factors and strategies have been implemented that have led to this increase, but Te Kotahitanga has been the overarching umbrella that has enabled all these parts to take effect, and also to be sustained.”

The introduction of the programme through its first five phases has been successful thanks to sufficient funding, thorough on-going research over many years led by Dr Russell Bishop and his team, and proactive leadership on the ground in participating schools. The challenge is sustainability, especially when central government holds the purse strings.

“For us funding will drop off over the next two years. So over the next 18 months the Board of Trustees will be making decisions on ‘Where to from here?’”, explains Ross Brown, adding: “We’ve got to keep it moving to bring about change.”

For Ross Brown the benefits are far broader than the original aim “Te Kotahitanga has its origins in improving Māori success; the reality is it works for everybody.”

“For our teachers the principles of Te Kotahitanga are in the back of their minds all the time. Even people who are negative about it at first can’t escape the conversation. It means they are adjusting and thinking about the way they’re teaching,” he continues.

Brown does, however, warn that Te Kotahitanga is no silver bullet.

“We don’t win all the battles.” At Napier Boys’ in 2011, 32 of the 154 Year 13 students were Mãori, and of those 32 only one has chosen not to go on to some form of training or employment.

Home truths

Te Kotahitanga is a programme that requires resourcing, and needs people within the school singularly focused on facilitation and feedback. It may not have the speed or directness of a silver bullet, but outcomes in students show it to be a very positive step forward.

For New Zealand’s education system, locked-in thinking about who will grow up to win, and who to fail is corrosive and detrimental to the success of all our young people. Pinning blame on the system is an easy option, but change happens when dedicated individuals grow brave enough to rethink the accepted norm, and step a little outside their own comfort zone to experience the cultural mindset of someone else.

Breaking the Stereotype

Bethany Millar and Regina Thomson have been firm friends and school mates since Year 9.

Now in Year 13, Regina is Head Girl and Bethany is Deputy Head Girl at William Colenso College in Napier. As one of four schools in Hawke’s Bay engaged in the Te Kotahitanga programme, Colenso has reframed the traditional learning environment and structures. From the student point of view there are certainly benefits.

Bethany Millar and Regina Thomson

“My teachers put a lot of effort in to helping us and I want to put effort in for them. You can’t ignore that,” explains Regina. “When you achieve things you feel good about it and you can use that feeling for the future – to help you do more.”

Regina balances her school work load with a part-time job, netball, basketball, kapahaka and dance, as well as her many commitments as the head of Colenso’s student leadership team.

“My Mum and Dad cried when I was made Head Girl. They were really happy and very proud of me. You see that you’ve made your family proud, and that helps too, it makes you want to achieve more.”
Bethany is also active outside of school. She is a member of her local Salvation Army Youth Group and plays hockey for Colenso.

“Our teachers take time to help us,” says Bethany. “That helps us achieve. They talk to us, one on one, and that brings that extra bit out of us. If they have the belief in you then you have that same belief in yourself.”

The Te Kotahitanga programme was designed and implemented in schools specifically to help Māori students achieve, but it is also showing strong results in students from all cultural backgrounds.
“Teachers putting time into me, makes me want to put more time in too,” says Bethany.

The two girls have quite different but equally commendable career aspirations. Regina plans to join the Navy and train as a Navy medic, she’s drawn to the idea of travelling the world, serving her country. Bethany is investigating a degree in education and would like to be a primary or secondary school teacher. Both girls want to build a career based on helping other people.

At Colenso it appears Regina and Bethany have an equal chance to succeed in life after school. But they have statistics working against them. Amongst many New Zealanders, it is expected that Bethany, of European extraction, will do well, and that Regina, as a Māori, will not.

Around 65% of non-Māori girls in Year 13 will gain an NCEA level 3 qualification, or above. For Māori girls it’s just over 40%, with less than 30% of Māori boys gaining an NCEA level 3.

Nationally, 77% of non-Māori 17 year olds are enrolled in some form of education, the same can be said for only 60% of Māori. In Hawke’s Bay 45% of Māori students will leave the education system without any form of qualification at all.

Te Kotahitanga has a simple, but not a simplistic goal: to improve the achievements of Māori students. What participants in the programme are finding – from Te Kotahitanga facilitators, to principals, to the students themselves – is that if the achievement rates of Māori students can be lifted, then all students in that classroom setting will improve their rates of success.

Teachers matter

Regina has had some experience of school life away from Colenso. She spent her Year 10 in another school but found the teaching styles and structures didn’t work well for her. “I didn’t do so well there, so I came back here, to Colenso. There, I found it was a prejudiced environment. It was strict but I started doing worse not better. I came back and I’ve loved it. It was a good move for me.”

“I know I’m learning heaps from different teachers. It’s a relaxing environment because our teachers aren’t stressed out. We all get along with them really well,” explains Regina. “They push us to achieve, and then when we do they push us to get merit and then excellence, and we do,” Regina adds, referring to the levels of NCEA grading.

“If they hear us saying negative things about ourselves they say, ‘I believe in you’ and that helps us believe in ourselves. They expect a lot from us, and they get it.”

Te Kotahitanga has found a sympathetic environment at William Colenso College. Among the School’s tenets are quality relationships and quality outcomes for all students. There is also a strong emphasis on Māori students achieving success as Māori. Much of this resonates with the objectives of Te Kotahitanga.

Principal at William Colenso College, Daniel Murfitt, is a strong advocate for Te Kotahitanga.

Murfitt describes how many people see the statistics and write-off Māori students as being less likely to succeed: ‘under-achievers’. Without breaking those patterns of self-fulfilling prophecy at some point, the ever-decreasing circle of failure will simply continue, ad infinitum.

For Murfitt, Te Kotahitanga is a catalyst for breaking negative stereotyping and deficit thinking. “Really what we’re doing is changing society – it’s a massive challenge — but if we don’t, New Zealand is not going to go ahead.”

Change across the board starts with teachers, the majority of whom are high-quality professionals dedicated to the wellbeing of all their students; driven by the kids they teach. But Te Kotahitanga asks teachers to move focus away from themselves in the classroom and on to the students; it calls for a student-centric approach to learning rather than the traditional teacher-led model.

Murfitt reflects on what has been found through research of effective teaching practices here in New Zealand, and elsewhere. “All teachers have a significant impact on achievement,” Murfitt says. He goes on to explain that although research found this to be overwhelmingly the case, in the past many teachers themselves did not acknowledge their own effect on student outcomes.

“Māori students were saying teachers make a difference, teachers are important; Māori parents were saying teachers make a difference; but the teachers themselves were saying something different.”

Te Kotahitanga goes a long way towards helping the teaching staff at Colenso realise the integral place they hold in the holistic wellbeing of their students.

Statistics say 30% of a student’s experience of life is determined by their school. Of that 30%, 25% is their teachers and only 5% is the school leadership, environment, buildings, processes, and all the other parts of the education equation. That means that a quarter of how a young person experiences and sees the world is determined by their teacher. That’s a huge responsibility, but reframed, a huge honour and opportunity also.

Both Regina Thomson and Bethany Millar, two girls full of potential with inspiring and rewarding lives ahead of them, put a lot of their achievements to date down to the strong, positive relationships they have with their teachers.

“I’ve always liked my teachers. My friends who are at other schools don’t often say that, but for me it’s the ‘family-ness’ of school, the community feeling we have here,” says Bethany.

Although teachers do hold an undoubtedly vital position in the factors for success, Regina’s stance is that the student really is at the centre of the learning, in every way.

“Teachers make a big impact, but in the end it’s your decision if you want to achieve, not the teachers.” Sage consideration from a young leader determined not to be just a statistical anomaly but a pacesetter for the sea change that could, given the necessary resources, make a real difference in
New Zealand.

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