It was all over the media last week – after the release of the report, Education matters to me: Key insights, which is the outcome of a three-way collaboration between children and young people, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, and the New Zealand School Trustees Association. The young people’s voices were sought to contribute to the development of the Statement of National Education and Learning Priorities that were introduced into the Education Act 1989 in May 2017. These priorities will “allow the Minister of Education to direct schools on the priorities they must concentrate on for the next five years.”
The media headlines read: “Study finds ‘disturbing’ racism in NZ schools” (Newshub), “Students tell of racism in study of how they view the education system,” (Stuff) and “Māori, Pasifika kids reveal racism in schools,” (RadioNZ). Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft says that the children’s comments about the racism they encounter in schools were unsolicited, and were a surprise to interviewers. He is quoted as saying, "It's surprising to us, it's disturbing - I'm sure most teachers would be horrified."
My first question is, who were these interviewers? I cannot think of a single Māori parent, grandparent, teacher, or educator who would be ‘surprised’ by the young people’s comments. Dr Leonie Pihama tweeted her response to the report, “We have had the same findings every year since 1816...”
The reality is that as Pākehā, we don’t have to notice racism on a daily basis; we only notice racism when the media presents it to us loudly enough, or when, in the case of former mayor of New Plymouth, Andrew Judd, it happens to a White man, who dared to advocate for Māori and spoke out about the abuse he encountered as a result —describing himself as a “recovering racist.” While I applaud his actions and the heightened awareness some Pākehā gained as a result of this publicity, why do we only get this level of media attention, when Pākehā speak out? The same applies to this report.
So yesterday, I talked to the “Warrior-Researchers” (also here) at Kia Aroha College. We read the news articles, we looked at the six key insights in the report, and I asked them, “Are you surprised at the findings of the report”? Of course, they were not! When we convened as a group last year, their first task was to talk to their whānau about their experiences of racism in our education system. They came back with stories that spanned the generations of the whānau members they talked to. I could relate to these all too well.
My own pathway, as a Pākehā teacher, raised in a predominantly Māori community, took a sharp turn when my own children, identifying strongly as Māori through their father’s whakapapa, encountered racism at secondary school. I’m sure they experienced racism earlier, in primary school, but now they could articulate how uncomfortable they were. Some incidents were subtle—teachers asking them to read out Māori names because they “couldn’t get their tongues around those,” others were blatantly in their faces. The report gives the example of a primary student complaining of students calling “us brown kids” “pieces of poo” and “baa baa black sheeps.” Those children will remember those taunts for life.
Last year I went to a conference where my oldest daughter was speaking about her leadership journey. She told of her secondary school experience—being called names like “kumara” and “no milk” (as in black tea), and of the karanga to welcome her into her school assembly as the winner of the Ngā Manu Kōrero speech competition, when groups of students made ‘ape’ noises. We hadn’t spoken of these types of incidents for years, but I was not surprised that their memory and their impact were still there. That was 35 years ago. As the report and my students confirmed, this type of racism is still a regular occurrence in every Māori and Pasifika learner’s daily experience of school. Clearly, this hasn’t changed over generations, in schools or in society as my granddaughter's experience last year showed (Read my blog post, Racism recorded, for that story).
And that personal racism is layered on top of, and a direct result of, the institutional racism deeply embedded in our education system, that allows us to consistently fail our Māori children, and blame them for those results. Embedded, in our stand downs, suspensions, and exclusion statistics, in our definitions of achievement and success, in our belief we have a monopoly on advanced, scholarly ("academic") learning, in our outcomes, in our dropout rates, underpinned by our failed policies like National Standards, entrenched in our teacher training, and played out in our pedagogy that negates and eradicates who our children are and continues to assimilate them in our schools. How dare we be surprised! Many other words spring to mind - surprised is definitely not one of them!
I’ve said this before, but the fact remains that in 2017 in New Zealand:
73% of all teachers were Pākehā
80% of school management and leadership positions were held by Pākehā
73% of all teachers were female
Yet the groups our education system fails most consistently are Māori and Pasifika boys, then Māori and Pasifika girls, so there is a huge gap in our understanding of the lives and aspirations of the children we need to make the biggest changes for. I am a Pākehā teacher, and I know how hard we work, and how intent we are on doing our best for children, but the truth is that, until our teacher professional development intensively targets this gap in our understanding, instead of our relentless blinkered focus on literacy, numeracy, and NCEA results, we will continue to fail our Māori and Pasifika children, and they will continue to store up these assaults, and what’s worse, believe that they somehow deserve them. The accumulated experience and stress on our youth is toxic.
I asked the students yesterday what they would tell Andrew Becroft or the interviewers about their experience of school? Was there a difference between their primary school education, or their experiences in other schools, and the environment they have at Kia Aroha College, a special-character school that is focused on their cultural identity?
They had plenty of suggestions: be honest about the Pasifika Education Plan and Ka Hikitia -don’t say the vision is about languages, identities and “as Māori” if that’s not the truth and the goals are literacy, numeracy, and NCEA; put culture at the centre, and everywhere; in other schools the relationships might be “friendly” but are “just student and teacher,” here they are really like whānau and our teachers are committed to us 24/7.
Jacob said he was struggling to put his thoughts into words. Finally, he explained, “It’s like, if there's a harakeke (flax) basket that gets broken, most schools would throw it out. Here, they don’t care what it looks like and never throw it away, they carefully weave it back together, and when they do that, they strengthen it.” Why can't all schools 'strengthen' the experience of our rangatahi! The report suggests, “the government should consider the students' comments when developing its Statement of National Education and Learning Priorities and the Education Ministry should consult directly with students.”
I know some!