Beyond Māori boys’ writing: Reading and writing our WORLD [part 4]

This seven-part blog series is based on a symposium presented at the 2017 New Zealand Association for Research in Education conference by a group of student Warrior Researchers from Kia Aroha College in Ōtara, South Auckland.

This is the fourth post in the series. To start at the beginning of the series, click hereTo view all posts in the series, click here.


Reading the words

Matthew Katipa | Year 13 | Tainui | Ngāti Whātua

Using the idea of whitewater rapids, Charteris and Smardon (2017) write that

“fish don’t see the water”

and that

“it is difficult to recognise the machinations of neoliberalism when one is swept along in it.”

At Kia Aroha College, we use the term “White Spaces” to explain how schools don’t see the Whiteness that is all around us, driving our education system and alienating Māori and Pasifika learners. The sweeping “White” water idea is used to explain that neoliberal initiatives that treat schools as competing businesses were firstly resisted by educators – Tomorrow’s Schools, National Standards, Innovative Learning Environments, and Communities of Learning are some examples – but as schools were swept along in the rush to make change, these became accepted, normal, and “the way we do business around here.”

The reason for this change is not that schools suddenly changed their minds, but rather that we are in a system that “systematically dismantles the will to critique” – in other words, it becomes harder and harder to resist the white water when the initiative is presented as a “done deal” with little consultation; when schools, whose funding is already frozen, just can’t hold out against the funding offered as the reward for complying; and when promotion and higher salaries tempt some to join in – and others are also persuaded.

Charteris and Smardon argue that educators and researchers have to be the critics and the conscience of education. From our perspective, relying on educators and researchers doesn’t seem to have worked too well for us – so we, the Kia Aroha warrior-researchers, are taking on that role of being the critics and the conscience of education for ourselves.

Reading the government’s words

Investing in Educational Success (IES) is something that you would expect to be a Government’s responsibility, so, at first glance, it would be hard to argue with this initiative. The goal of IES was to improve teaching practice across New Zealand by enabling teachers to collaborate with each other, from early childhood and Kōhanga to post-secondary. The tool to implement this vision became Communities of Learning – or COLs. So what then is the problem?

A Community of Learning is made up of early childhood centres and schools within the same location or community, which form a cluster and analyse their students’ learning needs in order to identify their “achievement challenges” – which they send to the Ministry of Education for approval or “endorsement.” These endorsed achievement challenges then allow the COL to access Ministry of Education funding which goes on the additional salaries of the lead principal for the COL (an additional $25,000 to $30,000 a year), the “across school teachers” ($16,000 a year) and the “within school teachers” ($8,000) as well as on professional development – which has to target literacy and numeracy – and on payment to a range of advisers, accredited by the Ministry, who support the COL.

In 2015, the primary teachers’ union, the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) identified that in the first phase of the IES scheme, large high decile schools were

“pocketing the majority of funding, while decile 1 and 2 schools are getting just 6 percent, even though they make up 14 percent of the schools in the scheme.”

So, as part of our 2017 Warrior-Researchers’ work, I decided to investigate these achievement challenges and find out what the COLs across New Zealand have chosen as their priorities for our learning.

Reading COLs’ words

I worked my way through the Endorsed Achievement Challenges of 77 Communities of Learning, which are published on the Ministry of Education website.

I was shocked by what I found and, right then, decided I could not use the Ministry of Education name, Kāhui Ako, for these groups. Giving something a Māori name does not make it responsive or relevant to Māori learners – and this is certainly the case for COLs.

The graph below shows the results of my analysis. 99% of these 77 COLs have achievement challenges that target Māori boys’ writing, and 96% target Māori girls’ writing. Looking at the graph, it seems like our Maths ability is only slightly better than our writing – and our reading is not too great either. 87% of these COLs want us (Māori students) to achieve NCEA Level 2.

Endorsed achievement challenges 2017.jpg

Now, I’m surrounded by Māori boys and girls in my school, and in my life. I don’t know any who can’t read and write – or calculate! Personally, I completed NCEA Level Three (the qualification typically obtained at the end of Year 13) at the end of Year 12, and I had my University Entrance requirements early this year in Year 13. So did many of my peers. So what is going on? Where are all these non-writing, non-counting, non-reading rangatahi Māori (Māori youth)? Obviously, they are to be found in these 77 communities that stretch right across the country.

So then I looked for evidence in the documentation that sits behind these achievement challenges to find how schools proposed to change their teaching of their Māori learners – seeing that the schools and their current ways of teaching are currently failing these learners so badly. What has worked for me, and my friends, is to learn in an environment that puts our cultural identity “as Māori” FIRST.  So I searched each COL’s documentation for evidence that they would be culturally responsive, or would fulfil the core vision of Ka Hikitia (the government’s Māori Education Strategy) – “Māori children enjoying and achieving education success as Māori.”

Again – in the graph above you can see what I found! Less than a third of the COLs even mentioned culturally responsive practice, and only 18% talked about Māori learning as Māori.

And those words “as Māori” are crucially important. There is a difference between AS Māori and OF Māori. I think the endorsed achievement challenges show that it’s a difference that needs to be clarified.

“To live as Māori” was one of three goals proposed by Sir Mason Durie at the Hui Taumata Matauranga (Māori Education Summit) in 2001. Sir Mason Durie was clear about what “as Māori” meant. He defined it as having access to Māoridom – access to language, culture, cultural practice, marae, resources, iwi, hapū and whānau. He stated further that:

“Being Māori is a Māori reality. Education should be as much about that reality as it is about literacy and numeracy. In short, being able to live as Māori imposes some responsibilities upon the education system to contribute towards the realisation of that goal.”

I can’t see anything in these 77 COLs’ achievement challenges, or in the Communities of Learning initiative overall, to indicate that COLs’ efforts will be culturally sustaining, or allow us to learn as Māori! So I have some questions:

  • We know we are not less intelligent than Pākehā, so why don’t schools know how to teach us?
  • You would think these 77 COLs would ask WHY they are achieving these results – or do they think it’s our fault?
  • Why is NCEA level 2 the goal for Māori achievement in the COLs? Are Pākehā whānau happy with that goal?
  • And, ultimately, isn’t this just racist?

I wish I could say that it is difficult to fathom why schools continue to fail Māori and Pasifika learners. However, a good friend of our school, Matua Jeff Duncan Andrade from the University of San Francisco and the founder of Roses in Concrete community school in California, talks about “Inequity by Design.” He says:

“We are choosing to create systemic conditions where some kids succeed and some kids fail – and we know at the start of the school year with incredible accuracy who those kids are going to be.”

I agree with this. He states that education is a “rigged game” where we know exactly what the outcomes are going to be. He makes a distinction between schooling and education, saying:

Schooling is a process by which you institutionalise people to accept their “proper” station in life. Education is the process by which you teach people that they can fundamentally change the society.”

It seems to me that there is little likelihood that we are going to change the status quo—which is that schools fail us—through the Communities of Learning initiative. And how do COLs cope with a school, like ours, that does have a different philosophy and does think we can go out and change the world – in fact that is one of the aims stated in our school’s Graduate Profiles. How would we fit into a COL that wants to focus on our reading and writing – and not on us?

It is imperative that the culture and cultural identity of our rangatahi is valued and sustained by our schools, so that our education system gives them what Matua Jeff calls audacious, critical hope. He explains that this is not that same as the false hope that is pervasive and peddled in many schools, and is one of our biggest barriers to change. He defines three types of false hope – hokey hope, mythical hope, and hope deferred.

  • Hokey hope suggests if youth just work hard, listen, and play by the rules they’ll succeed in school. While those expectations might be valid, this hope is ‘hokey‘ because it ignores the inequities that impact on young people.  Isn’t that what the COL challenges that focus on our deficits are doing?
  • Mythical hope relies on the stories of those few students who do successfully navigate the system in order to construct a myth of meritocracy. Mythical hope relies on luck and the law of averages to get a few people through. But, I ask, at what cost? If we have to compromise or lose our cultural identity – is that OK, as long as we read and write better?
  • The third type of false hope is hope deferred – a common justification for poor teaching – teachers who don’t feel equipped to cope and blame the economy, or the system, or anything else, the students, their families, without translating those realities into changing their practice in their classes. They hope something else will change – like us, for example (as the COL goals show).

I’m reminded of another Matua Jeff quote about the accumulation of stress that comes from having to constantly adjust to fit into a system that wasn’t designed by us or for us, from the impact of colonisation, assimilation, and racism, from loss – of land, language, culture and identity over many generations.

This build-up of stress feels to us like constantly having a boot on your neck. The answer is not to strengthen our necks – or in the case of communities of learning, strengthen our reading and writing – the solution is dealing with the boot that is keeping us in this position. That boot is the reason WHY schools are failing us, and why Communities of Learning won’t make a difference.

Boot on neck.jpg

While schools continue to look to the wrong place (our reading and writing performance), they will continue to lose the opportunity to make a difference – so my analysis of the endorsed achievement challenges, and everything else I have learned about COL leads me to think that these COLS are wrongly named. My acronym instead would be COLO – Communities of Lost Opportunity – not our loss, but the loss of our schools to open their minds and look at themselves.


The first three posts in this series introduced the Kia Aroha students’ research and their critical readings of their local community (Ōtara) and school contexts.

Having examined governments’ and schools’ / COLs’ ‘words’ in this fourth post, the next post reports on the students’ interviews with Māori principals to gain their perspective on these issues.

To view all posts in the series, click here.


Kia Aroha Symposium 2017

The 2017 Kia Aroha College Warrior-Researchers Group was made up of eight students in Years 12 and 13.

The following six students presented the group’s work at the 2017 NZARE Conference in Hamilton:

  • Jasmine Bellamy | Year 13 | Ngāti Kahu | Ngāti Kahungunu
  • Pilisi Mafi | Year 13 | Toa ko Pouvalu | Vai ko Puna
  • Foloiola Finau | Year 12| Hufangalupe | Lotokaiano
  • Matthew Katipa | Year 13 | Tainui | Ngāti Whātua
  • Jacob Harris-Kaaka | Year 12 | Te Aupouri | Ngāti Kuri
  • Timitimi Ropata | Year 12 | Ngāti Toa Rangatira | Ngai Tai

Two further students, Aneeva Cherrington-Christie and Harry Seuala, also contributed during the year. The group acknowledge the support of their past principal, Dr Ann Milne, who mentored them through their research.

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