The Pasifika disgrace

This posting is about what kind of a nation we want to be and, within that, what kind of an education system we want contributing to it. Do we want a nation and an education system based on valuing variety and difference, or one that is fixed on standardisation and uniformity? National standards are about just that – standardisation and uniformity – and the inevitable ingredient that accompanies them, direction from the top. A standardised, uniform system admits change but only change that is determined from the top on the basis that there is somebody who knows, with that person likely to be the current favoured academic. Not that that academic has real sway over developments; he or she is simply used as a cover for a system’s expression of base education instincts.

If we have a system that values variety and difference, that gives space and encouragement for teacher initiative and the play of imagination – change in such a system comes largely from the bottom – that is teachers.

At the moment, base education instincts rule. Take John Morris and Auckland Grammar – there is little doubt in my mind that Morris gained prior approval from John Key to revert to old-style cram exam mode, with Anne Tolley gleefully getting in behind. Tolley, when she first came into office, said that all she wanted from primary schools was to teach children to read, write, and do numbers – which is what our education philosophy is today.

This means Tolley gives is dismissive of the value of children having their own cultural identity reaffirmed in their school experience – with an important part of that being the use of first language, or being able to learn their own cultural language. There are strong research arguments for the way children’s first language can contribute to overall literacy and learning, but I don’t want to make that my main point – my main point, instead, will be on the emotional and social benefits of providing for learning in a way that reaffirms the identity of all children – fulfilling this as a human right we have subscribed to as a nation, and which, much more than by the way, is accepted for Maori children.

In a nutshell, Tolley has removed the government’s responsibility for Pasifika children learning in their first language by striking out all references to it in the Pasifika Education Plan, and substituting only one focus: Pasifika children’s English literacy needs. This was done, of course, without any genuine consultation. For Pasifika children and their parents there is no provision for, or valuing of, cultural difference. They are simply white kids who happen to have brown faces – who later make up the bulk of the All Blacks.

In an earlier posting (‘Trouble at Learning Media) I wrote that Learning Media, which is dependent on the government for most of its commercial work, has, in my view, lost its way in establishing the appropriate relationship between client and contactor. This is especially unfortunate when the effect of an inappropriate relationship has consequences for the children of New Zealand.

I spoke of how, within Learning Media, the viewpoints of minorities were being carelessly treated, especially in relation to Pasifika policies; as well, there is some resentment, both within Leaning Media and amongst teachers, at Learning Media’s cosy relationship with the government in relation to national standards.

I made the point that with a hostile government, ministry, and education review office, the last thing we need is a commercial firm (albeit a state-owned enterprise) becoming a fourth arm of our oppression.

When teachers, in working with children, use, say, school journals, they don’t want the experience of that use being tainted with connotations of Learning Media’s patsy role with the government.

No sooner had I sent out this posting, I received information that Learning Media was a recipient of major contracts to take national standards’ courses: which means we now find Learning Media in a government stranglehold.

I pointed out that Learning Media (and some other contracted private firms) will do the minister’s bidding in terms of faithfully delivering official policy, no more, no less. This is just what the ministry of education wants – but teachers will only experience it as indoctrination. It will be classroom cradle of dashed dreams to review office grave of them. (I need to add that this is not necessarily a criticism of individual people within Learning Media, many of them having been placed in an invidious position as a result of the decisions of their hierarchy).

The immediate issue for Pasifika children is to do with Anne Tolley’s decision, guilefully moved through by ministry staff, to be concerned only with Pasifika children’s English literacy needs. The reality is that there will be no more Tupu readers after 2010 and diminishing numbers of Pasifika children having access to learning in their first language or to learning a Pasifika language. (Government policy in its advocacy of learning a language makes it clear that this is about third language learning, not Pasifika children learning their own cultural language.)

This is also a human rights issue, which should deeply concern all of us; it also speaks directly to the insincerity of government policy on te reo. I fully appreciate that te reo is of prime importance in New Zealand schools as New Zealand’s indigenous language, but that aside, the argument for Pasifika children and their Pasifika language has many similarities with issues around te reo in schools.

Now I want to make my position clear on a two issues pertinent to the matter. First, arguments for and against deficit theory, leave me cold, are too often used epithetically, too often serve as a distraction from what really matters. While poverty, in general, is associated with reducing education performance, I agree that this should not be perceived as determining any particular child’s education potential. But to not discuss the effect of poverty on education performance because it might lead to stereotyping and thinking determinatively is insulting to teachers, a let out to right-wingers who want to avoid discussing economic inequality, and a disservice to children, many of whom would benefit from schools being in a position to take special care in matters of social disadvantage (for instance, more systematic health checks, nutritional oversight, home-school relations, and increased individual teaching).

Second, I’m not too hung up about the relationship between Pasifika children learning in their first language and its effect on literacy and other education performance. The research for Pasifika children using their first language supports the learning benefit of doing this (as it does for Maori children and te reo). But my view is that it all depends – it all depends on the quality of the teaching and the degree of resource support. My support for Pasifika children learning in their first language, rests mainly on human rights and cultural issues, with the matter of the relationship between this and success in English literacy significant but subsidiary.

The following statement is in the New Zealand Curriculum (2007, p. 24): ‘Languages and cultures play a key role in developing our personal, group, national, and human identities … Because of New Zealand’s close relationship with the people’s of the Pacific, Pasifika languages … have a special place.’

In the normal course of events, that would be that, indeed before that, because no issue could possibly have arisen.

Or is the New Zealand Curriculum, just a sheath of papers?

Nearly all the Tupu series titles are published as booklets with text and full colour illustrations, most are around 12-16 pages in length. They come with audio resources, are written for children from early childhood to secondary, and written in any of the five Pasifika languages: Cook Islands Maori, vagahau Niue, gagana Samoa, gagana Tokelau, and lea Faka-Tonga. The titles are also developed in English. The name Tupu is a common word in many Pasifika languages, meaning to grow.  The titles are intended to help children be taught any of the Pasifika languages and be a source for general reading about the experiences of Pasifika children.

This is an absolute: do not be deceived by the minster or anything that comes out of the minister’s office: Tupu is finished, with no replacement as a Pasifika language resource to follow, and learning in Pasifika first language and learning Pasifika languages on the way out.

I am looking at 50 or so pages obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA) and the reading is deeply disturbing and eerie: deeply disturbing because there is an intolerant authoritarianism about the document, and deeply eerie because it is a rerun, in minor scale, of the national standards’ disgrace.

Using this OIA material, I am now looking at an ‘advisory’ group meeting called together under the name: Publications Pasifika Advisory Group, comprising a group stacked with ministry and Learning Media people, with Pasifika people in a minority. Within the Learning Media group, as the minutes will show, some had bought the ministry line, some hadn’t – the voices of the people who hadn’t, carefully downplayed in the reporting.

Two matters are sufficient to show how these disgraceful Tolley-type advisory groups are set up for a pre-ordained outcome:

‘The Advisory group will meet only once … on one day only, for six hours.’ [This means that there was no come-back, no opportunity for reflection, no opportunity to say the minutes did not fairly represent a point-of-view or the meeting generally.]

‘There will be no more than 10 people … the AG will consist of 4 Ministry … 1-2 LML [Learning Media] and 3-4 external advisers who will be experienced in Pasifika student achievement and literacy achievement.’ [In effect there were eight ministry people there; five Learning Media, and one person from Auckland University (another put in an apology). So what was going on here in the selection?]

In setting the scene the chair/facilitator [Oh please! Spare me the facilitator bit.] said that the ‘Ministry and I emphasise that the workshop should focus on supporting Pasifika students’ English literacy learning (as opposed to Pasifika language learning). [So that was Tupu gone and Pasifika first language learning – would someone please remind me what the meeting was about?]

Key members of the ministry of education at the meeting made the claim that a continuation of first language Pasifika language and literacy materials is unnecessary on the unsubstantiated reasoning that most Pasifika children now speak English only. [The membership was stacked to increase the likelihood of such claims passing through mainly unchallenged.]

Did you notice there was no advisory group meeting of any sort on the epochal decision to dump Pasifika language learning in New Zealand schools?  The meeting began with that as a fait accompli. [It adds up to a dumping because it will have fallen out of official favour with the minister, the ministry, and education review office; it will be even more poorly resourced, and that within schools already under pressure from increased poverty; and publications will not be produced to support it.]

What a dilemma for schools that want, with the support of parents, to provide a right, expressed in the New Zealand Curriculum, for their children to use their first language in learning, or to learn a Pasifika language. There are already a whole series of hurdles for schools that want to provide these: schools with bilingual programmes do not qualify for assistance. (Innovative schools like Finlayson Park and cluster schools do not qualify for this reason.) Bilingual classes may be established by individual schools, but then schools must pay for all the necessary resources and reading materials. Classes from Year 7 up can make provision for learning a Pasifika language but the resources to do this are meagre and those classes have the administrative complexity of having to be part of a cluster with a secondary school.

The situation is dire, vicious, authoritarian, and intolerant. It is an expression of the basest education instincts. It is deeply unworthy of a country with claims to be an enlightened multicultural country.

As a result I call on schools to support the superb efforts of John McCaffery and Judy McFall-McCaffery of Auckland University in their efforts to challenge the damaging Pasifika policies the government is imposing. (  HYPERLINK “”

I call on schools to sign the petition being circulated, and for those in the Auckland area to attend a meeting of protest to be held on Wednesday 16 February at Nga Tapuwae Community Centre, 253 Buckland Road, Mangere, 6.00 pm.

Ma le fa’aaloalo tele/ faka’apa’apa atu

Kelvin Smythe




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