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Maori underachievement cannot be ignored   20-02-07

John Fox | 20 February 2007

Printed in The Northland Age, 20 February 2007

The underachievement of Maori boys is "a ticking time bomb", according to Waikato University Professor Russell Bishop. Professor Bishop was commenting this week on the release of statistics showing that 53 percent of Maori boys, and just under half of all Maori pupils, left school in 2005 without a qualification.

The "problem" of Maori underachievement is not new. A truck-load of research traces the scope of the problem: on average Maori have lower academic achievement than non-Maori, higher stand-down statistics, more problems with truancy and they leave school earlier, often resulting in lower incomes and decreased employment opportunities. The released statistics caused the usual squabble between interest groups; the government announcing progress, the opposition demanding action and the PPTA demanding money, all entirely in character.

The same research that shows the problem also hints at some possible solutions. These include whanau involvement, flexible curricula, the incorporation of Maori culture and ways of learning, and professionally trained and organised teachers. These are solutions which put people first, above systems and bureaucracies.

Research also shows that achievement can be raised by a positive school culture and teachers who are equipped to teach those falling behind. The "system" is rigid, inflexible and unresponsive and the system needs to change. Rather than adopting a "one size-fits-all" approach and expecting it to work for everyone, we should set schools free to teach their community their way.

Such a change in approach would require a good deal of thought and consideration. This is not only a government problem, but a concern for the whole community. The community needs to be involved in solving it, in partnership with the government, not dominated by it.

Whanau, school communities and community organisations need to be connected to one another, to begin to support their children, their school and their future. Parents, whanau and communities know what their children need, and schools, of whatever decile and containing pupils of all races, should be able to deliver the change and the curriculum parents want.

In this regard, the new flexible national curriculum which is in progress is a positive step, but more needs to be done to empower parents and communities to take greater ownership and control of their local school. Communities should drive education, not government bureaucrats.

Maori immersion education, like bilingual units in schools and the expansion of Kura Kaupapa schools can help. But we need to do much more to support teachers in low decile mainstream schools, such as through development programmes which consider how Maori pupils learn best. It is not a total solution, but it is what the research and pilot programmes show may help to lift achievement, giving Maori at better chance at a brighter future.