X Factor and Te Kotahitanga

So, it’s time for me to stop being cute, and actually deal with a few facts.  When National says 20% of students are leaving school without good qualifications they are right.  Never mind about the distribution, and the nuance, they are right.  They are also right to say that this is not acceptable.  Although New Zealand does well in the PISA tests we do less well at bridging the gap between the people who are achieving and those who are not.  Overall we are doing really well, but in parts of New Zealand we are not.  It is still not true to say that “schools are failing them”.  Schools can join the queue of responsibility along with all the other things that have failed those students.  Somewhere in that queue would be generations of politicians.  So let’s talk about one group in our school system who do badly, and a programme the government should be investing more money in.


New Zealand, like all former colonies of some long faded empire, has a first people.  In New Zealand they are the Maori who arrived here in perhaps 800AD.  Captain Cook showed up in 1769, and British settlement began in earnest from the 1840s.  Once the colonisers had killed the Maori or dispossessed the Maori or even, in some extreme cases, fairly bought land off the Maori, the situation for the Maori was grave.  Like our British cousin colonies of Australia and Canada, New Zealand’s first people are poorer, live shorter lives, are more likely to leave school without qualifications, and end up in court far more often than the descendants of the colonisers.

I believe that the situation for Maori is much better than it is for say the Inuit, or the Cherokee, or the Aborigine, but that’s not saying a great deal.  The Left in New Zealand tries intervention, and special targeted programmes to improve the lot of Maori, and the Right in New Zealand tend to scrap these programmes and say that we are all equal and different treatment on the basis of race is racist.  Which is correct.  A society where one race is poorer, lives shorter lives, has higher incarceration rates, and so on, is pretty clearly a racist society.  If that is too blunt, let’s just say it is a society dealing with a racist legacy that feels queasy with creating race-based programmes to sort out the imbalance.

One such “racist” programme that attempts to fix a problem is called Te Kotahitanga.  It is a programme worked out in New Zealand to try and raise Maori achievement in schools.

Here is Russell Bishop, the programme director, talking about Te Kotahitanga (don’t worry, it’s a very short clip).

You will note what he says about the Maori students who are engaged and do well at school.  They said that they had to “leave who they were at the door… to achieve in the system you had to be like a pakeha person.”  The Te Kotahitanga programme seeks to change this fact.  Here is Russell Bishop again, explaining succinctly how this could be changed.

I would like you to note this section of the clip.

“I’ve always found that one of the biggest challenges in getting schools to accept what we’re talking about has been this business of our wanting to focus on Māori students. Whereas the common mantra has been that we treat all students the same, that we don’t single out one particular group of people and focus on them.”

Which is, I can tell you first hand, how Te Kotahitanga and its ideas was greeted in both of the schools I have worked in by a solid core of teachers.  Once they hear the ideas behind Te Kotahitanga they say something like:

  • “I do all of those things for all of my students anyway.  I treat everyone the same.”
  • “Why should I focus just on Maori students?  That’s not fair.”

To be honest with you, this was my reaction too.  Until I confronted three facts over the last three years.

Fact One (an anecdotal “fact”)

I was a Dean for two years at a lower decile school.  This mainly meant working with the “naughty” kids.  I didn’t keep a running tally, but it is a fact that my clientele were mostly Maori.  Mostly Maori boys if we want to be specific, but there were plenty of Maori girls coming to my office as well.  Of course all races were represented on the chair across from me in my office, but Maori boys were there more often and for more serious offences.  I once had an afternoon of restorative meetings with three different students and their famalies for fairly serious things and they were all Maori boys.  If I had to put figures to it I would say that 65-70% of the students I worked with in my office were Maori, and that the school had a role that was 43% Maori.

You need to know that they were my favourite students, that I will remember them for the rest of my life, and that they were part of the reason I decided I couldn’t go on and that I needed to leave the school.  Not because of them, but because I didn’t believe the school was serving those kids well.  Please remember the queue of factors.  The school was not doing it’s best, but we had been handed a huge legacy of issues to confront when those students came to us aged 13.

It’s all very well for people to say that we can’t treat people differently, but frankly this is not facing the reality of our situation.  The reality is that our society has treated a group of people very badly and left them with very poor outcomes and that man tends to hand woe on to man (it deepens like a coastal shelf).

Fact Two (a statistical fact)

Very recently I bothered to watch all of the most boring looking clips on the Te Kotahitanga website and I discovered this.  Frankly, it is one of the most interesting things I have ever heard in the Maori education debate, because it cuts through a whole lot of stuff and gets to the nub.  In short, once you take out what kind of school students are at, and take out the socio-economic background of the student, there is still a negative effect on Maori achievement in schools because they are Maori.

The woman in these clips is Adrienne Alton-Lee, and she goes on to give examples of how racism can exist in the classrooms of the most well-intentioned people just through the misuse of the word “we”.  Which is exactly what I needed someone to tell me.  Being a better teacher for Maori is not actually about putting Maori words on the wall, or saying kiaora, or learning waiata (unless those things are authentic for you), it is about appreciating the diverse perspectives in the room, and giving them power.  It’s also about not saying “when we won at the battle of Gate Pa”, but saying “when the British soldiers won at Gate Pa” (and never mind the veracity of that statement anyway).  It’s about giving equal weight and time to the Nga Puhi story in the class, or the story of the Chinese student in the class.

To you this might not mean much, but to me is like a giant lightbulb getting switched on.  My old school attempted to take on board the ideas of Te Kotahitanga, and tried to run it, but failed to understand the crucial point I have just discovered for myself.  It seemed to me from the programme leaders (I should stress that we had an in-house programme and not an official Te Kotahitanga one) that I was supposed to use Maori words, and impart Maori stories in class, and that this always seemed doomed to me because it was fake.  It is fake.  You shouldn’t do it.  That’s not really what it is about.  It’s more about being open to the stories and cultures of others.

Fact Three (a surprising example)

We all have dreadful secrets we are ashamed of.  My latest one is that I’m addicted to the X-Factor USA.  The most surprising thing about this is that it was the X-Factor USA that made me see what it was like for a person who had previously “left their real selves at the door” in order to “achieve in the system” break through and reveal their true identity.

This clip is about eight minutes long, but the important stuff is in the first two minutes and the last two minutes.  The first two minutes are important because of how the contestant Melanie Amaro is speaking.  Please notice her accent.  It is important.  Up until this point in the competition this is how she has always spoken, but when she finishes the song something truly astonishing and moving happens.

Which I would like to offer as an example of what Te Kotahitanga is about.  Having the students come to class with their real voices, and their real experiences, and getting a hug from Nicole for it.


One thing the government could do if it wanted to improve the results of a group that is not doing well in schools is increase funding to the Te Kotahitanga project.  My school was forced to run an alternate programme because there wasn’t enough funding to include us.  Looking back on it now it seems like the people leading the alternate programme in the school didn’t really understand some of the key messages, but in their defence they also lacked money and support.  In education money buys people time away from classes so that they can plan, observe, implement, reflect and lead.  For us, it also would have bought us the full training programme led by the experts who would have set us on a clearer path.  After the money has been given to Te Kotahitanga the government would just have to let the experts run the programme.  The experts are the teachers with decades of experience, and Masters and Doctorates in Education who are dying to be given the resources to change people’s lives.

Whatever figure it is that will be spent on setting up charter schools, if that figure were halved and given to Te Kotahitanga it would have a much more significant impact on the lives of students, and the future families of those students.

5 thoughts on “X Factor and Te Kotahitanga”

  1. Sorry to the gentleman who commented on my post before (I called Russell Bishop, John Bishop… shame) – I had to delete the previous post to get it to move to the top of the page.

  2. I appreciate you as a keen observer of waht’s actualygoing on.

    I NEVER just use random maori words when adressing the class, becuase I don’t have the language skills, and as you said, it would be fake. I DO concentrate on getting all their names correctly pronounced, and won’t let them just waive it off. I keep on till they’re really happy. (For example I refused to call a kid just “H” because some of the other teachers couldn’t pronouce Houatahi)

    But apart from that I’m stuck. Computer skills are non-cultural, so when I transfer them to the pupils does it matter if it’s in English or Maori? (Although at leat 25% of the tasks and assessments include a large proportion of Maori words, contexts and facts.)

    I understand that different modes of behaviour will be apparent, but as long as I can relate to and respect them as (I hope) they respect me, then we all succeed.
    i don’t care if a kid won’t look me in the eye, or wants to explain something via a story. As long as they can define a database Field as a data storage object holding only atomic data of a pre-defined data format i don’t care what they put in the field as long as it follows the rigid rules of database structure.

    I respect you greatly and your views are ones I will listen to carefully, but I’m not sure they’re always cogent.

    BTW Gael is coming, have you heard?
    Have you arrnaged a mass defection to East?

    Please take Ringo.

  3. Thanks. Yes, I think it shifts around a bit subject by subject. To me what you have described doing in your class sounds great, and fits in with what I understand Te Kotahitanga wants people to do. Whenever I hear these presentations I think “oh that’s good for Social Studies and English”, and then I wonder what the Maths teachers are going to do with it.

    I think that the attitude of the teacher towards the people in the classroom is actually about 90% of it, and from what you have described you have a great attitude. In the Te Kotahitanga clips of teachers in classrooms they show Maths and Science teachers teaching Maths and Science. Not much changes in terms of the knowledge, just in terms of how the class is managed and its members viewed. I don’t think the curriculum needs to be reinvented.

    I think this is a key point, and every time we went down the path of learning greetings, and whakatauki and all that we were missing the point. Russell Bishop actually says that having Kapa Haka and building maraes on schools is important, but it’s not actually what his programme is about. It’s must more about classroom interaction and management. Which is great, because as you and I know pretending that all Maori at the age of 13 or 14 are totally at one with their culture is a joke. A misguided person would say that you could ask your students to create a database of Maori gods, or their whakapapa, but the Maori girl in your class would probably rather make a database of Beyonce songs.

    Frankly I think we had no idea what we were doing when we tried to run this at our school. I was on the programme and what I remember is being told to put Maori words up everywhere, and an incredibly complex observation sheet that generated a graph I couldn’t understand. On the other hand, when you did your presentation on where you moved in the classroom over one class I thought that was brilliant, and helped you to actually make your practice more effective (and I wish someone had done it for me instead of trying to explain the difference between feed forward negative and feed forward behaviour positive).


    Yeah, I heard. I hear another one is coming too. I think we’ll form a social club.

  4. Living in the UK this is a subject that I know very very little about so thanks for the article which I found very interesting.

    I had a friend who lived in New Zealand for a couple of years and when I asked him about the Maori in general he mentioned some pretty ignorant views about Maori in school, views which I assumed he picked up from his parents who live out there. I have to admit I was shocked at the time.

    Anyway thanks again for the article

  5. And thanks for commenting.

    It’s a pretty fundamental issue for New Zealand and nibbles at the heart of the idea we have of ourselves as egalitarian.

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