Culture Matters

I have just received an email from the Senior Ministerial Advisor / Acting Chief of Staff, of the Māori Party, sending me a copy of the speech, made this morning by Hon Tariana Turia, Co-leader of the Māori Party at the Education Symposium, ‘Culture Matters: One Shoe Doesn’t Fit All’ at the Morero Marae in Taumarunui.

The email said, “I thought you would be interested in receiving a copy of this speech, given Minister Turia’s mention of your work.”

I am definitely interested – and flattered of course. I appreciate the acknowledgement of the“Colouring in the White Spaces” research, and most of all I appreciate Minister Turia’s observation, based on her reading of my research report, that:

“…education at Te Whānau o Tupuranga is as much about preparation for survival in te Ao Māori as it is about preparation for survival in the world. It is about building the fitness that enables us to endure; celebrating that which is at the very essence of who we are.  This is Whānau Ora in practice – developing the resilience; feeding the soul, nurturing the sense of self-belief that we know we can do this. Knowing who we are.”

That certainly sums up our intentions for our rangatahi in Te Whānau o Tupuranga and Clover Park Middle School. I was therefore interested in other media reports over the last two days following the release on 5th October of the Education Review Office’s latest national report, Promoting Success for Māori Students: Schools’ Progress (June 2010). ERO posed a simple question to schools – how had they improved Māori student achievement?

The ERO report concludes with the statement that “ERO does not consider any school can claim to be high performing unless the school can demonstrate that the majority of Mâori learners are progressing well and succeeding as Mâori.” That’s definitely good news, but those last two crucial words were not in the question they asked.

It bothers me that those words, “as Māori” – that “very essence” of being Māori that Tariana Turia refers to, are always missing from any discussion about Māori learners’ “achievement” and “success.” So it is again in the ERO report. In spite of alluding to the principles of Ka Hikitia, and despite comments by the chief review officer in the media about the need for more Māori culture in schools, the report, as do the goals of Ka Hikitia in fact, comes back to the same limited, technical, academic, goals, and national expectations (including standards, norms and benchmarks), that we use as our sole indicators of success or achievement in schools.

I would want ERO to ask mainstream schools for their evidence that Māori students were able to “be Māori” and enjoy success “as Māori” – and not allow them to hide those crucial outcomes behind the usual norms and academic statistics. It’s not that these are not important – of course they are – it’s just that they are not enough! Any school whose measurement of success for Māori students is limited to these academic outcomes is only seeing half of the picture, I believe.

Tariana’s speech went on to say, “We must outfit all our mokopuna to be leaders, to be prepared with the ‘stuff that matters’ – and that stuff, inevitably includes culture. We must liberate our minds to promote Māori knowledge, kaupapa, tikanga, philosophies, worldviews. We must create the expectations of reciprocity, to foster the sense of collective responsibility to care for one another; to fulfil our aspirations for the wellbeing of our whānau.”

I couldn’t agree more. I just can’t see that thinking in the ERO report. I can’t see that thinking in the government’s introduction of National Standards, or the unfortunate support of the Māori Party for this policy. I can’t see that thinking in the comments, also reported this morning, by Waiariki Māori Party MP, Te Ururoa Flavell who suggests we look at some positive ways to incentivise those schools who are able to “pull through” Māori students, including the “carrot” of giving Māori students the ability to “move zones to better schools.”

I agree with the sentiment that a positive approach is always better than a negative viewpoint, but I don’t like the implications inherent in this thinking. “Pull through” – to what? I’m not sure it’s the students who need to be pulled – anywhere. How about the adults? “Better” schools- defined how?”Move zones”? I am really hoping that Te Ururoa didn’t intend that to be a deficit statement about low-decile schools, but you can guarantee that’s how it will be interpreted and schools like ours, already doing a great job, will once again be the targets.

It is definitely way past time to “liberate our minds,” and think differently about education for Māori learners. The minds that need liberating first are those of our national leaders and policy and decision-makers, or we will continue to replicate the failure of mainstream schools to provide a relevant education for our rangatahi. In our two schools we actively and intentionally teach our students about social justice and leadership. It would be helpful if they could look to positive role models in our government and education fields. Minister Turia’s speech is a great, and unfortunately rare, example.