Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

'Easy path' for learners backfires

Ant Backhouse would not let Anna Moala stay at home doing nothing after Mt Albert Grammar shut her out of the subjects she wanted to take.  Photo / Richard Robinson
Ant Backhouse would not let Anna Moala stay at home doing nothing after Mt Albert Grammar shut her out of the subjects she wanted to take. Photo / Richard Robinson

A student-mentoring scheme has found that many Pasifika students are being forced to leave school early because they are taking the wrong subjects.

I Have A Dream, which has mentored a group of Mt Roskill young people from their fourth year of primary school in 2003 up to their final year of high school this year, says Pasifika students are often steered into "soft" unit standard subjects that are "paths to nowhere".

One student, Anna Moala, stayed on the North Shore during the week to find a school that would let her continue with academic subjects this year so she can have a shot at her dream of becoming a teacher.

Research by I Have A Dream has found that at one Mt Roskill school, half the credits taken by Pasifika students for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement were unit standards. In contrast, unit standards made up only 15 per cent of the credits taken at the same school by Asian students.

"This pretty much guarantees Pasifika students will be passed over by many tertiary providers," says a discussion paper published by the mentoring scheme.

Ant Backhouse, who has been the scheme's fulltime co-ordinator from the start, said it took him a day and a half arguing with a school to let one student into enough subjects to be able to return for Year 12 last year.

"Too often we've seen the situation where non-English-speaking parents are sitting at home celebrating that their children have passed NCEA Level 1, dreaming of future careers and study, not understanding it was all in fairly meaningless subjects that severely limit their child's options," he wrote in the discussion paper.

At Mt Albert Grammar School, some "Dreamers" were shut out of doing geography in Year 11 even though they had achieved the required 60 per cent grade in Year 10 social studies.

"When I went to the dean and said, 'Why not let these kids into geography?' they said they are in a lower stream and take a lower level of social studies," Mr Backhouse said. "Then what typically happens is that, come Year 12 or 13, some of these types of soft subjects are not continuing through to Year 13.

"But at Mt Albert Grammar they have to take six subjects in Years 11 and 12, and it's very hard for these kids to fill up six subjects, and then the deans are looking at them and saying, 'Maybe you should be leaving'."

Anna Moala was shut out of continuing with classics, media, English, physical education and travel and tourism at Mt Albert Grammar this year because her grades were not high enough and her attendance record was poor. She had "things going on at home".

She felt unwelcome at school.

"I thought their message was, 'If you don't want to be at school then don't come'," she said.

But Mr Backhouse wouldn't let her stay at home doing nothing.

Her mentor, accountant Skye Daniels, 31, also kept turning up to Anna's netball games and other events, even though Anna often rebuffed her. Mrs Daniels did it "just so she knew that, when she was ready to build a relationship, I'm here".

Finally, Mrs Daniels and her husband, Tyne, offered to let Anna stay in their spare room during the week so that she could stay at school.

Anna agreed to try it, and Northcote College accepted her into all the subjects that she had been barred from at Mt Albert Grammar. She now has a quiet space to do her homework, has gained merit in two out of three assignments so far and has been happy since her first day at the school.

Mt Albert Grammar headmaster Dale Burden said every child had the same opportunity to do well but not everyone was going to get into university.

He said I Have A Dream's description of unit standard subjects as "paths to nowhere" was "nonsense".

"In many ways they do have a bit of a dream about the realities of what some kids can achieve."

But Professor Liz McKinley of Auckland University's Starpath project, which is working in 30 low-decile schools to help students qualify for university, said children did need one-on-one support to help them choose the right subjects for the careers they wanted. She said Starpath schools tried to provide this support through form teachers and deans.

- NZ Herald

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