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Creative solutions are difficult to find when you're constantly on the defensive, writes Tapu Misa.

I am the eldest of seven, five of us born in Samoa. We were the reason my parents left the comfort and warmth of their island home for a cold and inhospitable country.

We didn't come for the bright lights and freedom (such as they were). We came for The Education, as my father was fond of reminding us.

Every one of us could have gone to university, and would have under different circumstances. But only two of us ended up with tertiary degrees (not me, incidentally). Some people might call that a failure.


Was it my parents' fault? They were sober, hard-working and churchgoing. My mother had been a teacher in Samoa and knew the importance of the written word. She bought books when her cleaner's wages allowed because there was no library nearby. Luckily, the specials bins at Woolworths offered Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

Like most Pacific Island immigrants, my parents had complete faith in New Zealand schools and teachers. They thought education was what happened when you sent your kids to school. But it wasn't that simple.

A lot of the time, at least for me, it was about how I felt when I got to school - if I got there at all. I can't remember a single teacher from my last year of high school; my family had shifted suburbs and I spent most of that year "absent" from my new school. I've no idea if the teachers were good, bad or indifferent. All I know is there was no real attempt at engagement, on either side.

What makes a good teacher? We all think we know. A favourite at primary school was Mr Fox. He opened my eyes to the injustice of apartheid and French nuclear testing in the Pacific. He was young and hip, encouraging and affirming. But my sister, two years behind me, didn't take to him. She thought him uninterested, hence not much good.

A retired teacher wrote to me that he had "long since stopped judging other colleagues on their perceived shortcomings; too often past pupils remember with great affection a teacher who, in my view, was less than inspiring".

Ant Backhouse, the I Have A Dream (IHAD) co-ordinator mentioned in last week's column, told me that when two of his best students suddenly became disengaged and hit the wall, it was their relationships with particular teachers that kept them at school.

One of his charges had earlier complained that his teacher was racist and didn't seem to care. But that wasn't the worst of their problems. Many of the 31 students Backhouse looked after had been streamed into soft Unit Standard subjects at their high schools rather than the academic Achievement Standards, which meant they had been put on pathways that, unbeknown to them and their families, were educational and vocational "dead ends".

Mt Albert Grammar headmaster Dale Burden dismissed that claim as nonsense last week. He said IHAD was unrealistic "about the realities of what some kids can achieve". Not everyone is university material.


And that's true, of course. But as Backhouse points out, "There still needs to be vocational pathways through high school, so that students stay in school and transition to training or meaningful industry employment."

That we have more than 80,000 young people not in education, employment or training while we continue to import health workers, for example - more than 40 per cent of our health workforce is overseas trained - suggests a significant failure. At the very least, it shows many students aren't getting quality information or vocational guidance to help them make critical decisions.

The University of Auckland's Starpath project has found that even academically able Maori and Pacific students aren't "getting accepted into the degree courses because they had made ill-informed NCEA subject choices". It has published a useful NCEA guide for parents, but it's not free.

An Auckland high school principal told me that schools are "caned" if they don't keep their pass rates up, and since the Education Review Office (ERO) doesn't distinguish between academic passes and Unit Standard passes, it's no wonder that some schools are reluctant to "give kids a go in courses they will find tough".

"I am on the side of letting kids have a go ... Every year there are kids who get higher qualifications against our expectation. They wouldn't be allowed to do this at other schools. The price we pay is a lower overall pass rate in some areas. And ERO is always a bit purse-lipped about our overall achievement rates."

That's the real-world consequence of league tables. Rather than an imaginary bogeyman invoked by teachers who fear change, they are a straitjacket that is already narrowing possibilities for those who can least afford it.

The point is whether the kind of creative solutions we need to raise the achievement levels of those at the bottom (whether they are the oft-repeated 20 per cent or the 14 per cent identified in the most recent PISA report) are possible in the current mistrustful climate. It's difficult to be creative when you're constantly on the defensive.

If "the real, real agenda" of education reforms, as Education Minister Hekia Parata said last week as she backed off bigger class sizes, "is how do we raise student achievement", it seems both arrogant and stupid not to involve educators in the solutions.