Covid-19 is widening the gap between students already at a disadvantage — like those without internet and in transitional housing — and those able to study at home with ease. Can we remake the school system in a way that doesn't turn so many kids off it?

Key Points:

    It was easy to blame schools for not doing enough to close the educational gaps, but now that we have had to do without them it's clear that we need education in some form. Can we remake it in a way that doesn't turn so many kids off it?

South Auckland alternative education manager Chantelle Foketi is bracing herself to engage her students with learning again after six weeks in which many have simply dropped out of sight.

Most of the 40 young people aged 13 to 16 enrolled with her Te Ara Poutama Trust have either dropped out or been kicked out of mainstream schools.

While students at most schools have been studying online during the four-week level-4 lockdown and the current level-3 restrictions, none of Foketi's students had computers at home when the lockdown started.

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By chance, a delivery of 12 new laptops from the Ministry of Education finally arrived just when the Weekend Herald visited this week. But even now, they won't be much use to many students.

"There are issues with kids don't know how to use Dropbox and those kinds of things," Foketi says.

The trust has three sites the students are usually based at and contracts to James Cook High School, which manages an alternative education consortium for the Counties-Manukau area. Each consortium has just one registered teacher who visits each class once a week.

The rest of the time, Foketi says, "Te Kura is our teacher." Te Kura, the Correspondence School, provides online lessons, but some of the written work has to be printed and scanned.

Chantelle Foketi, director of Te Ara Poutama Alternative Education Trust, opens up a delivery of laptops from the Ministry of Education, during Level 3 lockdown. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
Chantelle Foketi, director of Te Ara Poutama Alternative Education Trust, opens up a delivery of laptops from the Ministry of Education, during Level 3 lockdown. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

"Our kids don't have printers and scanners at home, so it isn't really going to solve the problem just handing a device to those kids at home," she says.

Instead, when the lockdown started, Te Ara Poutama gave each student a pack with enough written material to keep them going for four weeks, and staff went around all the students' houses when the country came out of level 4 to collect their work.

"But only 30 to 40 per cent of the students had actually completed any work during that time," Foketi says.

"We are in contact with them every second day and we use a Facebook page and Messenger and things like that, but if the parents don't answer the phone, then, apart from doing a physical home visit, we can't do anything.

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"Some kids we have had no contact with at all because the parents haven't responded to anything, probably a good 20 per cent.

"A lot of our kids are in emergency housing, a few in boarding houses and motels. They are the ones that we are having trouble locating. We don't know if they are still in that motel or whether they have been moved on.

"We have whole families in motels and boarding houses, which are even worse than motels because they have shared facilities. We have a mum and three kids in one bedroom in a boarding house."

Some youngsters have never settled anywhere long enough to learn much.

"We have 15-year-olds who are academically at Year 3 or 4, like they are 8 years old, and having had another big period of time when they haven't engaged, it's a concern," Foketi says.

"We are expecting the kids to have dropped a bit before we re-engage them."

Te Ara Poutama students learn in a small group isolated from mainstream schools in Manurewa. Photo / Supplied
Te Ara Poutama students learn in a small group isolated from mainstream schools in Manurewa. Photo / Supplied
Dr Ann Milne remade Kia Aroha College to foster
Dr Ann Milne remade Kia Aroha College to foster "warrior-scholars" confident in their own cultures and fired up to change the world. Photo / Supplied

Now that suddenly most children are not at schools, we can see that, for all their faults, we need education in some form. But can we do it better?

Milne, who remade Kia Aroha College to foster "warrior-scholars" confident in their own cultures and fired up to change the world, hopes that we have learnt to know and respect the families who have had to take over much of our education in the past few weeks.

"We could have taken the opportunity to learn from families and to have a much more interactive environment where families are the repository of knowledge that we could have used for learning," she says.

Dr Michelle Johansson, programme director of the TeachFirst secondary teacher training scheme, says parents can now see what their children are learning.

"During this lockdown we have had more teachers ringing parents, so maybe when we come out of lockdown there is a hope that we keep those relationships going," she says.

"It's thinking more about how a school can be a community of care, not a place to shove education down their throats."

Te Mete Lowman hopes that we can keep using educational television to support teachers who want to connect with students from cultures that are not their own. Photo / Supplied
Te Mete Lowman hopes that we can keep using educational television to support teachers who want to connect with students from cultures that are not their own. Photo / Supplied

Te Mete Lowman, head of a Māori bilingual unit at the former charter school Middle School West Auckland, has been leading te reo Māori lessons on TVNZ's educational television during the lockdown and believes television could help teachers who want to help their Māori students but don't have the skills.

"The Government is putting in millions of dollars to train Māori-speaking teachers and Samoan-speaking teachers, but the reality is it's going to be 100 years before we have enough of them," he says.

"So this Papa Kāinga television is one way we can take some skilled people and provide a lesson and hope it's based on best-practice pedagogy, and we can spread that and have it as the scaffolding to support teachers."

Communities of care

One way to look for schools that are true "communities of care" is the Ministry of Education's data on stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions. The Herald sought data on all schools for the latest available five years, 2014 to 2018, focusing on secondary schools because the peak ages for all these procedures are ages 13 to 15.

Fortunately, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions are rare and many schools had none in those five years.

But all but ten of the 325 state and integrated secondary schools used formal short-term stand-downs.

One school that had no stand-downs, Te Wharekura o Manurewa, is a tiny Māori-language secondary school on the Manurewa Marae with just 36 students - although it hopes to grow to around 100-150 students after it moves, with a Māori-language primary school across the road, into a new combined campus now under construction in Browns Rd.

Principal Maahia Nathan freely admits that the small numbers have made it easier to keep a family-like atmosphere, but says the kaupapa or purpose is also vital.

"They are learning a language that is an indigenous language to themselves, they are learning about the history of their ancestors, so you have Māori kids engaging through the reo in an environment that respects and acknowledges and uplifts things Māori," he says.

"For us it's all about the kaupapa. Kids having good results in NCEA is what I call a bonus, but in fact almost all of our Year 13s get University Entrance and we work very hard to make sure that happens."

"My kids are not angels," he says. "When we get Year 9 and 10 boys playing in the playground, they are not going to pat each other on the back, they are going to have a go."

Maahia Nathan, principal of Te Wharekura o Manurewa, which is the only secondary school with no stand-downs at all in the 2014-2018 period. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
Maahia Nathan, principal of Te Wharekura o Manurewa, which is the only secondary school with no stand-downs at all in the 2014-2018 period. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

The kura uses Mason's Durie's Te Whare Tapa Whā framework of four cornerstones of a healthy house: whānau (family health), tinana (physical health), hinengaro (mental health) and wairua (spiritual health).

"Our kaumātua come in, we have a hui, we work with the boys, we work with their whānau, we have kaumātua, we finish our hui with karakia (prayers), it just has a calming effect," Nathan says.

"It's having input from the kids, from the whānau and from other people closely involved in the family, I think that's a better way than suspensions and stand-downs."

The second-best school on the stand-down list, Tai Wānanga, is a high school for 145 students started by Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Hamilton. It has no subject timetable. Instead, students have "individualised tailored learning plans" and develop their own "project-based" learning spanning multiple subjects.

Its principal Toby Westrupp says the flexible curriculum aims to build the values of manaakitanga or caring for others, and skills such as communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving.

Remaking education

Mark Bracey, a primary school teacher who blogs at Ease Education, says traditional teaching "throws out information" to students. But only those from families that have prepared them to learn are ready to respond.

"All the students not in that group are excluded. Then those students become disengaged because they don't understand it," he says.

Primary teacher Mark Bracey asks his students to work with him to help the students who struggle the most. Photo / Supplied
Primary teacher Mark Bracey asks his students to work with him to help the students who struggle the most. Photo / Supplied

"I can't control that the students are not doing their reading homework, that their parents are working night shift so they are being taken care of by their siblings, that they can't bring them to school on time.

"But I can identify that those students need extra help, so I change my teaching practice to cater to those students - and when you change your teaching practice to really engage that struggling group, funnily enough, it works for everyone!

"I say to them quite openly, 'Hey, can you help this child to get on board?' We are working with the students. That sense of trust and openness and 'we can do this'."

Lowman makes the same point from an ethnic perspective.

"If we can just get it right for Māori, who occupy the vast majority of negative statistics when it comes to education, and then I think the next group are obviously Pasifika and migrants, then actually I think the wider New Zealand will benefit from a different-looking education system," he says.

"They don't have to be Māori schools, but they have to be addressing our most vulnerable learners. It's just about empowering them and supporting them, which I don't think is happening on a wide enough scale yet."

Dr Michelle Johansson advocates a
Dr Michelle Johansson advocates a "village" model that helps students feel they belong to a school. Photo / Supplied

Johansson, an NZ-born Tongan whose mother's greatest vision for her was to work in a shop, says education should widen horizons and provide options for each child and their family.

She points to a "village" model adopted by another charter school, rugby legend Michael Jones's Pacific Advance Secondary School, where a teacher rings the parents of every student in each "village" every week to ask how that child is doing.

"Their parents are much more likely to come into school. They have a big buy-in from their parents," she says.

"I think we are starting to think outside subject silos. That is the thing that is the difference between secondary and primary, and the more we can build villages at secondary school, the better - the more we can create a sense of home and whānau, because the kid has got to belong.

"Relationship is everything," she says. "The relationship is the thing that will bring the kids back to school. Kids will learn from you, but they will also learn for you if you've got it right.

"Kids are not going to get on with every teacher. But as a teacher, your job is to teach kids, not teach a subject - to be a significant adult in kids' lives."

Foketi, whose alternative education consortium has delivered food as well as schoolwork to its students' homes in the lockdown, says the pandemic has highlighted social inequities that are even more deep-rooted than most people realised.

Change is painfully slow. This year, for the first time, eight of Te Ara Poutama's 40 students have been allowed to attend a trades academy at Manurewa High School.

Eight students at Te Ara Poutama are learning at Manurewa High School's trades academy in a new pilot scheme. Photo / Supplied
Eight students at Te Ara Poutama are learning at Manurewa High School's trades academy in a new pilot scheme. Photo / Supplied

"Numbers were limited because it's a pilot, but for those kids it's hugely successful, 100 per cent attendance, they're loving it!" Foketi says.

Leon, who is not yet one of the lucky eight, now wants a career in construction. Antoinette hopes to study tourism at NZMA.

But Foketi says too many students "just randomly pick their subjects". She believes young people need to be encouraged to think about where they are heading from the moment they start high school, so they can plan their studies around a clear goal.

"If we tailor-make it to be, 'Hey, I've got a goal to be a carpenter,' then everything they do can be constructed around that," she says.

"There's no point in teaching the kids Pythagoras's Theorem, no one is going to use that rule unless you do engineering, so why are we making the kids learn those things?

"We have got to start their career conversations earlier and get them thinking about it at a much younger age, then it might give them more direction and goals."

Like Johansson, Foketi also believes that secondary schools need to strengthen each student's bond with a key teacher, perhaps keeping the same home-group teacher throughout their five years in the school, as at Hobsonville Point Secondary School.

"That tends to be a key for these kids - they are looking for that long-term relationship, that person that is their go-to," she says.

"Some of the teachers I just don't think are cut out to be teachers. You have got to be able to relate to the kids, to empathise with the kids, to understand the kids.

"Before you can even do any learning you have got to be able to relate to the kids, or they are just not going to listen to what you have to say."