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.
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.
"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.
"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 is obviously an extreme case, but educationists nationally and globally recognise that, as the OECD put it, the Covid-19 crisis is "likely to exacerbate already existing opportunity gaps".
Davida Suasua, principal of decile-1 Tangaroa College in Ōtara, worries about the contrast between her students and her own son, who is Year 12 in a decile-8 school.
"I know the work that he has been provided with," she says.
"We have got a routine, and a lot of our families don't have that, that's hugely concerning to us."
She worries that many of her parents are not returning messages, and some of her students may not return to school because they have been asked to get jobs if parents have lost their jobs.
Pat Newman, principal of decile-2 Hora Hora Primary School in Whangārei, says it's "a huge job" trying to confirm students' addresses so that they could be given computers, citing one mother who said she had no address because she had had to leave her flat.
On the other hand, he believes a lot of families have had "a neat time" during the lockdown when parents were available to spend time with their children.
"I don't think the children have learnt any less in that context, in fact in some cases they have learnt more," he says.
Do schools help?
In international comparisons, NZ schools have never been very good at closing the educational gaps that children start school with. The latest Programme for International Student Achievement (Pisa) found that by age 15, after a decade of schooling, the variation in reading performance among NZ students was still greater than in all but five other OECD nations (Israel, Australia, Luxembourg, the US and, surprisingly, Sweden).
Kiwi 15-year-olds' average reading score of 506 points, on a scale originally set to an OECD average of 500 two decades ago, was still comfortably above the OECD average which has slipped to 489.
But the gap between the most socio-economically advantaged tenth of Kiwis (567) and the most disadvantaged tenth (443) was the 10th-widest out of 37 OECD nations.
Europeans (524) and Asians (517) scored well above the OECD average, but Māori (463) and Pasifika (442) fell below it.
The same gaps can be seen in the way schools treat their difficult students. Rates of stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions are all four to five times higher for the most disadvantaged fifth of students than for the most advantaged fifth.
Ethnic gaps are less extreme, but a Māori student is still just over twice as likely as a European student to be stood down, suspended or excluded.
Leon, a 16-year-old Māori student now at Te Ara Poutama, says that on his first day at Manurewa High School, "I walked into my Year 9 class and the teacher just said to me, 'You look like a bad boy.'"
He was late to class, but in the circumstances he did well to be there at all. He attended five primary schools as his family moved around South Auckland, and played rugby for Auckland in his age group, but became alienated at Manurewa Intermediate.
"When I started Year 8 at Manurewa Intermediate, the teachers put me down. I just had a lot of anger towards teachers, they would make fun of me," he says.
"Say I'd play a game of sports, they'd say that I'm useless, that I'm a 'cabbage'."
At high school, he felt the teachers "judged me by the way I looked".
"I started not learning in class. If they are not going to show me the respect that I'm showing them, well that's pretty much it," he says.
He was excluded after two terms.
Antoinette, a 15-year-old at Te Ara Poutama, also attended about five different primary schools around South Auckland before her family moved north to Kāeo, and then back to Manurewa.
"I think it was because of money issues with the houses, and some houses were only a temporary stay," she says.
Unlike Leon, she liked school and says her teachers "made sure I understood what I was doing".
But when the family returned to Manurewa she couldn't get into Alfriston College until a quarter of the way through the first term because, although she was born in New Zealand, she didn't have a birth certificate and the family had to buy one.
Starting late meant she wasn't able to study some of the subjects she wanted, and eventually she was excluded "because I didn't go for an amount of time".
Foketi says many of her students in Te Ara Poutama have been "passed around from family member to family member".
"A lot of these kids don't feel valued, they don't feel wanted, because they are passed on from person to person, and for them school is just not important," she says.
They may feel they belong at primary school, with just one teacher, but Foketi says many young people don't cope with the shift to high school where they have different teachers for different subjects and may feel that no one really knows or cares about them.
Former Kia Aroha College principal Dr Ann Milne says: "I have always asked what would happen if, all of a sudden, we woke up tomorrow morning and schools had ceased to exist. What would we keep? What would we throw out?
"And hello, it did! We have to take this opportunity to try to rethink what education delivers, and not just try to replicate what school looked like and have it in your house."
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, 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."
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.
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.
"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."
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.
"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."