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Executive summary

Early childhood education

Early learning experiences and relationships have a lasting effect on children’s achievement.

In general, the higher the education of the mother, the better the learning opportunities children may have at home. Pacific mothers have lower levels of qualification than most other groups, although this is improving.

Attending quality early childhood education (ECE) regularly from an early age has significant benefits for all children, and particularly for children from poorer communities. Children get into a pattern of learning progress when they can engage well with school activities and teachers from the start. Quality ECE provides opportunities to develop the foundations needed for success at school, including:

  • attitudes such as such as perseverance, curiosity, critical thinking, questioning, and confidence 
  • strong oral skills in the children’s first language, which is then used as a basis for developing written literacy skills 
  • literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills.

Pacific children are much less likely than other groups to attend ECE before school. Key barriers include poor access to appropriate services and low demand from families.

Like all parents, Pacific parents think educational outcomes are the most important outcomes from participating in ECE, especially parents in poorer communities. Cultural appropriateness and cultural connections in ECE are also very important for Pacific families. In 2007, 55 percent of Pacific children in ECE either attended Pacific ECE services (where teaching is in a Pacific language and cultural context) or services with more than 25 percent Pacific children.

While many Pacific ECE services provide programmes that are culturally enriching, many do not adequately extend children’s thinking or support questioning. The Education Review Office (2007) states "In 14 services cultural entity was expressed through skilful modelling of language structures, extending children's vocabulary and the expectation that children would respond in the Pacific language".* However, around a quarter of services may be using formal literacy and numeracy exercises that are not appropriate for young children.

Many Pacific children start school without some of the prior learning needed for success in a school environment. This does not necessarily mean that they have had poor family or ECE learning experiences. What it can mean is that their experiences do not match school expectations. Having English as an additional language can make it more difficult for children if teachers or schools do not understand the different learning process this entails. Moving from ECE to school requires significant adjustments for children, particularly when a child’s early experiences are not the same as school expectations. Teachers have a key role in supporting the shift for Pacific children and their families. However, teachers do not necessarily recognise opportunities to build on Pacific children’s previous learning or experiences. This lack of connection makes it harder for many Pacific children to topengage effectively with learning at school right from the start.


The greatest influences on success at school are the relationship between children and their parents, and in schools, effective teaching and leadership. Partnerships focused on learning between parents and teachers can also greatly enhance children’s achievement. While Pacific parents want to help their children at school, they sometimes don’t know how. Similarly, many teachers and schools do not know how to engage effectively with Pacific parents.

Cultural factors can be significant barriers to Pacific families’ effective engagement with schools. These can include lack of English fluency and the ‘respect for authority’ that prevents parents questioning the school, or children questioning their teachers. If teachers do not understand these differences in beliefs, school expectations can be an early barrier to effective learning for many Pacific students, and to effective engagement with parents.

A 2006 Education Review Office report found that only 14 percent of schools were fully effective for Pacific students. Most schools need to be more culturally responsive and more focused on the achievement of Pacific students. Many Pacific students begin school with lower achievement, and this tends to increase over time. Low achievement in literacy and numeracy leads to many Pacific students leaving school with no qualifications, and a lower number enrolled in tertiary education.

Pacific student attendance is not a concern, with a continuing increase in student presence. However, this aspect of engagement with school is not reflected in achievement. Teachers may fail to understand that when Pacific students seem to be ‘on task’ in class, they are not necessarily learning. More is required from these teachers.

Students with a higher self-concept and belief in their ability have significantly higher achievement. However, Pacific students often have low confidence in their ability and attribute success or failure more to luck, peers or family than their own ability and effort.

At higher levels, secondary schools are not ensuring that Pacific students make subject choices that open up future opportunities. Of the students who study for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), Pacific students are least likely to gain the requirements to enter university. Pacific students are more likely than most to choose or be directed by teachers into NCEA courses that do not ultimately meet the requirements to enter university. This then prevents them from moving into higher topeducation. Pacific students tend to move on to lower level tertiary education or straight into the labour market.

Tertiary education

Strong literacy and numeracy skills are a prerequisite for participation in tertiary education, most employment, and wider society. However, in 2006, the overall literacy and numeracy of the adult Pacific population was lower than that of other ethnic groups. This not only reduces their education and work options, but also affects their families and children. The wider effects are not only from lower family income, but can also contribute to intergenerational disadvantage in terms of education, health and employment outcomes.

Higher-level tertiary qualifications bring people the most benefits, including better income and employment opportunities. Of all groups, Pacific people have the smallest proportion with degrees or higher qualifications.

How well a student does at school is the strongest influence on their choice of tertiary education and their first-year pass rate in degree-level study. Poor school achievement means that fewer Pacific students than others go on to tertiary education, and when they do, they are much more likely to study for low-level certificates. This is also partly due to Pacific students tending to study NCEA subjects that do not open up higher learning opportunities. In addition, Pacific students do not tend to choose to enter trade-related pathways such as Modern Apprenticeships.

The benefits of tertiary education are higher for those who start earlier and gain higher-level qualifications before they are 25. Pacific people are about half as likely as the total population to achieve a higher-level qualification by the age of 25. They are only a third as likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree by this age.

Enrolments by under-25-year-olds at diploma level or above have risen more strongly for Pacific students than for all students, an increase of 7.4 percent between 2002 and 2007 compared with 3.2 percent for other students. However, 18 to 19-year-old Pacific students are less likely to complete a diploma or degree qualification than other students. Poor completion and progression levels mean that the increase in Pacific student participation may not actually lead to improved levels of education overall, especially at the higher levels.

Pacific students who do complete their qualifications are more likely than others to progress to further study, and generally earn a higher income than non-Pacific people with the same qualification. Pacific people who do not complete degrees on average earn a lower income than non-Pacific people who do not complete degrees.

Key factors that affect Pacific students’ learning outcomes in tertiary education include home factors such as competing family demands, and institutional factors, such as the place of Pacific knowledge and experience within courses.

Tertiary education organisations have a key role in their communities’ education and development aspirations. In 2006, only half of tertiary education organisations reported that they were developing relationships with Pacific communities. Most of these were focused on attracting more Pacific students and few on understanding and addressing the needs and aspirations of the community. There is significant room for improvement.

*Sentence revised by the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs on 23 March 2012.

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