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[Parents and teachers working together] is like a bird needing two strong wings to fly.
(Pacific parent in Education Review Office 2008b).

Pacific parents want their children to have a good education and have high expectations for them (Education Review Office 2008b, Ferguson et al., 2008). The challenge, then, is to explore why schools are failing to deliver successful educational outcomes for this group of students. There is no simple answer to this.

Data snapshot

  • The National Education Monitoring Programme (NEMP)7 showed a small improvement in reading and speaking for year 4 Pacific students between 2004 and 2008, but no improvement at year 8.
  • In the 2005/06 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)7 16 percent of year 5 Pacific students did not reach the Low International Benchmark compared with four percent of Pākehā students. The results had not improved since the 2001 PIRLS.
  • The 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)7 results show an increasing gap between Pacific 15 year-old students and their Pākehā and Asian counterparts.
  • National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA)7 results show that Pacific students’ achievement has improved from 2004, but they still achieve significantly less well at all levels.
  • In 2008, 32 schools offered Pacific-medium education.
  • Currently 2.8 percent of teachers are Pacific. This is increasing. In 2006 Pacific peoples made up 7.8 percent of teacher education enrolments and 5.3 percent of teacher education graduates.

Parent involvement

Pacific parents often see themselves as their children’s first teachers, providing their child with a strong foundation that includes toptheir first language, religion, and values (Education Review Office 2008b; Coxon et al., 2002).

Families support children’s success when they encourage positive relationships and provide a range of quality experiences and activities within and beyond the home (Biddulph et al., 2003). Parents who have difficulties with literacy are more likely to be able to support their children’s achievement when they have the opportunity to increase their own skills.7

As with ECE, the qualification of the primary caregiver (usually the mother) is an important factor in school success. An increasing proportion of primary caregivers of school-aged children have at least a degree-level qualification, with Pacific primary caregivers showing the greatest increase since 2001 from 2.8 percent in 2001 to 5.3 percent in 2006. In 2006, 18 percent of Pākehā primary caregivers, 7.5 percent of Māori caregivers and 30 percent of Asian caregivers had degrees.8

While Pacific parents want to help their children and their schools, they sometimes don’t know how to (McDowall et al., 2005; Madjar et al., 2009). Similarly, many teachers and schools do not know how to engage effectively with Pacific parents (ERO, 2008 a & b).

Pacific parents want to know how well their children are doing at school and what they can do to help their child.

My youngest daughter brought home a report that included a sample of how she did her maths. I really appreciated the sample because I saw how her maths is done differently and I can see where I can help her at home.
Cook Islands parent

In the recent consultation on the National Standards in literacy and mathematics, Pacific parents were the group most interested in having timely information about their children’s progress, and ideas or resources they could use at home. Pacific parents were also the most likely to say that it was very important to help their child learn, and that they were very involved in helping their child learn (Wylie et al., 2009b).

Effective partnerships between parents and schools can improve the well-being, behaviour and achievement of children right into adulthood (Biddulph et al., 2003). Many schools are now introducing such partnerships (ERO, 2009). Joint interventions involving parents and teachers together have the biggest impact on outcomes.9 The best homework practices also have a large effect, but the least effective homework practices, that is, parent ‘surveillance’ and checking, actually have negative effects (Robinson et al., 2009).10 For example, at St Josephs School in Otahuhu, students made huge gains in reading through the Reading Together programme which included parents and teachers as partners in children’s learning.11 A key shift for the parents was sharing, talking and reading together rather than ‘correcting’ the child (Tuck et al., 200x12).

Many schools only make contact with Pacific parents when something bad has happened (Education Review Office, 2008b). In addition, information given to parents about their children’s achievement at school can make it hard to tell if there is a problem or not. For example, Pacific people consulted about the New Zealand Qualification Authority’s (NZQA) Pacific Strategy considered that the information given to parents and communities about achievement in NCEA is poor. They also thought the analysis of achievement data needed to be simplified so that Pacific communities can understand it in order to address low topachievement (NZQA, 2008).

Parent involvement in schools that is focused on learning activities improves children’s achievement more than other types of involvement. Some key barriers for Pacific families engaging with schools include: 

  • lack of English fluency 
  • respect for authority that prevents parents questioning the school 
  • lack of Pacific parent involvement in school administration and governance. (Coxon et al., 2002)

The case study below provides one example of effective school and community collaboration.

Excellent Kelston Schools

  • Collaboration can be the key to improved education opportunities for Pacific students. In Kelston, West Auckland, a group of primary, intermediate, and secondary schools have joined together to raise student achievement, with a particular focus on Pacific students.
  • The Excellent Kelston Schools cluster includes Fruitvale School, Kelston Primary, Kelston Intermediate, Kelston Boys High School, Kelston Girls College, Kelston Deaf Education Centre, and St. Leonards Road School.
  • Within the Excellent Kelston Schools cluster there are more than 1,620 Pacific students. Together with the Ministry of Education’s Northern Region Pasifika team, the cluster has created opportunities to improve teaching and leadership practices, community engagement and strategies to raise Pacific student achievement.
  • Led by the cluster’s seven principals, Excellent Kelston Schools aims to support better teaching and smooth transitions for learners between schools through effective information sharing and communication. Excellent Kelston Schools coordinates and plans shared events within the cluster and the wider community, and collaborates to make property and resources available across the cluster.
  • The Excellent Kelston Schools cluster has successfully laid the foundation for effective school and community partnerships that will increase learning opportunities for all students in Kelston and looks forward to reporting further on progress in 2010.13

Active participation by Pacific parents, families and communities in other school activities will help to ensure that those schools are appropriate and effective for Pacific students (ERO, 2008a). Ideally, governance of schools should match the communities they serve and the number of Pacific school trustees is increasing. Schools that have a relatively high number and proportion of Pacific students have higher Pacific representation. In December 2008, 19.7 percent of the boards of trustees members in schools were of Pacific ethnicity. This represents a 16 percent increase from the proportion of Pacific school trustees in 1998 (17.0 percent), but a slight reduction from 2004 (19.9 percent). In 2008, 56.7 percent of Pacific trustees were female compared with 52.6 of non-Pacific trustees.14

Cultural differences

topOne part of the explanation for the failure of the education system to perform well for Pacific students relates to cultural differences. All children find that the culture of home is not the same as the culture of school, but for some children this difference is large and can make it difficult for them to understand what is expected and how to respond at school (eg, Meade et al., 2003).

The cultural expectations of many Pacific parents may differ significantly from the practices and thinking in most New Zealand schools. For example, the traditional Pacific expectation of unquestioning obedience and respect for authority figures can mean that parents encourage their children to ‘sit and listen to the teacher’ (Ferguson, 2008; Coxon, 2002). However, the expectation in New Zealand education is that students learn best through questioning, discussing different viewpoints, and increasing their independence. If teachers do not understand these differences in beliefs, school expectations can be an early barrier to learning for many Pacific students (eg, Tiatia cited in Ferguson, 2008; Cahill cited in Coxon, 2002).

Many Pacific learners enjoy school as a place where they can mix freely with their peers and have fun (Ferguson et al., 2008). However, almost a third of 16-year-old Pacific students in one study said they had been hassled about their culture in the previous year, compared with just 13 percent of European and Asian students (Wylie et al., 2009a). Students can learn quickly to hide ‘cultural’ behaviours in the classroom, including use of their own language (Franken et al., 2005).

Identity is a critical issue for Pacific learners:

[Identity] can mean the difference to continued academic failure and educational success based on the realities of future Pacific Islands generations.
(Pasikale cited in Coxon et al., 2002).

One writer suggests that few opportunities are given to Pacific students to create their own identities. Instead they either tend to conform to or rebel against the identities that have been constructed for them. Some suggest that this may lead Pacific learners to either sit passively in classrooms or rebel strongly (Ferguson et al., 2008).

Schools, teachers, and other students need to support Pacific learners to ‘be themselves’ and to ‘see themselves and their culture reflected’ in the classroom (Ferguson et al., 2008). For example, the new school curriculum provides significant scope for teachers to use local content and contexts in their teaching.

What is necessary for successful learning?

Attendance and engagement

In general, good engagement in school is necessary for good achievement (Wylie, 2009; ERO, 2008a). Although Pacific students generally report good engagement with school, this is not reflected in their achievement.15

In its pilot evaluation of a sample of Auckland schools, the Education Review Office (2009) identifies a need for teachers to understand that students being ‘on task’ in the classroom does not necessarily mean that they are actually engaged effectively in learning.

Student attendance during year 11 is one of the most significant factors influencing student achievement in senior secondary school (Ferguson et al., 2003). Pacific students have better retention in year 11 than non-Pacific students, with only 5.4 percent of students leaving between years 9 and 11 compared with 6.9 percent of non-Pacific students.

Some Pacific students become disengaged with schooling quite early. In many cases, this is strongly linked to poor achievement. Figure 4 shows the age-standardised rates per 1,000 of Pacific student expulsions, exclusions, suspensions, and stand-downs16 in 2008. Stand-downs had the highest rate, where Pacific students had a total rate of 33.7 per 1,000 which was second overall to Māori at 53.6, but higher than the total population of 28.5. Females overall had lower rates for all four indicators.

Figure 4

Graph, Age-standardised rates per 1,000 students of stand-downs, suspensions, expulsions, and exclusions.

topContinual disobedience and physical assault on other students are the main reasons for exclusions, expulsions, stand-downs, and suspensions across all groups. While the proportion of Pacific students who are excluded, suspended, or stood down is less than for Māori students, Pacific students have the highest rate of expulsion.

Ethnicity is a significant factor with regard to unjustified absences from school, with the rates for Māori and Pacific students (5.0 percent and 4.2 percent respectively) three to four times higher than the rates for Asian students (1.2 percent) and European students (1.3 percent). There is much less variation between the ethnic groups in the percentages of intermittent unjustified absences. However, the rates of intermittent unjustified absences for Māori and Pacific students (3.0 percent and 2.4 percent respectively) were considerably higher than the rates for Asian and Pākehā students (both 1.4 percent).17

Overall, the reasons for students’ decreasing engagement with school are complex. Evidence shows decreases in boys’ performance and attitudes at age 14 compared with age 12, particularly for Pacific and Māori boys (Wylie & Hipkins, 2006). This coincides with emerging adolescence as well as the transition to secondary schooling.

Pacific students can find changing teachers and getting to know teachers’ names the most difficult thing to get used to during their transition to secondary school. The Competent Children research showed that nearly twice as many Pacific and Māori students as European and Asian students in their study found this difficult (Wylie et al., 2006). Likewise, around twice as many Pacific and Māori learners as European and Asian learners had difficulties accommodating the new mix of students in the transition to secondary school (Wylie et al).

Schools with high Pacific suspension rates have been working with the Ministry of Education on the Student Engagement Initiative (SEI)18 since July 2006 to reduce their rates. This approach has been very successful. The suspension rate19 for Pacific students in these schools was reduced by 29 percent between 2006 and 2007. This contributed to a 17 percent decrease for all Pacific students nationwide. The strategy also led to a 16 percent reduction in the stand-down rate for all Pacific students from 2006 to 2007, and a reduction in exclusions of 29 percent from 2006 to 2008.20 The evidence suggests that this approach has so far been very successful, with the suspension rate for Pacific students in SEI Schools having declined by 45 percent from 2006 to 2008, compared to a 25 percent decrease for Pacific students in other schools.

The Education Review Office’s pilot evaluation found that transience is an issue for Pacific students in some schools, with attendance dropping during term four and some students returning to their home island over winter (ERO, 2009).

Lack of learning continuity can have negative effects on achievement. In a 2006 study, over half (56 percent) of early school leavers said they had fallen behind in their school work because of truancy, sickness, or moving around (both houses and schools) and found it hard to catch up (Ministry of Education 2006). Poverty increases the likelihood of housing transience.21

topStaying at school is important for overall success, with a strong positive effect on later income (5 to10 percent).22 Generally, the longer a student stays at secondary school the more likely they are to transition into tertiary education once they leave school (Ussher, 2008). In addition, one of the important success factors for boys is simply staying at school until the end of the seventh form. This is because it takes boys longer than girls to achieve a high level of maturity and self-management (Lashlie, 2005).

Drawing on its pilot evaluation of a sample of Auckland schools, the Education Review Office (2009) concluded that overall, Pacific student attendance is not a concern, with a continuing increase in student presence. In 2007, an estimated 81.1 percent of Pacific students stayed at school until their 17th birthday. This is much higher than Europeans at 76.6 percent and 57.5 percent of Māori students.

For the vast majority of Pacific students who stay at school, achievement is increasing. The percentage of Pacific school leavers able to go straight into degree-level tertiary education (20.2 percent in 2007) has more than doubled since 2002. This compares with 39 percent of all school leavers.23

A significant proportion of Pacific parents choose to send their children to integrated (usually Catholic) or private schools.24 Since 2000, the proportion of Pacific students in private/integrated schools has been steady at around 16.8 percent of all Pacific students. In 2008 it dropped to 16.4 percent. This compares with around 15.2 percent of non-Pacific students in 2008, which has slowly increased from 13.2 percent in 2000. Retention is much higher for both Pacific and non-Pacific students in private/integrated schools and has remained stable since 2000 with around 80 percent of Pacific students staying to age 17.5 (compared with 65.4 percent of non-Pacific students). However, retention is increasing significantly in state schools. In 2000, only 43.8 percent of Pacific students stayed until age 17.5. In 2008 it was 67.4 percent (compared with 59 percent non-Pacific students).

Achievement data show that Pacific students in private/integrated schools do much better than those in state schools. However it is hard to conclude that it is the school that makes the difference, as it could be a number of other factors such as family background.

Table 2 shows that attending a private/integrated school seems to make more difference for Pacific school leavers in achieving NCEA level 1 than for non-Pacific students. This could be due to the greater Pacific student retention rate in private/integrated schools which means they stay on until they have completed level 1. At NCEA level 2 the differences in achievement between students at state and private/integrated schools are similar for Pacific and non-Pacific students. The difference is also the same in relation to meeting the requirements for entering university (table 3).25

Table 2
School leavers with NCEA level 1

  2005 2006 2007  2008 
Private/integrated schools 
Pacific students 79.4  82.0  86.9  88.1 
Non-Pacific students 91.0 91.0 94.7 92.4
State schools
Pacific students  59.7  64.5  70.9  76.3 
Non-Pacific students  70.3  73.2  79.7  82.3 
Table 3
School leavers who fulfilled the requirements to enter university
  2005  2006  2007  2008 
Private/integrated schools  
Pacific students 24.9 26.1 33.4 32.2
Non-Pacific students 57.6 60.9 65.1 65.9
State schools  
Pacific students  12.1  14.7  17.1  20.3 
Non-Pacific students  30.2  33.7  35.9  40.1 
Source: Ministry of Education data.
Similarly to the NCEA results, Pacific students are more likely to fulfil the requirements to enter university in a private/integrated school than in a state school. However, this is also true for non-Pacific students. In both types of school, Pacific students are only half as likely as their non-Pacific peers to fulfil the requirements to enter university.
For those students who benefit from different learning environments in schooling, Gateway is a programme that helps secondary school students experience tertiary education and achieve employment or education outcomes. In 2007, 835 Pacific males and females took part in a Gateway assignment, compared to 337 Pacific males and females in 2003. In 2007, 632 Pacific Gateway learners achieved a positive outcome (95.5 percent): 23 percent started full-time employment; 1.5 percent started part-time employment; and 71 percent continued with further training.26

Foundations for learning

Reading, writing, and maths

topLiteracy is the key for accessing all other learning at school. Children who achieve essential reading and writing skills early in their schooling go on to learn well through secondary school (eg, Ministry of Education, 2008d; Wylie, 2009). Low levels of achievement in early literacy skills lead to large numbers of Pacific students leaving secondary school with no formal qualifications, and a disproportionately low percentage enrolled in higher-level tertiary education (Nakhid, 2003 cited in Ferguson et al., 2008).

A child’s first language is the foundation on which to build their knowledge of English. It is critical that the child’s first language is supported at home and at school. This will allow a child to still develop literacy and thinking skills while their English language continues to develop. It will also support the child’s identity and self-concept, which are critical for effective learning (Ministry of Education, 2003).

Right from the start of schooling, there are overall differences in reading and writing knowledge and skills between Māori and Pacific children and other children (McNaughton et al., 2000). Such differences tend to increase if teachers do not respond to them quickly and appropriately (eg, Tunmer et al., 2003). After four years at school, substantial differences in achievement are apparent between both Māori and Pacific children and other children (Auckland Uniservices Ltd, 2002). In 2009, the Education Review Office found that only three of the 32 schools studied showed higher Pacific student achievement in English literacy than in their previous review.

Some teachers may wait until a child has developed a strong English oral language base before they begin to teach them reading and writing skills. This delay in formal teaching means that children miss out on rich learning experiences, which then limits their development of literacy and thinking skills (Ministry of Education, 2003). There is little evidence that children whose reading and writing learning has been delayed ever catch up (eg, Phillips et al., 2002 & 2004).

The 2008 National Educational Monitoring Project (NEMP)27 results for reading and speaking show that over the last eight years, the significant disparities between European and Pacific students have reduced a little for year 4 students but the gap has stayed the same or increased for year 8 students.

Students for whom English is not the main language at home had lower results than those for whom English is the main language. In an international assessment of reading of year 5 students (age nine)28 Pacific achievement actually decreased between 2001 and 2005/06.

The 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)29 results show Pacific students are greatly under-represented in the higher-achieving groups in literacy, maths and science assessments.

Nearly one-third (30 percent) of Pacific students could only complete the simplest reading tasks that PISA measures, compared with only nine percent of European students (Marshall et al., 2008). Similarly for maths, nearly one-third (30 percent) of Pacific students performed at the lowest levels in the assessment compared with nine percent of European students. Girls from all ethnic groups did better than boys from those groups in reading, but the difference was least for Pacific students. There was no significant difference between Pacific boys and girls in maths, in contrast to European students, where the average achievement of boys was significantly higher than that of girls.

In NEMP, the performance of both year 4 and year 8 students in the graphs, tables and maps assessment showed consistently large differences between European and Pacific students. In the 2007 science NEMP assessment, there was a large difference in performance between year 4 Pacific and European students on almost all tasks. The tasks where Pacific children performed better were all practical tasks. This suggests that their thinking skills are not being developed well enough.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)30 found that although there were high and low performers in all ethnic groupings, on average year 5 Pacific students performed significantly less well in both maths and science than the other ethnic groups.

In fact, after increasing between 1994 and 2002, by 2006 the average performance of Pacific students had returned to the lower toplevel of achievement observed in 1994.31

In TIMSS, Māori and Pacific students expressed lower self-confidence in mathematics and science than students in other groups. Students from higher socio-economic backgrounds tended to have higher average maths and science achievement than those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.32 In both the NEMP and TIMSS assessments, home language made a small to moderate difference in performance.

At NCEA level, fewer Pacific students (82.9 percent) achieve the literacy and numeracy requirements than European (89.9 percent) or Asian students (91.8 percent) , as figure 5 shows the level for the total of New Zealand was 86.9 percent.

Figure 5

Graph, Students achieving NCEA literacy and numeracy requirements.

Attitudes to learning

Children get into a pattern of learning progress when they can engage actively with school activities and teachers from the start of school (Phillips et al., 2002 & 2004). Children engage better with school activities and teachers when they have had prior experience of such activities and relationships.

As well as developing key knowledge and skills, students need to develop the abilities to use and develop them independently. Such abilities, or ‘dispositions’, include an inquiring and critical mind, and an ability to question and ‘speak out’ (eg, Comparative Research Unit, Ministry of Education 2004 a & b).

A study of the transition from year 6 (primary) to year 7 (intermediate) schools found that while the transition process was not a problem for most of the students, some Māori and Pacific students found it hard to adjust to larger class settings (Bicknell & Hunter, 2009).

While they described the importance to their mathematics learning of talking with friends in small groups, the larger mathematics classroom situation posed many risks compared with their year 6 experiences. These findings illustrate the importance of teachers managing classroom culture and explicitly affirming what the students bring to the classroom in what Macfarlane (2004) describes as ‘culturally responsive’ (p. 27) ways to improve learning.

Students who are more independent in their learning are likely to manage the transition to secondary school better, remain more engaged in education, and achieve better than more dependent learners (Wylie et al., 2005; Artelt et al., 2003; Larose et al., 2005). Once students leave secondary school, they have to manage most of their own learning. Students will learn more effectively if they understand that knowledge is not fixed and does not exist in the mind of the teacher to be handed down, rather it develops through questioning, reasoning, collaboration, and effort.33

While performance in NCEA is related to a student’s levels of literacy and numeracy, positive attitudes and work habits are also important (Wylie, 2009). In NCEA, Pacific students considered that luck was more important for their marks than effort and ability. This lack of emphasis on effort and ability is important since an attitude of ‘doing my best’ is associated with higher achievement (Meyer et al., 2009). Similarly, Pacific students rated both family and friend influences as more important to both their best and worst marks than did other students (Meyer et al., 2009). This could suggest that Māori and Pacific students felt less control over their results than European and Asian students (Meyer et al., 2009).

2008 NCEA results showed that Pacific students performed less well than other groups. Pacific boys performed less well than Pacific girls, which is typical across the ethnic groups. However, there have been some improvements in level 1 and 2 achievement since 2004 (see quality teaching).

The PISA assessment found that learners’ self-belief is the strongest single predictor of whether they will adopt strategies that make learning effective (Artelt et al., 2003). PISA 2006 results showed that for science, students with a higher self-concept and belief in their ability to overcome difficulties had significantly higher achievement. Pacific students, along with Māori students, were the least likely to report they would be able to perform a selection of scientific literacy tasks and both groups performed less well (Caygill, 2008).

In another study, Pacific girls explained their lack of success almost entirely by a lack of ‘brains’, rather than an understanding that effort plays a large role in successful learning outcomes (Jones cited in Franken et al., 2005). This suggests many Pacific students have a low self-concept as learners and feel a lack of control over their learning outcomes. This works against successful learning and achievement.

Teachers have a significant role in fostering better learning self-concepts and approaches with students from the start of their schooling. For example, almost a quarter of the schools in the 2009 Education Review Office study focused on encouraging Pacific students to be involved in decision-making and leadership (Education Review Office, 2009).


topInternational research shows clear advantages for bilingual students over speakers of only one language (Franken et al., 2005). Where one of these languages is an ancestral language, learners also gain a stronger sense of self and cultural identity (Franken). While Pacific communities have expressed their desire to retain and foster their languages in New Zealand, Pacific languages are sometimes seen as obstacles to learning rather than a resource for learning (Franken).

There is a lack of research on Pacific bilingualism and its links with schooling. PISA 2006 results indicated that 49 percent of students who generally spoke a language other than English at home were low achievers in reading literacy compared with only 20 percent from English-speaking homes. However, unlike the 2000 and 2003 PISA results, speaking English at home made no difference in the 2006 PISA maths test (Caygill et al., 2008). Maths achievement was also not significantly different for those born in New Zealand and those born outside New Zealand (ibid). In reading achievement, there was no significant difference between those born in New Zealand with parents also born in New Zealand and those born in New Zealand with parents born outside New Zealand. However, students who were born outside New Zealand performed less well than the others.

In the 2006/07 TIMSS study, year 5 students who always or almost always spoke English at home had higher maths results, on average, than those who sometimes or never spoke English at home. Students who were born in New Zealand had higher mathematics achievement, on average, than those who were not.

The Ministry of Education’s project – Strengthening Education in Mangere and Otara – clearly shows that bilingual Pacific children can all develop the language and skills required for successful school learning if they are in schools where teachers are responsive to the learners’ backgrounds and focus consistently on student achievements (Robinson & Timperley, 2004).

The best educational outcomes for students come about when they are able to use both their home language and English in their schooling, in a context where they are both valued. This reduces identity conflicts for Pacific students and motivates them to learn both languages and succeed at school (Pasikale 1999, cited in Coxon, 2002).

Pacific-medium education is where a Pacific language is the medium of instruction for more than three hours per week. In 2009, there were 1,465 students involved in Pacific-medium education. This is a decrease of 176 students (10.7 percent) since July 2008 and a significant drop from 1,737 students in 2003.34

In 2009, 34 schools offered Pacific-medium education; 23 primary schools, nine secondary schools, and two composite schools. This is two fewer than in July 2008 but 12 more than in 2003 (22 schools).

There were 1,641 students involved in Pacific-medium education in 2007. This is an increase of 143 students (5.2 percent) since July 2006.

At secondary level, there were 33 schools offering a Pacific language in 2008. This is one more than in 2007. In 2009, there were 3,064 enrolments in a Pacific language at secondary level. This is an increase of 9.1 percent from 2008. Samoan was the most popular Pacific language in 2009 with 70.5 percent of enrolments in a Pacific language. This compares with 82.3 percent of enrolments in 2008. There were more enrolments in other Pacific languages in 2009.35

The Ministry of Education has launched several resources to support Pacific languages in schools. In 2007, it launched Vagahau Niue in the New Zealand Curriculum and Tongan in the New Zealand Curriculum. Gagana Tokelau: The Tokelau Language Guidelines was launched in May 2009 and the revised Ta'iala mo le Gagana Sāmoa: The Gagana Sāmoa Guidelines was relaunched 18 September 2009.

The multi-media Learning Language Series (LLS) resources I-E-Ko-Ko! An Introduction to Cook Islands Māori and Mua Ō! An Introduction to Gagana Sāmoa have been completed and are available to schools to support levels 1 and 2 of the language guidelines. Haia! An Introduction to Vagahau Niue and Faufaua! An Introduction to Tongan will be completed and available to schools at the beginning of 2010.

Special education needs

topThere is some evidence that Pacific children are not receiving special education assistance or other forms of assistance as readily as other groups. Early support for disabilities is important to increase the benefits longer term. The uptake of special needs allowances and services by Pacific peoples is low compared with other groups. In 2006, the proportion of Pacific children and young people aged under 18 years who received the Independence Allowance or a lump-sum payment to support physical disabilities was around half that of the rest of the population. In addition, Pacific children and young people were under-represented in those receiving ACC funding, as is the case generally for Pacific peoples receiving ACC services (Clark et al., 2007).

Similarly, data suggest that a disproportionate number of Pacific students with physical disabilities may be missing out on applying for Ministry of Education Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Schemes (ORSS) funding.36 The ORRS application process itself may be a stumbling block for certain groups, particularly when language is a barrier (Rivers, 2005; Clark et al., 2007).

Other barriers for Pacific parents seeking help for their children with disabilities may include a lack of awareness of developmental disabilities within Pacific cultures. This can mean that Pacific families think a child’s behaviour is just naughtiness (Rivers, 2005).

…for example they could just think that their child is being naughty, and so that is sometimes where the harsh discipline might come in. They don’t realise that there is something wrong with the child, especially in autism because they look so normal. Pacific interviewee in Rivers (2005).

The cultural norm of respecting the ‘expert’ may also affect diagnosis.

… and lack of education, and just that authority thing … like they are too scared to ask people that they see are in authority, and also with diagnosis it’s not like for them to just like pick up something. They wait for a doctor or a teacher to say that perhaps something is wrong. So I reckon that a lot of kids probably are picked up when they get to school … especially the less severe cases. Pacific interviewee in Rivers (2005)

There is also some evidence that Pacific ECE services do not refer children to the Special Education Service as much as other ECE services. Fa’amausili-Banse (cited in Coxon, 2002) considers that teachers are not well prepared for special needs assessment, and providers may not communicate their services well to Pacific parents and communities. She concludes that the way in which disability is seen in New Zealand comes from a Western paradigm, making Pacific parents hesitant about referring their children to any outside agency. It is essential that this is addressed by education and special needs providers so children’s special needs are identified early on. Recent initiatives by the Ministry of Education have resulted in an increase in Pacific referrals to early intervention services of 32 percent between 2007/08 and 2008/09 (Ministry of Education, 2009b).

Quality teaching

topDespite some truancy issues in early secondary school, the Education Review Office has concluded that Pacific student attendance at school is not a major problem for most Pacific students. It is therefore critical that teachers and school leaders engage students more effectively in learning while they are there (ERO, 2009).

Within schools, teaching is the most important factor in student achievement. Good teaching can ensure Pacific students’ achievement is at the same level as that of other students. Effective teaching is particularly critical in the first years of school before achievement gaps can begin to grow (Philips et al., 2004; Timperley et al., 2003). Effective teaching requires teachers to take responsibility for every student’s achievement, to value diversity, have high expectations, and build on students’ experiences (Alton-Lee, 2003).

However, the evidence is clear that many teachers and schools are not yet fully effective for Pacific students.

As a group, Pacific students are less likely than non-Pacific students to gain an NCEA qualification or achieve the literacy and numeracy requirements for NCEA level 1. Just over half (53 percent) of Pacific year 11 candidates met both the literacy and numeracy requirements in 2004. This compares to three-quarters (74.5 percent) of non-Pacific year 11 candidates. Fijian students were generally more successful at gaining NCEA qualifications (64.6 percent) and meeting the literacy and numeracy requirements (Harkness et al., 2005).

Figure 6 shows the percentage of students who achieved level 1 NCEA qualifications by the end of year 11, from 2004 to 2009, by ethnic group. Pacific students have been improving over the years from 37.1 percent in 2004 to 51.7 percent in 2009. It is by far the biggest improved ethnic group, improving 39.4 percentage points over the same period. However, overall there are still challenges. It is still below Mäori (56.4 percent), Other (68.7 percent), Asian (74.6 percent), and European (79.6 percent).

Figure 6

Graph, Students who undertook NCEA study and achieved level 1 by end of year 11.

Many Pacific students do not seem to be making progress fast enough to achieve level 3 by the end of year 13. Figure 7 indicates the percentage of Pacific students who achieved level 3 NCEA qualification by end of their year 13, from 2004 to 2009. Pacific students have been improving over the years from 40.1 percent in 2004 to 46.1 percent in 2009. They are by far the biggest improved ethnic group with 15.0 percentage points over the same period. However, overall there are still challenges. They are still below Māori (53.4 percent), Other (67.4 percent), Asian (74.4 percent), and European (75.4 percent).

Figure 7

Graph, Students who undertook NCEA study and achieved level 3 by end of year 13.

topPacific Island students are also more likely than most to not meet the English literacy and numeracy requirements for NCEA.

In 2006, the Education Review Office found that only 14 percent of schools were fully effective for Pacific students. The weakest area for schools was collecting and using information on Pacific students to improve their achievement. For example, in 2006, only 3.5 percent of schools had a strategic planning target that specifically mentioned Pacific students. In 2009, the Education Review Office found that only one-third of schools had improved students’ literacy and numeracy since their last review, and one-third still did not analyse Pacific student achievement data.

There is a strong link between particular teaching practices and better learning outcomes. The Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best evidence synthesis37 sets out 12 evidence-based characteristics of quality teaching: 

  • Quality teaching is focused on student achievement (including social outcomes) and leads to high standards in student outcomes for heterogeneous groups of students. 
  • Classes and other learning groupings work as effective, inclusive, cohesive, and caring learning communities. 
  • Effective links are created between home and school cultural contexts to facilitate learning. 
  • Teaching is responsive to student learning processes. 
  • Research-based characteristics are specific to curriculum context and age level of students. 
  • Opportunity to learn is effective and sufficient. 
  • Task contexts support learning cycles. 
  • Curriculum goals and resources including ICT usage, task design and teaching are effectively aligned. 
  • Pedagogy scaffolds and provides appropriate feedback on students' task engagement. 
  • Pedagogy promotes learning orientations, student self-regulation, metacognitive strategies and thoughtful student discourse. 
  • Teachers and students engage constructively in goal-oriented assessment. 
  • Teachers adjust their teaching to take account of the results of assessment. 
  • Quality teaching effects are maximised when supported by effective home/school partnership practices focused on student learning. 
  • Quality teaching is optimised when there is whole school alignment. (Alton-Lee, 2003) 
  • There is also a strong link between effective professional development and a change in teacher practices (eg, Farquhar, 2003; Timperley, 2007). There has been recent improvement in Pacific student achievement as a result of effective national professional development programmes in both literacy and numeracy.

The Ministry of Education’s Numeracy Professional Development Project has now been rolled out in most schools in New Zealand. Pacific students made the greatest progress through the project, followed by students attending low-decile schools, and then Māori students (Young-Loveridge, 2008). Further research suggests that these gains are sustained over time (Tagg & Thomas, 2007).

The Ministry of Education’s Literacy Professional Development Programme (LPDP) has also been very effective in improving reading and writing. Since 2004, LPDP has led to significant improvements in reading and writing for children from year 1 to year 8. Some of the greatest gains have been made by the lowest-performing students. By the end of one programme, for example, there were no significant differences between the achievement of Pacific students and Pākehā students in writing. However, the shifts and final scores of Pacific students in reading and Māori students in writing remained significantly lower than those of Pākehā students (McDowall et al., 2007).

Schooling Improvement projects in clusters of low-decile schools with high Māori and Pacific rolls have shown that improved student outcomes from the project actually continue after the intensive project funding has ceased. In the Mangere and Otara clusters, the average reading results are now within or close to the national average.

Many teachers have a strong commitment to teaching practices that support the achievement of Pacific learners. In its study of some Auckland schools, the Education Review Office (2009) found that over two-thirds had initiatives to improve teachers’ effectiveness in teaching Pacific students. There are, however, still examples of teacher behaviour, attitudes and skills that impact topnegatively upon Pacific learners’ social, cultural and academic achievement outcomes (Ferguson et al., 2008).

Evidence from the Ministry of Education’s schooling improvement initiatives and other projects suggests that teachers’ low expectations of Māori children and Pacific children can mean that they keep children inappropriately at a lower level of learning (Alton-Lee, 2003; McNaughton et al., 2000; McDowall et al., 2005; Phillips et al., 2002; Ringold, 2005; Rubie-Davies et al., 2006; Timperley, 2002). For example, research on the Numeracy Project has found that teachers limited the language they used in mathematics for Pacific children and Māori children, thereby restricting the children’s engagement with complex ideas and limiting their learning (Irwin & Woodward, 2005 cited in Higgens et al., 2005; Alton-Lee, 2003).

Student achievement is affected by the degree to which a student’s culture is respected by the school, and by the degree of similarity between the culture of the community and the values of the school.38

In trying to be culturally responsive, teachers can get caught in cultural stereotypes about Pacific learners which then limit the students’ learning opportunities (Ringold, 2005). For example, teachers need to avoid applying assumptions about Pacific peoples as group learners and shy participants (Coxon et al., 2002). Such attitudes affect teaching and can limit students’ opportunities for learning. Professional development that challenges these assumptions is therefore very important.

Teachers support learning best when they seek to understand where learners come from and build on their experiences to make learning meaningful (Bishop et al., 2003). For example, while many Pacific children start school with fewer reading or writing skills than other children, this does not necessarily mean that they have had poor family literacy experiences. What it can mean is that their experiences do not match school expectations. Teachers do not necessarily recognise opportunities to build on previous learning experiences (McNaughton et al., 1995 & 2000). McNaughton et al. (2000) has suggested that the teachers could use experiences such as the recitation of texts by Pacific children in the church and home environments as a basis for building reading and writing skills.

Children start school with a wealth of mathematical knowledge and experiences (Davies, 2009). However, the new entrant teachers in Davies’ study showed limited recognition of their new entrants’ mathematical abilities or the need to provide learning experiences that connect with children’s existing maths experiences and understandings. As with literacy, this lack of connection is likely to be even more significant for children whose prior experiences do not match teacher expectations.
Appointing Pacific teachers does not in itself improve Pacific student engagement or achievement (ERO, 2009). However, Pacific staff in a school can provide support for Pacific students and enhance the school’s understanding of and responsiveness to its Pacific communities.

Pacific teachers were under-represented in the teaching sector in 2007, as in previous years. While Pacific students make up 9.6 percent of state school rolls, Pacific teachers make up only 2.8 percent of the teaching workforce. However, this proportion of topPacific teachers has increased by 24 percent since 2002.39

Figure 8

Graph, Teacher trainee enrolees.

More Pacific teacher trainees enrol than graduate later. Figure 8 shows the proportion of teacher trainees enrolled in tertiary institutions from 2003 to 2008. Figure 9 shows the proportion of graduates who were Pacific between 2003 and 2008.

This suggests that the retention of Pacific students in teacher training is another area for further work.

Figure 9

Graph, Teacher training graduates.

School leadership

topEffective teaching needs effective school leadership focused on achievement.

Enhanced student achievement outcomes only occurred once school leadership and management moved their focus from operational matters to student achievement. Curriculum goals, requisite resources, and appropriate pedagogical and assessment practices needed to become the focus before enhanced student achievement outcomes were realised. (Gorinski & Fraser, 2007).

For example, the Education Review Office (2008a and 2009) found that schools that were highly effective at engaging Pacific students usually had a senior management team that was committed to improving Pacific student achievement.

International comparisons show that, on average, New Zealand principals do more administration and provide less educational leadership than their international colleagues. This is now improving thanks to initiatives such as the Kiwi Leadership Framework and Kiwi Leadership for Principals, launched in early 2008.40

In 2009, the Education Review Office found that 54 percent of the schools in its Auckland study had at least one Pacific teacher. Of those schools, 60 percent had one or more in senior management positions (32.4 percent of schools in the study). Since 2000, the number of Pacific principals in New Zealand has grown from 15 to 28, which is an increase from 0.56 percent of all principals to 1.17 percent.

Effective leaders create the conditions to ensure learning success for all students in their schools (Robinson et al., 2009). Those schools with a strong sense of collective responsibility for learners had better achievement (ibid). However, in New Zealand, principals generally spend less time than principals from other countries on the things that make the most difference to effective learning: instructional leadership and supervising and mentoring teachers. In New Zealand, principals spend much more time on administration (ibid).

In addition, strong communities of professional practice are very important in promoting and sustaining effective classroom practice (Timperley & Wiseman, 2003). This research found that higher student achievement is linked with the existence of an effective community of professional practice within a school that focused consistently on student outcomes, analysed student achievement data and worked collaboratively to improve teaching practice (ibid).

Education pathways

The choice of subjects at secondary school can open up or close off future opportunities. To enter higher-level tertiary education, students need to achieve NCEA level 3 with subjects that meet the requirements to enter university.41 Pacific students tend to choose less academic subjects for NCEA and fewer from the list of courses approved for university (Madjar et al., 2009).

Pacific students also have a pattern of achieving NCEA level 2 in Year 13, which again limits their further study options (NZQA data).

Of the students who studied for NCEA, Pacific students were least likely to gain the requirements to enter university through that study, as figure 10 below demonstrates. And unlike achievement of NCEA qualifications, this has not improved since 2004.

Figure 10

Graph, Students who achieved university entrance requirements through NCEA study at year 13.

topWhen considering all school leavers, not just those who reach Year 13, the figures are even lower. Only 22.8 percent of all Pacific students achieve the standards required to enter university compared with 48.3 percent of Pākehā students and 65.3 percent of Asian students. However, since 2004, the proportion of Pacific school leavers achieving the standards required to enter university improved by 62 percent, compared to non-Pacific school leavers who had a 34 percent improvement over the same period.42

While the broader choice of subjects in NCEA can encourage students to stay at school, the choices can be confusing. Likewise, the implications of certain choices for future options can be unclear. Students who choose or are directed into unit standards courses or applied versions of core studies for NCEA level 1 will find that this pathway can ‘fizzle out’ with no higher-level study options. It is very difficult to meet the requirements to enter university through these subjects (Madjar et al., 2009). Pacific and Māori students are more likely than most to choose or be directed by teachers into these courses. Many of the Pacific subjects for NCEA are unit standards. The achievement standards courses are focused on language and literacy in a Pacific Island language.

In making subject choices, Pacific and Māori students are more likely to attribute their choices to external factors such as peers or parents rather than interest or career goals. For all students, parents are by far the most likely to have influenced subject choices. However, many parents do not fully understand the NCEA system, thereby making it difficult to make the right choices (Meyer et al., 2006; Madjar et al., 2009). Information from schools is often very confusing and insufficient to enable parents to feel confident about making informed decisions (Madjar et al., 2009).

Many Pacific parents think it is enough for their children to be going to school and working hard, and do not understand the significance of subject choices (Madjar et al., 2009). Ultimately, subject choices are decided by school management and deans. Much of the advice from deans strongly guides certain types of students to certain types of subjects (Hipkins et al., 2005). Although appropriate in some cases, these decisions may also close off learning opportunities.

“When I was year 10... I wanted to go to university but I didn’t have the right qualifications coz of the subjects I took and other things, getting put in the wrong classes cause of what the deans had to say and all that. Cause that year, year 10, year 11, when I was doing ... unit standards for maths, I’d fly through the class. It was ... real easy for me.... and they (teachers) still didn’t do anything about it [put him into a more academic class].”
NZ born Kiribati student quoted in Madjar et al., 2009

A large proportion of parents (30 percent) and students want more guidance in making decisions about subjects in years 9 and 10 before it is too late (Wylie & Hipkins, 2006).

Over the last five years, more Pacific people participated in Gateway – a programme designed to help secondary school students experience tertiary education and achieve outcomes such as gaining employment or achieving credits on the National Qualifications Framework. In 2007, 835 males and females took part in a Gateway assignment, compared to 337 males and females in 2003. In 2007, 434 men and 401 women participated. In 2007, 632 Pacific Gateway learners achieved a positive outcome. Twenty-three percent started full-time employment, 1.5 percent started part-time employment, 71 percent continued with further training and the remaining Gateway learners had ‘other’ outcomes.43

What would make the most difference?

  • topParents understanding how to help children learn. 
  • Teachers understanding, valuing and building on the experiences and knowledge children come to school with. 
  • Schools reaching out to engage with parents so they feel valued as partners in their child’s education. 
  • Teachers of year 1 and 2 children focusing on establishing literacy foundations. 
  • Schools focusing on the achievement of Pacific children in their monitoring and planning. 
  • Teachers understanding that a student being ‘on task’ does not necessarily mean the student is learning.
  • Schools focusing on the well-being of new Pacific students and supporting the shift to a new school. 
  • Students and parents making informed choices about school subjects that open up further pathways.


A huge effect size of 1.81.
11 St Joseph’s School Otahuhu is a state integrated Catholic primary school, with a roll of 314, classified for funding purposes as decile one, and nearly 90 percent of the children identify themselves as either Samoan, Tongan, Cook Islands, Tokelauan or Niuean.
12 No date given.
13 For further information, please contact the EKS chair – Principal Linda Fox (Kelston Girls College): or (09) 827- 6063.
15 For example, NEMP, or Ministry of Education, 2004.
16 Stand-down: A student cannot attend school for up to five school days in any term, or 10 days in a school year. Students return automatically to school following a stand-down.

Suspension: A student cannot attend school until the school board of trustees decides on the consequence for the student. The board may decide to lift the suspension with or without conditions, to extend the suspension, or in the most serious cases, to either exclude or expel the student.
Exclusion: If the student is aged under 16, the board can exclude him or her from the school, with the requirement that the student enrols elsewhere.
Expulsion: If the student is aged 16 or over, the board may decide to expel him or her from the school, and the student may enrol at another school.

18 Student Engagement Initiative (SEI), a programme designed to reduce truancy and early leaving exemptions, as well as suspensions.
19 Data about suspensions and exclusions is ‘age-standardised’.
24 Private schools are privately owned and charge fees. Integrated schools are privately owned but comply with Ministry of Education requirements for public schools and are funded by the Ministry (eg Catholic schools). They charge some level of fees.
25 To meet the requirements to enter university, students must achieve NCEA subjects from an approved list.
27 The National Educational Monitoring Project (NEMP) assesses two areas of learning every year with a national sample of year 4 and year 8 students.
28 The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assesses the reading achievement of a sample of year 5 students internationally.
29 PISA is an international assessment of the achievement of 15 year olds in maths, science and literacy. It also finds out about attitudes to learning, learning conditions and environments, and links these to achievement.
31 TIMSS 2006/07 at
32 As identified by the books in the home, items in the home, household size and mobility.
33 Language Enhancing the Achievement of Pasifika at
35 Source:
36 Children and young people with a significant physical disability, learning problems, communication disorders and vision or hearing impairments may be eligible to receive extra resourcing and assistance from the Ministry of Education’s ORRS funding.
38 Nash (2004).
39 PEP monitoring report 2007 at
41 To get NCEA level 1, students must gain 80 credits, including 8 from numeracy standards and 8 from literacy standards. NCEA level 2 requires a minimum of 60 credits at level 2 or above and 20 other credits; for NCEA level 3 students need 80 credits, of which 60 must be at level 3 or above, and 20 at level 2 or above.

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