After a month of community consultation throughout the country, I was excited – perhaps relieved – to be attending the launch of the Pasifika Education Plan 2013-2017. From memory it’s the government’s sixth Plan giving an overarching strategy on how to raise educational achievement for Pasifika learners in New Zealand. On this cold night in October last year I politely put to one side my utter disgust that the Ministry of Education only afforded one single month to seek consultation from the country’s quarter of a million Pasifika people, to read the findings of what our people had to say.
Admittedly at the time of the consultation, I was an employee of the Ministry, having noted on numerous occasions my dissatisfaction at the hurried nature of the consultation, but I’ve quickly learned that although many of us where white collars to work these days, we’re just professionally dressed ‘factory hands’. I started at the Ministry and was won to the vision of the Plan, which was our bible so to speak. Its vision resonated with me because it was about addressing issues with the education system, in order to achieve increased achievement for Pasifika. “The education system must work for Pasifika so they gain the knowledge and skills necessary to do well for themselves, their communities, Aotearoa New Zealand, the Pacific region and the world.” (2009-2012). I saw this as an admission that there were serious flaws with the system that were perpetuating the same monocultural, educational outcomes. Here, was a genuine opportunity to address the issues relating to students’ prior knowledge recognition in the classroom, culturally responsive pedagogy, inclusive teacher interactions, language medium of exchange and more in a system that was failing Pasifika young people.
To my astonishment, the vision for the new Plan had changed. “Five out of five Pasifika learners participating, engaging and achieving in education, secure in their identities, languages and cultures and contributing fully to Aotearoa New Zealand’s social, cultural and economic wellbeing.” Whilst this vision may sound similar to the earlier one, it’s significantly different. This vision puts the onus back on the learner, as if the system and those upholding it are equal and pure – befitting of a neoliberal and postcolonial theory of education. Seve-Williams (2010) provides a detailed analysis of shifting the blame onto the student whilst diverting attention from a flawed system. Current and popular public discourse leads us to believe that the system (or market) is without bias, so the blame of underachievement rests on students because it’s their responsibility to ‘learn’. Some of the issues I noted earlier such as culturally responsive pedagogy, inclusive teacher interactions, and recognition of students’ prior knowledge, point to systemic failures in education that students – many of whom are Pasifika – have to ‘wear’ in life. The effects on their communities are enormous.
So what of the change in vision statements? As an employee facilitating these community consultations, I vividly remember there being absolutely no questions on the vision. I recall parents and families talking about the aspirations they had for their children, a desire for bilingualism, the pride they experienced when a son or daughter completed NCEA level 2 and graduation ceremonies that were overwhelming. Those are the discussions that I recall vividly. But changing the vision statement? That was never on the agenda.
Wearing failure in life isn’t nice – in fact it’s painful. And obviously the government couldn’t handle the failure label, so cunningly gave it back to Pasifika learners in 2013.