After more than 200 years of an imported, colonial system, we are realising the importance of embedding Māori and Pasifika language, culture and worldviews in education. But other members of New Zealand’s increasingly diverse communities are being left behind, writes Laura Walters

The recent rise of racist attitudes and inter-racial conflict has highlighted the importance of broader cultural understanding and inclusion, but a new study has found the education system is not playing its part.

The increasing cultural diversity in New Zealand has given rise to the responsibility of developing a harmonious and cohesive society, whose members can communicate and interact positively with one another. 

And a new study about interculturalism says education is a foundational and empowering tool that can be used to foster such social harmony. 

But New Zealand will have to broaden its thinking, and policies, when it comes to understanding how to include and support people from all communities and backgrounds.

Prominent reports from people like the Children’s Commissioner and growing awareness of discrimination and racism in education has seen the Government begin to move away from the dominant Pākehā approach to education, to addresss discrimination experienced by Māori and Pasifika communities, and build a more inclusive system.

But a study published in the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies says the same focus on interculturalism, inclusion and understanding has not extended to the country’s other, diverse and minority communities.

The study commends intercultural initiatives and policies for Māori and Pasifika, but recommends a broader approach to interculturalism, extending beyond the inclusion of Māori and Pasifika communities.

While New Zealand has been growing in diversity in recent decades, the 2019 terror attack was a stark reminder that not everyone understands and accepts those from different communities.

There has also been a recent surge in inter-racial community conflict, stereotyping, hate speech and fear mongering. And Human Rights Commissioner Meng Foon has expressed his concerns over the increasing reports of racially motivated attacks against Asian migrants and New Zealanders from Asian backgrounds, following the Covid-19 outbreak.

Dr Neda Salahshour, the author of A Critique of New Zealand’s Exclusive Approach to Intercultural Education, said good education policy could promote inclusion and intercultural awareness and understanding.

If interculturalism – the understanding, knowledge and practice of a range of cultural practices and worldviews – could be properly embedded in the New Zealand education system, and backed up with training and resources, it would contribute significantly to promoting social cohesion at such times of crises, Salahshour said.

If the education system is going to be a core contributor to helping New Zealand achieve social cohesion – as recommended by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terror attack – education policy and practice has a long way to go.

The Ministry of Education says it’s currently working on developing programmes in this area, and some initiatives have already been piloted or rolled out.

Deputy secretary of education system policy Dr Andrea Schollmann said the ministry was responsible for the Royal Commission of Inquiry recommendation that called on government departments to improve self-regulation, valuing diversity, and civics education. 

Schollmann said the ministry was also working to implement a pilot focused on self-regulation skills.

But Salahshour said currently intercultural policies and initiatives are lacking, and under-resourced.

“The pursuit of an inclusive intercultural agenda is minimal in New Zealand’s education system.” – Dr Neda Salahshour

“Policies and initiatives should be all-encompassing, comprehensive and inclusive; that is, they must fairly encompass all members of the society and not be limited solely to specific groups,” she said.

While programmes and policies focusing on Māori and Pasifika culture were important, needed, and an obligation under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, focusing on only a small number of groups was insufficient to ensure a broad uptake of the required policy paradigm shift, Salahshour said.

When programmes did include other groups or communities, they were often constrained to language classes, which were not compulsory and limited the opportunities for students to experience a range of cultural approaches and worldviews in different contexts.

Other initiatives were sometimes limited to the “flags, food and festivals” approach, which built some understanding of different cultures, but again did not give students the chance to engage in cultural practices, to ensure both inclusion and the building of genuine empathy.

“The pursuit of an inclusive intercultural agenda is minimal in New Zealand’s education system,” Salahshour concluded.

“Moreover, where such agendas do exist, they have been affected by a lack of conceptual clarity and teacher education and training, leadership and support, as well as limited resourcing.”

The Government updated its four guiding principles in 2007, to ensure people from diverse backgrounds are acknowledged by, and fully engaged with, the school curriculum. 

But the study found most policy, strategy documents and publications released by the ministry had focused only on Māori and Pasifika, giving no guidance regarding other ethnic communities.

Some schools also said the vague wording and broad scope of the principles left it up to individual schools to each design their curriculum. The lack of clear conceptualisations of the principles, minimal guiding strategies and lack of professional development opportunities made it hard to put these principles into practice.

“Intercultural policies and initiatives need to be all-encompassing and inclusive to all communities residing within a country and ideally, should be adhered to in all school disciplines,” the study said.

They needed to be backed up by clear programme design, teacher training and resources.

“We continue to work to ensure New Zealand is safe, secure and more cohesive and we know there is more to do.” – Ministry of Education’s Dr Andrea Schollmann

Salahshour said it was important to reiterate that she believed the continued focus on Māori and Pasifika culture in education was necessary.

She acknowledged the significant obligation to honour and support Māori communities to redress centuries of systematic racism and oppression that tangata whenua had experienced. 

The current socio-economic and ethnic disparities clearly indicated continued efforts were needed to bridge this gap, she said.

But increasing policies and initiatives to support better intercultural understanding of other minority communities, while maintaining the attention given to Māori and Pasifika, did not have to be mutually exclusive, she said. These could co-exist.

How important is it to ensure we are embedding the understanding of a range of cultural practices and worldviews in our education system? Click here to comment.

Schollmann said the ministry was committed to delivering equitable and excellent outcomes for all learners and giving practical effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi in education. 

As part of this work, the ministry was focused on eliminating racism, discrimination and stigma in education settings. 

“We welcome conversations about racism and valuing diversity within the education system. We continue to work to ensure New Zealand is safe, secure and more cohesive and we know there is more to do,” she said.

The recently developed national education and learning priorities were created with input from wānanga, fono, and meetings with diverse ethnic communities. They required that places of learning partnered with whānau and communities to design and deliver education that responded to the learner’s needs, and sustained their identities, languages and cultures.

Diversity and inclusion were also part of the work the ministry was doing in areas like the Pacific Education Plan, the Māori Education Strategy (Ka Hikitia), the Learning support Action Plan and the Māori language strategy (Tau Mai Te Reo)

Other practical steps the taken to create opportunities for ākonga to learn and celebrate cultural and religious difference in the classroom included: the Te Hurihanganui programme, which supported communities to work together to address racism and inequity; new books and toolkits to help children recognise and appreciate their similarities, differences and challenge racism; a self-regulation pilot which used a play-based social and emotional development programme; and working on the popular Eggplant web series, which addressed a range of online-based challenges around bullying, racism, consent and relationships.

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