Helping more children succeed at school

"Teachers enter the profession because they want to make a difference. This approach helps them do that."

MORE THAN 30 years ago when Russell Bishop first started teaching at Mana College in Porirua, he was struck by a single question: Why did so many Māori students start out well but still fail as they went through school?

For some, the phenomenon (over 40% of Māori leave school without formal qualifications) might seem too familiar to bear scrutiny. "But I was amazed," Russell says. "I knew their families, they had strong marae connections, many were religious. I kept asking why these good kids were bombing out so badly."

For Russell the question never quite went away. Now Professor of Māori Education at the University of Waikato, he has led studies where they very closely interviewed 70 year nine and ten students, the whānau, principals and 80 teachers in five secondary schools around the North Island. He discovered a surprisingly hidden challenge and a new approach that is already showing good gains.

When he asked teachers about Māori achievement they were frustrated and many were angry. Many threw their hands in the air and talked of problem kids, problem homes and problem parents.

Intriguingly, however, students, parents and school principals all agreed on a quite different response. They talked about relationships. In particular, in-class face to face student-teacher relationships – which they saw as the first step forward.

This could have sounded almost too simple. But for Russell, who is from Tainui/NgātiAwa, it echoed something central. "Māori always start with establishing a relationship first, and then everything else comes after that."

The teams saw where relationships were breaking down. For example, Māori children often experience whakamā or embarrassment in whole classes and prefer small groups or one-on-one. Encouraging teachers to move away from traditional approaches saw on-task engagement levels rise, absenteeism drop, and work completion and short-term achievement markedly increase. Further encouraging research on academic gains is to be published soon.

A targeted professional development programme, Te Kotahitanga, is now working in 33 secondary schools, 12 of which have been in the project for over three years.

"The teachers say that fundamental to the success of a project is that they enter the profession because they want to make a difference, this approach helps them do that," Russell says.

The programme now reaches approximately 1000 teachers and 11,000 students. While the bulk of the research is funded by the Ministry of Education, a key step was a Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga grant to enable work on delivering professional development for teachers sustainably across many schools.

Russell recalls a young girl he had seen thrive at Intermediate level, only to tell him later at secondary school she was planning to leave, "I can't stand it," she told him. That's the sort of outcome his research aims to turn around.