The Fabric of Society

Achievement disparities, between specific groups of students, continue over time to be well documented within mainstream schooling, however, for these clearly identifiable groups of students little has been achieved in the way of disrupting this situation and improving it.

In 2000, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing project began across OECD countries reporting outcomes against the quality and equity of each country’s education system.

Systems that are achieving high quality but low equity, in terms of education outcomes, are now familiar to educators in many of these participating countries.

Low equity systems have students who are being underserved by the education system. Often these are indigenous students of colour or in some cases, intergenerational groups of white students, all who leave education with few of the qualifications needed to gain well paid, full-time future employment opportunities. Thus, the fabric of society becomes one where certain groups of people are seen to have the skills and qualities necessary to benefit from all that their society has to offer, while other groups do not.

Although PISA highlights the marginalisation of groups of students specifically in education, in New Zealand this is again, neither a recent phenomenon nor is it confined to education.

In New Zealand

In 1960, Jack Hunn, Acting Secretary for Māori Affairs, reported on a review of the Department of Māori Affairs and made recommendations on social reforms affecting Māori people.

For the first time this report contained statistical evidence of Māori life including housing, education, land ownership and development, crime rates and predictions of population trends.

Since the Hunn report there has been an education focus on identifying the barriers to learning with cultural differences seen as creating deficiencies and often being used to explain the socio-economic gaps between Māori and non-Māori.

In the ensuing debate Māori became the objects of inquiry, pathologised as deficient, while the impositional nature of Pākehā culture and unequal power relations remained largely unexamined (Bishop & Glynn 1999).


Māori had not enjoyed the benefits of belonging to New Zealand society, as the Treaty of Waitangi had assured, were consistently disadvantaged as a group and continued to experience oppression.

Scheurich and Young (1997) suggest that when widely accepted “assumptions, norms, concepts, habits, expectations, etc. favour one race over one or more other races” (p. 6), then racism exists.

The colonised, marginalised and alienated existence many Māori continue to live within New Zealand society, as evidenced each time a census is gathered (Statistics New Zealand, 2013), is an experience of societal racism.

“Colonisation and racism are prominent in Māori explanations for disparities but have received scant attention for official monitoring.
In a society that protects against racism by law, there may be a high level of denial that ethnicity is important or indeed that racism exists.” (Robson & Reid, 2001, p. 23)

As mentioned above, the level of participation of different groups in a society is an indicator of their ability to access the benefits of that society and achieve to their potential.

Māori are over represented in negative indicators (Durie, 2003; Smith, 2005) and as such, the general interpretation of the statistics is that many Māori are failing in New Zealand society.

Māori students continue to be underserved in mainstream secondary schools in New Zealand. They do not remain in schooling for as long as other students nor are they achieving as highly (Office of the Auditor-General,
2012, 2013).

Consequently Māori students leave school with lower qualifications and fewer life choices, which not only have implications for their own futures but for the future well-being of New Zealand society.

In this regard, ongoing trends, taking even a small proportion of the evidence being gathered on a regular basis, provides for a very sobering read. Yet little has happened to disrupt this status quo or to promote positive change.


Trends [Download 1]

Consider the following sets of data taken from the Education Counts website in 2013. In Figure 1, the school roll trends by ethnicity over time show that European/Pākehā students are decreasing while Māori students are increasing. This trend is expected to continue well into the future.

Figure 1: School roll trends over time by ethnicity

The 2013 school roll returns, in Figure 1 above, show that Māori students made up approximately 23 per cent of the school student population.

However, in comparison to non-Māori students, Māori, as shown in Figures 2 and 3, were twice as likely to be suspended and excluded from school, (Education Counts, 2013).

Figure 2: School suspension rates by ethnicity

Figure 3: School exclusion rates by ethnicity


Further, Ministry of Education statistics show that 29 per cent of Māori who left school in 2012 had no formal school qualifications compared with 11 per cent of non-Māori school leavers (Education Counts, 2013).

These statistics also identify Māori boys as being three times more likely to be suspended and excluded from school and show that 31 per cent of Māori boys leave school with no formal qualifications.

Of all students in New Zealand’s education system, Māori boys are the most underserved.

Figure 4: School leavers achieving NCEA level 1 or better

Figure 5: School leavers achieving NCEA level 2 or better

Note: a spreadsheet containing the data that supports the above graphs is available. Please go to the References section if you would like this emailed to you.



Consider the graphs on participation and achievement presented for New Zealand schools in this section.
For each of the different groups of students identified:

  1. Describe the performance of mainstream education with respect to each group. What are the schooling experiences that sit behind these data?
  2. What does this look like in your own school setting?


Little has changed since the educational disparity between Māori and non-Māori was first statistically identified in 1960 in the Hunn Report.

Examining today’s evidence it is clear that the New Zealand education system is failing Māori students, and in particular, Māori males.

Or alternatively, as Robson and Reid (2001) suggest, Pākehā students, by the time they leave school, are more likely to have been privileged through the education system.

The current reality in 2013 is that the price of educational success for successful Māori students continues to be assimilation into the mainstream agenda. However, many more Māori students are still not being provided with sufficient primary skills to succeed in mainstream secondary schools.

The policy response

New Zealand census figures show that the median annual income for adult Māori and Pasifika people is approximately 20% lower than that for adult Pākehā (Statistics New Zealand, 2013).

A higher proportion of Māori and Pasifika come from low socio-economic backgrounds compared with Pākehā and, according to the Ministry of Education’s own analysis, these learners are doubly disadvantaged in New Zealand schools.

The Ministry of Education’s policy response has been to identify priority groups (Māori learners, Pasifika learners, learners with special education needs and learners from low socio-economic backgrounds) in our education system.

The Ministry of Education has clearly articulated the expectation that the government has for schools to more effectively meet the needs of these learners (Ministry of Education 2008, 2012).


Through its Better Public Service Goals the government has set an achievement target of 85 per cent of all New Zealand 18 year olds achieving NCEA level 2 (one of the three national educational achievement certifications), or an equivalent qualification, by 2018 (State Services Commission, 2012).

This achievement target includes 85 per cent of Māori and 85 per cent of Pasifika students, so that the underachievement of priority learners is not concealed within the achievement of other student groups.

The Ministry of Education has identified “an unrelenting focus on lifting achievement especially for our priority groups” (Ministry of Education, 2012, p. 2).

In considering how to address the educational disparities of Māori learners it is important to look at learners’ experiences of schooling and not just at the learners themselves (Bishop, Berryman, Tiakiwai & Richardson, 2003; Wearmouth, Glynn & Berryman, 2005).

Worthy of note are how the wider community attitudes are played out and reinforced through the media that generally regard Māori in deficit terms.

The majority Pākehā group, whose ethnicity and culture is largely unacknowledged and unchallenged, tend to perceive ethnic and cultural identity as irrelevant to the way in which society is structured and managed (Robson & Reid, 2001).

As members of that same community, the majority of teachers are equally susceptible to adopting these attitudes with a resulting impact on classroom practice and learners’ experiences of schooling.

This perception of Māori in deficit terms is well embedded in the fabric of New Zealand society. It has its roots in our colonial history and the Western ideology that drives our societal systems and structures.

Having acknowledged the pervasive influence of the dominant perspective, it is important to note that this discourse is socially constructed and reinforced on a daily basis.

As a social construction this discourse “can be invented, lived, analysed, modified and discarded” (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1997, p. 211).

We are only bound by it if we don’t recognise it for what it is or don’t wish to challenge it when we see it in action – a dominant perspective or discourse that privileges Pākehā over Māori on a societal level; racism.