More investment in literacy skills is needed if New Zealand is serious about ending persistent disparities for Pasifika students

Low levels of English literacy among Pasifika students are a key factor in school exclusion, an analysis of ten years of data has found.

Our study analyzed a cohort of over 43,000 pupils from their first day of school in 2008 to the end of their compulsory education in 2018. We found that 9% of Pākehā were excluded at some point during their compulsory education, compared to 21% of Pasifika students.

Pasifika students identified as struggling with English literacy who subsequently received English for Speakers of Other Languages ​​(ESOL) support were 35% more likely to be excluded than Pasifika students who were not identified as having literacy problems.

These data highlighted the importance of literacy to educational outcomes and the possibility that greater investment in ESOL education could improve these outcomes for non-English speakers.

Ending permanent differences

In 2021, the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) issued a ten-year deadline for higher institutions to end persistent attainment gaps between ethnic groups.

Read more: Why your ability to speak English can be judged by how you look

The TEC ultimatum came amid a significant achievement gap between Māori and Pasifika students and other students. According to the TEC, Pasifika University students had a qualification completion rate of 48% and a course completion rate of 75%, while for non-Māori and Pacific students the figures were 66% and 90%.

At the polytechnic, Pasifika students had a 46% qualification completion rate and 71% course completion rate, while for non-Māori and Pacific students the figures were 57% and 84%.

Pacific people not in education, employment or training (NEET) are also over-represented in the statistics, with the Department of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) describing higher NEET rates for Pacific youth as a consistent feature in the New Zealand labor market.

Back of students with hands raised in a classroom.
English for Speakers of Other Languages ​​(ESOL) funding is capped at $780 per year for elementary and middle school students and $1,000 per year for high school students.
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Expelled students are not just naughty

To truly close the gap in higher education, significant investment in students must begin earlier.

The stereotype of expelled students has long been that they are “naughty kids.” However, there can be many reasons why a student may act out at school. Our research shows that poorer households, households with less educated parents, households where a parent has been charged with a criminal offence, or households that have had contact with children and youth and family (now known as Oranga Tamariki), probably contain children who have been excluded.

Other contributing factors include gender, ethnicity and special educational needs.

Previous research has found a link between children with poorer language skills who are less likely to achieve academically and are more likely to experience exclusion from school.

Read more: Pacific people have been ‘punched and humiliated’ for too long – now they’re fighting back

Children who have been excluded from school are more likely to experience worse outcomes later in life, such as unemployment, mental and physical ill-health, substance abuse, anti-social behavior and crime. All of these outcomes come at a cost to society as a whole, not just to the individuals directly affected.

teacher with hands on desk in front of students.
Exclusion from school can have a lasting impact on both the student and their community. But it is not only
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Reaching students early

As discussed, the Department of Education provides funding to schools that have students with the highest English language learning needs.

The need for ESOL funding is assessed using tests that record a child’s level of achievement in listening, speaking, reading and writing. Students whose scores fall below certain benchmarks may qualify for funding.

Government spending to improve educational outcomes is commonplace. New Zealand has 20 hours a week of free early childhood education (ECE) for children aged between three and five, as well as a ‘no fees’ policy for tertiary students in their first year of study. The difference between these two policies and the provision of ESOL support in school is the level of funding.

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Funding for 20 hours of VAT depends on the age of the child and the percentage of qualified teachers in the VAT centre. At the lowest possible hourly rate, 20 hours a week for 50 weeks costs the government $4,170 a year.

The ‘no fees’ policy at tertiary level funds each student (except international students) up to $12,000 to cover fees in the first year of study.

The current ESOL funding model only allows for $780 per year for elementary and intermediate students and $1,000 per year for high school students.

Migrant students are entitled to a total of five years of schooling. Students born in New Zealand to migrant parents for whom English is not the first language spoken at home are eligible for up to three years.

This begs the question, why is funding for ESOL in schools so limited?

Increased ESOL funding for schools with Pasifika students could be a targeted way for the government to support the students our data shows are most at risk of being excluded from school or included in the NEET statistics.

This increased support may take the form of more intensive support in English or for longer periods of time. Alternatively, it could take the form of additional pastoral support for Pasifika ESOL students. If it succeeds in reducing school exclusion and NEET rates for Pacific peoples, it will benefit society as a whole, both socially and financially.