AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 26: Senior students from Papatoetoe High School in South Auckland attend school on October 26, 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand. Year 11, 12 and 13 students in Auckland and Waikato are able to return to school from today, despite lockdown restrictions continuing as the city continues to record new community COVID-19 cases. While senior students are permitted to return to their classrooms if they wish, attendance is not compulsory. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“The racial complexity of our schools has increased, and the need to actively manage race, culture and ethnicity issues has become more critical than ever.” — Ara Alam-Simmons. (Photo: Getty Images)

For many migrants of colour who make Aotearoa their home, the prospect of an education for their children that’s safe, caring, and free from discrimination is central to their dreams.

But we know that the education system here doesn’t work for all, especially not for Māori and Pacific — and there’s increasing evidence that it’s also failing students who make up Aotearoa’s ethnic communities (African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern), as Ara Alam-Simmons writes here.


In my time teaching at one secondary school in Tāmaki Makaurau, I found myself battling with one of the deputy principals, who repeatedly took the Māori and Pasifika boys out of my Year 9 science class and made them set up the hall for assembly.

When I raised concerns about this with other senior leaders, and even the school counsellor, they fell on deaf ears. So I started to do anything I could to keep my students in class.

I found other empty classrooms so the deputy principal couldn’t easily find us. I made sure my students were always engaged in a practical, making it harder to extract them from class. We even went outdoors to learn if the weather was decent.

But it kept happening. For the rest of the school year, the Māori and Pasifika boys were repeatedly taken from class to unstack benches. In the end, I created a homework club for them and others to make up for their lost learning time.

As a woman of colour, a migrant, a teacher, an educational facilitator, and a mother, I have experiences of many sides of the schooling system here in Aotearoa.

My entry to the education system as a professional wasn’t an easy one, despite my expertise, experience, and qualifications. All I could get when I first arrived from the UK in 2004 was a standard teaching role — and that was only after I was prepared to use my partner’s Pākehā last name to get an interview. All the while, my Pākehā British counterparts, with less expertise and experience, were able to secure immediate leadership positions. Little has changed in that regard in 2023.

In contrast, my children’s entry into the education system was relatively easy, but their access to a safe school experience was not.

Six years ago, my then 12-year-old came home saying that they’d gone to the deputy principal to report another student repeatedly calling them a terrorist. Our child was told to “toughen up”, and the event was dismissed as harmless “banter”.

What does a child (or adult) do if they report an incident to a person who has no experience of racial abuse, and whose social reality means that they have no point of reference to understand the abuse?

Whether a child, family member, or professional working in the education sector has their complaint of race-based bullying or racism addressed so often relies on their ability to convince those in charge to believe them.

A recently released Education Review Office report found that learners from ethnic communities encounter widespread racism, isolation, and lack of cultural understanding, with one in five — that’s 20 per cent — of ethnic learners facing race-based bullying. If you’re a parent from these communities, or a person of colour in the profession, this won’t be a shock finding. It’s something many of us have known about for too long.

In the same report, a third of learners from ethnic communities said their school didn’t take racist bullying seriously. This was certainly my experience as a parent.

A study conducted by Auckland University also found that Indigenous students, and those from ethnic communities, experienced bullying at higher rates than those perceived as white. It found that learners from Asian backgrounds are often reminded how well they do in the academic system. But what isn’t factored in here is the huge family input that ensures the learner does well despite the school experience — and there’s little concern shown for Asian learners’ mental health and wellbeing as a result of that experience, which has significant impacts on the physical and mental health of Asian communities.

Yet another study found that Māori, Pasifika, and Asian students experienced being discriminated against by teachers at double the rate of Pākehā students.

Our education workforce is still predominantly white — in 2021, 73 percent were Pākehā, 12 percent Māori, 5 percent Asian, 4 percent Pacific and 1 percent MELAA (Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African).

Meanwhile, in 2022, the student population was just 46 percent Pākeha, and 25 percent Māori, 15 percent Asian, 10 percent Pacific and 3 percent other.

What is happening to create a profession that isn’t reflective of our student body and society? What unseen rules and structures must be in place for this to be the case?

It’s difficult to find data about the ethnic makeup of school leadership positions and boards. When we choose not to collect specific data, we’re effectively saying that this isn’t important.

On rare occasions, the public get a glimpse of the reality in some of our schools. Such as when whānau at a Pukekohe school had to campaign to be represented at board level. Or when a Muslim primary school teacher applied for more than 200 teaching roles in New Zealand schools, and got just five interviews. When she asked the schools why she wasn’t even shortlisted, their responses revealed “a toxic mix of institutional bias, Islamophobia and unconscious bias”.

This is familiar ground for those of us who don’t fit the desired norm in a predominantly Pākehā workforce.

An argument we often hear is that “we hire the best people for our children”. This is code for hiring someone who fits “our” idea of what best is. When we talk about hiring the best people, we need to understand who that phrasing really works for. Hiring the “best” is a myth if we’re not prepared to put in the time and resources to attract a broad range of applicants to our schools in the first place.

The lack of leadership diversity, the toxicity, and the lack of accountability in the education system play out in the realities of children and their families every day. Often this involves what can be described as the “3-D” approach: deny, deflect, and defend.

Over the years, as a teacher and facilitator working with kāhui ako around the country and supporting other parents, I’ve seen and experienced for myself many examples of this approach. They include:

The Sikh mother who had to cut her seven-year-old son’s top knot after he was bullied by his peers. The school senior leadership were unable to deal with the issue and instead quietly told the mum that a haircut would be for the best.

The Muslim family who approached their local primary school in Tāmaki Makaurau after the Christchurch mosque attacks offering to provide guidance and support to staff and community, only to be told that “it would not go down well”.

The Indian parent who made a complaint to the board of trustees and received two carefully crafted political paragraphs from the school board reassuring them that the status quo is acceptable, despite the complaint providing specific examples of racism in the school.

The South Asian mother who raised concerns of racism at her school and was instead accused of not providing a proper lunch for her child and not ensuring that they get to school in a state to learn.

The Asian Muslim parent who was deliberately locked in the school carpark by the caretaker (an incident that happened two weeks after the mosque attacks) and was then told by the Pākehā principal that they were 100 percent convinced it wasn’t racially motivated.

The teacher who asked a child: “How can you be Muslim, when you’re black?”

The Asian teacher who was continually played against other underrepresented candidates, including Māori and Pasifika, when applying for leadership positions.

The South Asian wellbeing facilitator who was asked to upskill the Pākehā facilitator so that they could become the lead on projects. Apparently, the facilitator with the expertise, knowledge and experience wasn’t a good culture fit.

The lack of meaningful representation for ethnic communities on the Teaching Council which means an additional burden is placed on Māori and Pasifika members to also speak for other ethnic groups, which is unfair.

And the continued lack of ethnic diversity across the teaching profession, across its leadership, boards of trustees, teacher training institutions and professional bodies.

This is the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly grind of constantly dealing with systemic racist headwinds. It’s not just race-based bullying that our learners and their families endure each day. It’s the tactics of denying, deflecting and defending from schools which are upholding white supremacy.

What has always been missing, in the many examples I’ve witnessed over the years, is accountability.

When you’re a teacher of colour in the system, and you speak out against these things, you’re reminded of how easily this can harm your career, psychological safety and wellbeing.

I’ve worked for a specialist learning and behaviour service where, on a few occasions, I heard racist comments being made around the office about Māori learners and other marginalised students and their families. Others in the office turned a blind eye. When I raised the issue with the manager, I was told that they were aware of such behaviour, but then they chose to focus their follow-up actions on me. When you point to the problem, you become the problem.

Placing the burden entirely on individuals to speak up is unhelpful. A systemic and accountable response is necessary.

The educational response to racism in its schools is to encourage more learning about culture. But explaining culture won’t end the racism that learners, their families and professionals face in the sector.

Our education system deploys the language of cultural capability, diversity, inclusion, and celebration of difference to dilute the focus of actually dealing with race and racism. Unteach Racism is a resource that aims to support teachers, in identifying bias and prejudice, but it’s not compulsory for any teacher or school to undertake. And it sidelines the role of systematic racism.

In the next two decades, it’s expected that just over one in four (26 percent) of learners will identify as Asian, and around one in 20 (3.6 percent) will identify as Middle Eastern, Latin American or African.

The racial complexity of our schools has increased, and the need to actively manage race, culture and ethnicity issues has become more critical than ever. Being part of a profession where there’s a range of diverse perspectives makes for better decision-making which contributes to better systems that support all our young people at school.

Racial literacy for principals, teachers and students can offer a transformative response. Racial literacy is the knowledge, skills and awareness to talk about race and racism and to begin understanding the ideas, and the way language and practices enable and sustain systematic racism.

Such literacy supports us in identifying racial silence, and in identifying institutional betrayal where the design is to make the individual feel unsupported and doubted.

Such literacy supports us in identifying institutional gaslighting whereby the institution responds with an action that isn’t intended to understand the transgression but to protect itself instead.

There are many ways to do better at being anti-racist in our education system:

  1. Overhaul your recruitment process to help you to build a more diverse workforce and leadership team. Create pathways for promotion.
  2. Capture the student voice on racism in your school and respond to the findings. Don’t be that principal who says that racism doesn’t exist in their school. It exists!
  3. Believe your students and take their concerns seriously when they or their families come to you about racism.
  4. Review and identify gaps in your school’s policies and procedures and update them.
  5. Assess how racism in your school might be impacting your students and staff and how you can offer appropriate and meaningful support.
  6. Challenge the idea of what is normal in your schools.
  7. Create an anti-racist action plan based on what you uncover. Think about how you can measure the impact as opposed to a box-ticking approach.
  8. Improve the racial literacy of your staff.
  9. Co-opt board of trustee members who fully represent the gaps in your community. Don’t leave it to a popularity contest.
  10. Address the racial inequalities that might exist in your school’s curriculum.
  11. Have the state mandate anti-racist approaches in schools along with accountability measures.

In both my professional and personal experience of the education system, there’s been a complete indifference to actively responding to racism and dealing with the systematic racism across our entire sector.

The indifference comes from those who aren’t affected by racism, whose careers aren’t affected by racism, whose own children’s education isn’t affected by racism.

I feel sick just thinking about the countless young people I’ve supported over the years and the harm I’ve seen done to them by racism.

In denying, deflecting and defending the racist system that is our education system, we continue to endorse a form of violence and harm on our Indigenous, Pacific and ethnic communities.

Let’s move on from prioritising white comfort and good intent.


Ara Alam-Simmons is a parent, anti-racist educator and facilitator who is completing her PhD within WERO (Working to End Racial Oppression) at Waikato University.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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