Mana College Under Attack

Mana CollegeBy Martin Gregory

Government moves to put Mana College into statutory management smacks of the racism and contempt for workers and the poor that is prevalent throughout the government’s approach to public education. All working people should take an interest in these developments.

Mana College, Porirua, had of last year a student composition that was 65% Māori , 18% Pasifika, 8% “Other” and 9% NZ European/Pākehā . On 9 March this year the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, put the school under statutory management. This is yet another example of pinning the “Māori under-achievement” label on Māori and teachers. The decision is a smokescreen to the real explanation for comparative educational achievement statistics. And what ulterior motives might Hekia Parata have?

The sledgehammer approach

Putting a school under statutory management means the Minister relieving a school board of its functions and appointing a person, called a limited statutory manager, in its stead. Under the Education Act there is a hierarchy of actions available to the Minister to intervene in the running of schools. In this case Hekia Parata has skipped over less drastic actions and gone for the ultimate. Lesser actions include obliging the school to engage specialist help or obliging the school to prepare and carry out an action plan. No extra money comes with any of these actions.

Putting Mana College under statutory management is a destructive act. It sends a message that the school, students and teaching staff are failing. Whether or not the college had problems, it has a huge one now. The Minister has dealt a blow to the reputation of a school that can only make survival more difficult when it has a roll of only about 370 after a long term decline.

The reasoning behind the decision to bring the college under statutory management warrants being challenged; not that any explanation to the public has been offered by Hekia Parata or the Ministry. What we have to go on are gleanings and suppositions from newspaper reports and a September 2014 report on the college by the government’s inspection arm, the Education Review Office (ERO).

The newspaper reports are in fact only a variation of an article by the same journalist for two Fairfax Media publications. They quote Helena Barwick, who has been appointed as the limited statutory manager. All we are told is vague: “Current resources are not as well managed as they could be”; “There is an element of people not being convinced that Mana is providing what students need”; “My impression at Mana is of a lot of people working hard, but without a clear and solid direction for the students.” These empty statements do not add up to a case for statutory management. Fairfax Media added its own irresponsible twist to the story with hyperbole of a “plummeting roll”, which is untrue. They also saw fit to place next its report an advertisement for the private, boys-only, Scots College in Wellington; in case any parents can afford Scots’ fees of $20,000 a year.

The answer to the question why statutory management can only lie in the ERO report. Is it the falling roll? No, ERO reports a significant increase in 2014. Is it the mismanagement of resources hinted at by Barwick? ERO says property management systems need to be addressed, but that is hardly reason for the ministerial sledgehammer.

Poverty and Education

ERO’s report is not a damning indictment. It has a lot of good things to say about the college. For example, ERO posed the question of how effectively the school promoted educational success for Māori as Māori , and it answered positively.

The negative part of the ERO report is where learning achievement is assessed. The 2013 results were said to be below those of comparable schools, and the percentage of students gaining NCEA Level 3 and University Entrance was well below similar schools nationally. Māori students’ achievement was below national percentages for Māori . However, overall, the percentage of leavers with Level 2 or better has improved every year since 2009. In 2012 this amounted to 56% of students, which is a low figure. For Years 9 and 10 ERO found over half of students achieved below expectations, based on national literacy and mathematics tests.

ERO considered that the school was not well placed for an improvement in student achievement. It implicitly criticised the principal for lack of leadership and the school board for not action-planning. The ERO report concluded with positive things to say and that one negative on processes to promote improvement.

What we are left with for any justification for government intervention are the statistics for student achievement. These in truth are low, but they reflect the low socio-economic status of Mana College’s students. Mana College is a Decile 2 school. There is an obvious correlation between socio-economic background and students’ educational results. Students from warm, spacious homes, with computers and shelves of books, and whose parents lead a financially comfortable existence, who can afford to give their children access to variety and different forms of cultural life (magazines, theatre, concerts, cinema, overseas holidays etc), understandably achieve higher results than working-class students who do not have the same facilities.

The system fails Māori students

The whole history of British imperialism, colonisation and racist rule in New Zealand is responsible for Māori being preponderantly in the lower socio-economic categories and Māori being culturally oppressed, having lost their land and language in equal measure. For yes, there is surely a cultural, as well as economic, aspect to measurements of educational success. Generations of Māori have been failed by an educational system shaped to maintain a class-divided society.

Unless “Māori under-achievement” is understood in its total context it can be used as a stick to beat teachers with or to blame Māori themselves. If Hekia Parata really wanted to do something to raise educational achievement at Mana College she should look to better resourcing of the school and to improving the living standards of students’ families. That, of course, is the opposite of everything the National Party stands for.

The decision to put Mana College under statutory management is an unjustified attack. The danger is that it could precipitate the closure of the school. Porirua’s mayor, Nick Leggett, has already said “The sustainability of secondary education as it’s currently provided in Porirua is obviously up for discussion.” Is this Hekia Parata’s game plan?

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