‘Nihil de nobis, sine nobis,’ or ‘Nothing about us without us’. The phrase has been used for hundreds of years to represent groups marginalised from political, social, and economic opportunities. Today, it has become a maxim for equitable ideals.

Soumya Bhamidipati talks to University of Auckland’s Dr Melinda Webber after last week’s ChalkTalk

“It’s not about us without us,” says Dr Melinda Webber, referring to the lack of representation, in discussions about the future of NCEA, of Māori and Pacific learners, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and those with disabilities or learning support needs.

The University of Auckland associate professor was one of seven panellists who discussed issues relating to NCEA at Education Central’s recent ChalkTalk debate.

Webber is keen to unpack how we might ensure the NCEA review leads to a fairer and more equitable education system. She is particularly interested in how the system can be improved to better suit Māori and Pacific students and their whānau, who she says are currently “drowning” in the complexity of NCEA.

“We constantly go to the kōrero that talks to Māori and Pacific underachievement, but there are many Māori kids, particularly in the Māori medium, thriving and doing really well. So, what is it that’s happening in those schools and how can we emulate some of those practices in our English-medium schools? I think there lies a missed opportunity at the moment to really understand what’s happening in those spaces.

“The problem doesn’t lie with Māori and Pacific students and their whānau; the problem lies with the complexity of the programme and the structure of the qualification.”

Webber is struck by how little we seem to know about what works for Māori and Pacific students and by the lack of proportional Māori and Pacific representation in leadership positions at schools.

“Our children don’t see themselves in the classroom,” she says.

Audience member Leonie Wilson has a child with learning, physical and health difficulties. She is also a member of VIPS Equity in Education, a disability advocacy group.

Wilson has been following the NCEA discussion closely and is concerned about the lack of consultation with the disability sector.

“The standards were developed by the Ministry of Education with educators and employers; they never looked at including the disability sector,” she says.

“The NCEA reference group has 60 people. I asked how many of those are from the disability community. Initially they couldn’t answer me and then they told me that there were none, so this is how invisible [we are]. Māori and Pasifika are also really struggling because of the Europeanised system. Unconscious bias is the politer version.”

This invisibility means that little is known about the needs of the sector, says Wilson. She believes the limited funding allocated to schools and teachers to meet the needs of students with disabilities is also a reflection of a lack of understanding.

“In the National Education and Learning Priorities, which is meant to be the overarching tie into what we see as important, they said ‘accelerate Māori, accelerate Pasifika’, which I think is awesome and they provided a bit of resourcing to do that. For disability it was like ‘oh yeah, help them out a bit’, so we keep pushing this angle of seeing disabled people as highly capable. There are a few things they can’t do but we focus on that and not all the things they can,” she says.

“I spend probably about 30 hours a week knowing NCEA in and out and co-teaching as a parent and talking to other parents and other people about how to get their children and young people through education, when there’s not the funding and space to do it.

“Most parents and young people don’t want to make waves. We don’t want to be that parent and we don’t want to make trouble, but in the end you do have to start pushing because otherwise nothing happens.”

The inclusion of people with disabilities and other marginalised groups at all levels of the review is key to developing a more equitable model, says Wilson.

“We’re not going to grow a strong culture, a strong community or a strong future without including everyone in that picture,” she says.

“All of these things aren’t rocket science to do; it takes the political will and impetus to do it.”

Webber agrees with Wilson that discussions about New Zealand’s secondary school qualification structure are generally about the majority of students who are likely to thrive within it, and should instead focus on designing a system for those who may not benefit from the same educational systems.

“When I say ‘Māori’, she says ‘disabled’, and it’s absolutely two sides of the same coin. We’re trying to put on the table constantly: ‘Don’t forget us, don’t have a conversation about NCEA without us. It’s not about us without us.’ It gets really tiring having to put yourself or insert yourself into the conversation when it should be assumed that we should be in them,” she says.

“The kids who are doing well now are going to do well no matter what system you put in front of them, so we need to design something that actually specifically targets the needs of those kids who currently aren’t being served.”

Education Central’s editor Jude Barback talks to PPTA President Jack Boyle after the ChalkTalk last week

However, a teacher in the audience voiced his concern about not having the time or resources to provide an adequate learning experience to the gifted students in his class.

“I’m missing the ones at the other end – the gifted, talented, accelerated – what will the new system do for these kids?”

Mana College principal John Murdoch, one of the panel members, says gifted students may be overlooked for three main reasons: the lack of a universal screening method to identify them; the focus of NCEA on overall pass rates and teaching to the test; and teachers lacking the time to design or research appropriate tasks for these students.

“The discussion around equity is one that is very close to my heart for lots and lots of reasons. I think that it’s good to talk about what we might do in terms of the ‘big opportunities’ for NCEA, but really, let’s take a few steps back and let’s look at what’s actually going on.”

National’s Education Spokesperson and ChalkTalks panellist Nikki Kaye says while there is “huge” inequity in our education system, this is not a reflection on teachers.

“If you don’t ask the right questions then you’re not going to get the right answers you need to develop a diverse system,” she says.

“Often schools and teachers get the blame for what is going on in the community outside the school gate.”

PPTA President Jack Boyle was among the audience members. He is interested in the broader narrative about the equity, evidence and operation of NCEA.

“There’s no sort of NCEA in a vacuum; it will be contested because people have experienced NCEA uniquely, both as a user or as a provider. That becomes their way, it frames their thinking about what NCEA is,” he says.

“What we know is that it hasn’t worked for everybody.”

In a recent speech to PPTA members, Minister for Education Chris Hipkins highlighted poverty as one of the biggest issues faced by young people, both within and outside the education system.

“That’s why too many of our kids turn up to school hungry, too tired and too undernourished to learn. That’s why many parents can’t afford school fees, or the funding for that school trip that will give their kids the experiences that will feed their curiosity and their imagination,” he said.

“I’m telling you this because what it shows is that to give every kid the best education we can, to give them every opportunity we can, we won’t do it by fixing education alone.”

While the future of NCEA and of wider education in New Zealand remains uncertain, one thing appears to be widely accepted: in order to create a fair and equitable education system, the needs of and opportunities for all learners must be considered and the voices of all New Zealanders must be heard.

Nihil de nobis, sine nobis. Nothing about us without us.

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