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More than neighbours

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.27, 10 July 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

It is understandable to see why some commentators were inclined to dismiss the Prime Minister’s recent trip to South Pacific Island nations as a bit of a junket – a trip with a couple of footy blokes, a chance to dance, to dispense some aid, to question some aid. Such commentary is possible because like so many people in New Zealand, they are dislocated from the future of this country and from the demographic revision that is happening.

New Zealand is already the largest South Pacific Island nation and it had better become comfortable with this. We are irrevocably stitched into the fabric of the South Pacific – a sort of jagged fence line (as a poet put it) that marks the Southern Boundary

Sixty years of migration have established a community of interest that brings the five Polynesian countries of the South Pacific – Niue, Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kiribati – into a tightly bound relationship with each other and with New Zealand. Not only are the populations of those Pacific nations now spread across their originating home lands and the suburbs of New Zealand, the situation is not static as communities and families travel back and forth. More recently. Levels of interaction between New Zealand and Fiji has seen dramatic growth in the Fijian component of our community – we will soon need a mature take on that!

This raises questions about the nature of our future relationship – us with them, New Zealand with the other nations.

In 1883 Richard John Seddon suggested that “… we [in New Zealand] might send our governors and legislators to all the distant islands of the Pacific, to unite them by our common education, by our common form of government, by one class of habits. We could found as great an Empire as the world has seen…” Let’s put aside the notion of “empire” and forget about the “one class of habits”. But we could do worse than to consider a federation of education systems throughout our little Pacific wedge.

A common education system that allowed free movement between the education providers of each country might well be the biggest aid contribution that a country the size of New Zealand could contribute to a world where poor nations are confined to poverty while developed nations cling to their developed privilege. And it makes sense. The future of both New Zealand and the South Pacific island nations requires a common market of skilled and educated people.

The growth of Pacific populations in New Zealand is a defining feature of the demographic landscape of our future. About three hundred thousand New Zealanders are of Pacific descent and 60% have been born in New Zealand. But the median age of the Pacific population is about 21 years of age compared to 35 years for the rest of us! Pacific will be very dominant as a community group in the future.

But ….. it is not all good news.

One in three Pacific people over the age of 15 have no formal qualifications. Mix this ingredient with those population growth patterns and there is an urgent call to action for educators. Especially in areas such as Manukau where predictions are that well over half of the population will be of Pacific origin within 30 years.

So what has this to do with Hon John Key’s trip to the Pacific?

Sometimes charity begins at home. Perhaps the best (but not only) help that can be delivered to Pacific nations is to ensure that Pacific residents in New Zealand are well educated, employed and productive. Forget wrapping all this up in the flash terms such as economic transformation and economic and social prosperity, what it means is educated, qualified and working.

Investing in Pacific education in New Zealand might be an excellent option for a government looking to invest in the future of the Pacific. If New Zealand based Pacific communities could earn more, they could contribute increased money through the transmission of funds back to the islands of their parents and relatives. Other New Zealanders might well struggle to understand this willingness to give concrete expression to the love of family and the obligation to community that all this implies. It most certainly is a very special part of the Pacific and our contribution to it as a country might be to see that it happens in ways that enhance the dignity of all parties.

But if we are not to participate in the economic repression of both our New Zealand Pacific community and the respective communities of the South Pacific, we need to turn a few things around.

Pacific students are the most persistent ethnic group in our education system – this  means that they stick at education. But they leave with the lowest qualifications. It is therefore not their willingness to participate; rather it is the system’s ability to deliver. I have worked throughout the Pacific at different times, usually as a consultant helping this education system or that with curriculum development and institutional strengthening. I look back nab think about the irony of this – is there such a thing as an ugly New Zealander?

So what can be done? Well, the answer is the same as it has been for other groups identified as under achieving overall. Institutions have to have about them something that signals that they are comfortable places for students of difference to be. This might be a teaching staff more balanced in its ethnicity, or programmes designed to cater both in their content and method for the key differences that different groups bring with them. It might be an iconic building or art or other physical features that suggest that the spaces we live in tell us something about ourselves.

Above all it is about what is in our heads. Basil Bernstein said many times that the culture of the child cannot enter the classroom if it has not first entered the mind of the teacher. Similarly we could say that the culture of the community cannot enter an institution if it has not entered into the consciousness of the institution – its governance, its leadership and, most importantly, its teachers.

If Hon. John Key’s trip had brought home to him the importance of what happens here in New Zealand is of critical importance to the nations of the South Pacific, it will have been a journey that has taken him to a good place.

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