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Talk-ED: Why our most vulnerable are so important


Written by Dr John Langley,   Member of the Minister of Education’s Forum on Student Achievement


Nelson Mandela once famously said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children”.  That is particularly true of our most vulnerable children.  Indeed, one of the real indicators of whether a society can truly call itself “civilised” is the manner in which its most vulnerable and weak citizens are both perceived and treated.

It is a sad fact that in New Zealand we have many vulnerable children and young people.  In the 2012 year Child Youth and Family (CYF) received around 150,000 notifications of possible abuse or neglect of which 21,000 resulted in a judgement that substantial abuse and/or neglect was occurring.  Over the last three years New Zealand has had some 3,800 children and young people living away from their homes in care.  Also during the last three years there have been some 7,000 to 8,000 family group conferences each year held for young people who have come to the notice of the youth justice system.  Many of them have also been in care and protection situations in the past as well.

While this is all depressing enough, what adds to the problem is that if we are to look at the outcomes we desire for all of our children, such as educational success or good health, children and young people who are being abused, neglected, in care or have involvement with the youth justice system consistently perform poorly.  In many cases very poorly.

When we talk about vulnerable children, who are we talking about?  Generally we are referring to those children and young people who have been or are suffering abuse of some kind, neglect, or who suffer from a range of mental health or conduct problem issues.  In many cases there are co-morbidities such as the teenager who may suffer from a mental health condition and who is also addicted to alcohol or drugs.  Often these children and young people end up in care of some kind or, because of their behaviour, offend and end up in the youth justice system.

So what is the point of all of this in an education blog?  The point is that there is much lip service that rolls off many tongues about how education is supposed to improve an individual’s life chances, to help them realise potential and to provide opportunities they would otherwise not have.  Not for our vulnerable children it doesn’t. 

There is also much talk about the social and moral obligations that we have as a society to provide equal opportunities, or at least vaguely equal opportunities for all.  Not for our most vulnerable children we don’t.

There is also talk about how continued failure of groups such as most vulnerable cannot be sustained.  Yet the cost keeps rising.

The problem is that the education system is inconsistent at best in terms of the way it engages with our most vulnerable.  Let me be clear – I’m not suggesting for one moment that this is easy stuff.  Most of these children need considerable support, often quite intensive interventions, significant resources and very skilled staff.  All of that said, many schools are marvellous and go the extra miles to keep children and young people in school, keep them engaged and provide programmes that will lead to success and further education.  Some are luke- warm at best and are less than enthusiastic when presented with these children.   Others simply don’t engage and refuse to enrol them.  This is not good enough at a time when government agencies are striving to cooperate to a greater degree and work together on challenges such as this.

If an agency such as Child, Youth and Family turns up at a school and says, “Here’s Billy, good luck” any principal would be within her or his right to point out that such a situation is setting everyone up to fail, and postpone any enrolment until the necessary support is in place.

When, however, a school is approached to enrol a child or young person who has considerable support, safety plans and resources to assist them to succeed should a school be able to simply say no or equally make it clear that the child is really not wanted?  I don’t think so.

In New Zealand our schools exist for all children, not just some.  Continued engagement and achievement in education is essential for the future success and development of any individual and to exclude them is removing a basic human right that should never occur except in the most extreme circumstances.  Yet this is what we continue to do.

It is high time that another look is taken at how our schools can and must engage with our most vulnerable.  Unless we do New Zealand society’s “soul” may not bear too much close scrutiny. 



Published inEducation


  1. Until recently, we had a targeted training programme called “Youth Training” that was targeted at these most vulnerable young people.

    Our government, in its wisdom, decided to drop that programme in favour of Youth Guarantee. Youth Guarantee however, does not target this group of vulnerable young people. Sadly, there have been very few voices speaking out about this tragedy.

  2. Anita Gutschlag Anita Gutschlag

    Yes, there is an obvious discrepancy between theory and practice in the education system’s response to these young people. In line with schools’ pastoral structures of advice and counselling and an apparent culture of care and concern, mainstream ed tries to ‘cope’ with these students through a variety of disciplinary and restorative practices. However the usual scenario is more often that once the school has tried various ‘interventions’, the BOT ‘reluctantly’, after a ‘series of incidents’, excludes the young person.
    This discrepancy is borne out by the Ministry of Education statistics on student stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions. This data also clearly shows that Maori and Pasifika students are over-represented at every level of student disciplinary practices in New Zealand schools.
    Again,the contradictions between theory and practice are evident in the discourse around these statistics, which is centred around the notion of ‘the tail’, and tends to individualise the problem to disengagement by students and poor teaching by teachers.
    Real success for these students requires a much greater commitment from the school, genuine care and advocacy, which may involve liaising with a variety of other organisations, not just within education. Until this happens, these students will in many cases continue to fail at school. Sadly, in my experience it is then (when they transition from school in whatever sense) that the biggest problems for these young people begin. Even more sadly, school regards them them as ‘out of sight, out of mind’ once they leave – this shows up the huge gap between the school’s discourse of producing ‘connected, confident, lifelong learners’ and the reality of the situation, where its most vulnerable learners are effectively abandoned.

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