I went to church this morning, as you do when you are in Tonga.
The service was at Tupou College located just out of Nukualofa and one of the three major colleges in Tonga. It has a roll of around 1,000 and caters for boys. I noted a number of features.
The service was long, in excess of two hours, and I did not note a single instance of attention waning or impeccable behavior lapsing. The boys gave the service close attention right through.
The sermon was long and addressed the theme of “endurance being necessary in the search for your soul.” The message was aimed at the boys.
The singing was spectacular in a way that only Pacific boys’ singing can be. The responses, the hymns, the unplanned singing that accompanied the donation blessing (see below) were of a standard that would neither be expected nor encountered in a New Zealand school.
There were items by the school brass band – an outstandingly talented set of musicians and, of course, they accompanied the singing. One item – a selection from von Suppe’s overture to Poet and Peasant as good as you could hope to hear anywhere. The entire school marched back to barracks (i.e. the dormitories) at the end of the service and smart they were too.
Parents and community were involved. In fact a purpose of this service was to “bless” the donations groups of parents and staff had fund-raised over the past several weeks. $40K doesn’t sound a lot to most schools in NZ but this was a huge amount relative to the total funding of around $200,000 for the entire operation of the school including staff. It was indeed mana from heaven.
The living conditions at this residential school are typically Pacific i.e. tough, demanding and even harsh. But there they were, at church on Sunday morning with their all-white uniform immaculate.
So you get the drift – a church school practising its values in a way that allows students to make the most of their talents, inspires the community and the students with the talents of other students and doing it all with good connection to families and community.
I looked at these students and asked myself why the New Zealand education system struggles to bring Pacific students to excellent educational outcomes to the extent that it does. Why are Pacific students succeeding is so many ways at one school in the island nation when most New Zealand schools (well not just schools, educational institutions generally) struggle to get acceptable results despite the huge advantages in funding, teaching quality and resources.
I think I spotted some of the answers this morning. First and foremost is the values base of the school. Now I do not think that this requires schools to be faith-based but I do think it is a demand to reflect the faith of others. If children come from homes that have ongoing regular relationships with the faith base of a church, we might reflect on the extent to which our system has turned its back on this.
The requirement that we have a system that is universal, free and secular does not preclude a presence of values but does offer a prohibition on narrow, single-track church approaches. I suspect that a student coming from Tupou College into a New Zealand institution would in this area regard the environment as rather barren. Similarly, how genuine is the invitation of the institution to a parent about involvement. Rather than a “you need our help” we might try a “we need your help” with all communities not just those who conventionally populate the BOT and the PTAs.
The answers we seek about Pasifika education and which require us to hold symposiums, conference, summits and think tanks might just be there and is staring us in the face. Has anyone done a study of effective practice in Pacific schools and brought it forward as a potentially useful place to gain ideas for the improvement of our own schools?