Low English literacy rates in Pasifika students are a key predictor of exclusion from school, an analysis of ten years of data has found.
Our study analysed a cohort of over 43,000 students from their first day of school in 2008 to the end of their compulsory schooling in 2018. We found 9% of Pākehā were excluded at some point during their compulsory schooling compared with 21% of Pasifika students.
Pasifika students who were identified as having English literacy difficulties, and who subsequently received English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) support, were 35% more likely to be excluded than Pasifika students who weren’t identified as having literacy issues.
This data highlighted the importance of literacy on educational outcomes and the possibility that greater investment in ESOL education may improve those outcomes for non-native English speakers.
Ending persistent disparities
In 2021, the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) issued a ten year deadline for tertiary institutions to end persistent pass rate disparities between ethnic groupings.
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The TEC’s ultimatum came on the back of a significant gap in pass rates between Māori and Pasifika students and other students. According to the TEC, Pasifika university students had a qualification completion rate of 48% and course completion rate of 75%, while for non-Māori and non-Pacific students the figures were 66% and 90%.
In polytechnics, Pasifika students had a 46% qualification completion rate and 71% course completion rate, while for non-Māori and non-Pacific students the figures were 57% and 84%.
Pacific peoples not in education, employment or training (NEET) are also over-represented in the statistics, with the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) describing higher rates of NEET for Pacific youth as a persistent characteristic of the labour market in New Zealand.
Excluded students aren’t just naughty
To really address disparities in tertiary education, substantial investment in students needs to start earlier.
The stereotype of excluded students has long been that they are the “naughty kids”. However, there can be many reasons why a student may act out in school. Our research shows that poorer households, households containing less educated parents, households where a parent has been charged with a criminal offence, or a household that has had contact with Child and Youth and Family (now known as Oranga Tamariki) are likely to contain children that have been excluded.
Other contributing factors include gender, ethnicity and having special educational needs.
Previous research has identified a correlation between children with poorer language skills being less likely to achieve academically and to be more likely to experience exclusion from school.
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Children who have been excluded from school are more likely to experience worse outcomes later in life, such as unemployment, mental and physical ill health, substance misuse, antisocial behaviour and crime. These outcomes all carry a cost to society as a whole, not just the individuals directly affected.
Reaching students early
As discussed, the Ministry of Education provides funding to schools that have students with the highest English language learning needs.
The need for ESOL funding is assessed using testing that records the child’s achievement level in listening, speaking, reading and writing. Students whose scores are below certain benchmarks may qualify for funding.
Government spending to enhance educational outcomes is common. New Zealand has 20 hours a week of free early childhood education (ECE) for children aged between three and five, as well as the “fees free” policy for tertiary students in their first year of study. The difference between these two policies and the provision of ESOL support at school is the level of funding.
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Funding for 20 hours of ECE depends on the age of the child, and the percentage of qualified teachers at the ECE centre. At the cheapest possible hourly rate, 20 hours a week for 50 weeks costs the government $4,170 a year.
The “fees free” policy at tertiary level funds each student (excluding international students) up to $12,000 to cover fees in their first year of study.
The current ESOL funding model allows for just $780 a year per primary and intermediate student and $1,000 per year for high school students.
Migrant students are entitled to up to a total of five years during their time at school. New Zealand-born students of migrant parents for whom English is not the first language spoken in the home are eligible for up to three years.
This raises the question, why is ESOL funding in schools so limited?
Increased ESOL funding for schools with Pasifika students could be a targeted way for the government to support students that our data shows are most at risk of being excluded from school or featuring in NEET statistics.
This increased support may take the form of more intensive English language support, or for longer periods of time. Alternatively, it may take the form of additional pastoral care support for Pasifika ESOL students. If it is successful in lowering rates of school exclusion and NEET for Pacific peoples, it will be beneficial for society as a whole, both socially and financially.
Stephen Agnew does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.