Parents say Māori children in Lower Hutt school immersion unit being marginalised

9:50 am on 8 October 2021

Parents are accusing an embattled Lower Hutt school of marginalising Māori children and failing to always protect their cultural, emotional, and physical wellbeing.

Wilford School, Petone.

Wilford School, Petone. Photo: Screenshot / Google Maps

The allegations come after the Ministry of Education dissolved Wilford School's Board of Trustees last month and appointed a commissioner, Dr Te Tiwha Brendon Puketapu​, in its place.

In a statement the ministry said the board was managing a number of complaints it did not have the capacity to resolve under urgency.

The Petone school, which takes children from years one to eight and has a roll of just over 300, has recently been the subject of a petition outlining some of the parents' concerns.

The petition said multiple complaints by the Wilford School community had been "ignored, swept aside, or have disappeared".

One mother, who RNZ has agreed not to name, removed her Māori son from the school last year after he was allegedly assaulted by another child.

She spoke with the school principal about the incident and said she made it clear she felt it required intervention from police and Oranga Tamariki.

But a letter from Oranga Tamariki to the mother said no report of concern was made to either agency by the school.

The mother said the school promised that the other child would be kept within arm's length of a teacher aid, a response she felt was inadequate given the severity of the incident.

"After a while they stopped dealing with me because I kept asking questions. And part of it was that I wanted that child to be supervised so no other children would be put at risk of harm.

"I had to remove [my son] from school three and a half weeks before the end of term last year."

RNZ has seen correspondence from the Board of Trustees which says it was satisfied with the way the school responded to the incident.

It did, however, acknowledge that saying staff would keep the other child at 'arms length' was a poor choice of wording.

"We have heard about what was put in place in regards to teacher aide support for the other student. It is acknowledged that the phrase 'arm's length' was a poor choice and impossible to guarantee. We are happy with how incidents have been recorded, keeping in mind a children's right to privacy and that not all people have access to all information," the Board said.

The mother maintains that the school leadership did not take her concerns seriously, and the ordeal left her incredibly emotionally distressed.

"My whole aim in standing up and carrying on with this for 13 months is that I don't want to see another child go through what my child's been through," she said.

"And I don't want to see another parent treated like they treated me or another family go through the stress that they've put my family through."

Multiple parents claimed Māori children in the school's full immersion unit, Ngā Puāwai, were marginalised.

Sophie Johnson, a mother of one of the unit's pupils, said this became apparent early-on in her child's education.

"I thought it was notably absent from school communications, like newsletters and emails out to parents ... our syndicate seemed to always be left off.

"I talked to other parents about it and asked, 'Why is Ngā Puāwai not visible? Why are we not celebrating the things that we're doing here? This is, in my view, a taonga. This has been in existence for over 30 years, it should be really celebrated'. And they said, 'Oh, this is kind of the norm'."

She said the issue was discussed many times at whānau hui.

"We do feel really isolated from the rest of the kura… we don't see that sense of aroha, manaakitanga, whanaungatanga, those basic principles that we want to see right across the kura."

Sarach Buckley, the mother of two children enrolled in the school's mainstream unit, said it was disappointing the school did not embrace Ngā Puāwai more, and promote te reo Māori to the wider school community.

"I have kids in [the] mainstream [unit] and one of the reasons I went to that school is because we have this beautiful opportunity for all our children to learn te reo Māori, which will be in the curriculum, but they are kept away from each other.

"There's a couple of kids in Ngā Puāwai who I look after and they are teaching me and my daughter how to put our words together. So why are we not using this opportunity and spreading it for the school?"

Buckley said she was aware of the concerns other parents had raised with the school over the last few years.

She said many parents, including her, had considered removing their children from the school, but didn't want to give up on it just yet.

"I want to fight for our children," she said.

It's a sentiment Sophie Johnson shared.

"I believe that our tamariki, all of our children, who I've gotten to know very well now, are worth fighting for. I'm not prepared to just simply walk away from that, I'm not going to abandon them, I'm not going to give up on them.

"They are worth every bit of time and effort and energy that we've put into this. I mean, this petition really is on the tail end of a very long battle that whānau before my arrival have been fighting for a long time.

"We believe that if there's the right structure in place, and that we have the right expertise to be able to make decisions around the management of the unit, that absolutely has the potential to thrive."

RNZ put all allegations to the school principal and the deputy school principal, who declined to comment.

They redirected RNZ to the Commissioner, but Dr Te Tiwha Brendon Puketapu also declined to comment.

He said he was yet to get his feet under the table, but planned to meet with parents about their concerns.

The Ministry of Education's deputy secretary Sector Enablement and Support, Helen Hurst, said Dr Puketapu was an experienced interventionist and had the required skills and knowledge to address the current challenges.

"He will hold all functions, powers and duties of the Board that they are appointed to replace and will have the authority to make decisions about all matters relating to the governing of the school to ensure the best possible educational outcome for its students.

"We will be working with the Commissioner to support the wellbeing of the students, staff and the wider community. The aim of any intervention is always to return the school to full self-management as soon as the recommendations of the intervention have been met."

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