Massey University PhD graduate (education) Dr Alet van Vuuren, who is a registered psychologist for the Ministry of Education, has explored factors facilitating the engagement in learning of Pasifika students at intermediate school level.

Her doctoral study has shown the positive difference to student engagement – not only in intermediate school, but also at secondary school, when teachers include critical cultural content into classroom practices.

The study supports the need for culturally strengthened teacher engagement with Pasifika students at intermediate level to foster higher levels of achievement at secondary school and tertiary levels.

“Despite considerable effort to improve student engagement, achievement and performance outcomes within the required inclusive educational contexts, a significant number of Pasifika students still leave school without any formal qualifications,” van Vuuren says.  

Although 80 per cent of Pasifika students stay at school until the age of 17, they do not necessarily achieve high enough qualifications to guide them into the workforce or tertiary education, she adds.

Pasifika education researcher associate professor Bobbie Hunter and special education expert, associate professor Mandia Mentis have supervised van Vuuren’s study, and together, generated a cultural assessment tool - Feeding the Roots Model of Pasifika Student Engagement – to assist with the study.

During the study, van Vuuren interviewed students, teacher aides, resource teachers of learning and behaviour (RTLB) and parents at a South Auckland intermediate school where 52 per cent of the students were from Pasifika backgrounds.

Here, teachers who explicitly integrated cultural references, knowledge, language and learning styles achieved higher levels of Pasifika student engagement in learning.

Surprisingly, van Vuuren has found the ethnicity of teachers played no role in Pasifika student engagement.

Her survey has shown palagi teachers who were deliberately teaching with more cultural awareness and understanding, achieved the highest levels of Pasifika student engagement.

“This highlights a need for all teachers to understanding the value of incorporating their cultural competency to address ethnic diversity in their classrooms, especially in South Auckland, where there are an estimated 168 different nationalities and ethnicities,” van Vuuren says.

Working as an educational psychologist has prompted her to consider studying the issue of Pasifika student engagement.  

Originally from South Africa, van Vuuren has worked in New Zealand education for 17 years and is passionate about education and promoting inclusive practices that benefit multi-cultural societies.  

While there is a broad awareness in the education system for finding ways to support and improve learning outcomes for Pasifika students, more work is needed to bolster teachers’ understanding and skills in teaching culturally diverse classes, van Vuuren says.

There are resources, such as the Pacific Education Plan 2013-2017, which aims at raising Pasifika learners’ participation, engagement and achievement from early learning through to tertiary education, but these are not widely applied, she adds.

Recommendations from her doctoral research, about the potential of the Feeding the Roots model for integrating cultural aspects into everyday classroom teaching, could support what the Ministry of Education is encouraging in schools.

While she does not identify as an expert who could speak on behalf of Pasifika, van Vuuren perceives her research as a cultural assessment tool to support culturally appropriate and culturally responsive systems in which Pasifika students operate.