19 Jul 2016

Children's Commissioner says bias exists in justice, education

12:46 pm on 19 July 2016

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft has endorsed a study's findings showing there is bias against Māori in the education system, and says he has also observed it in the youth justice system.

A young boy writes at a desk at a primary school.

A young boy writes at a desk at a primary school. Photo: 123RF

The study, Unconscious Bias and Education, reviewed existing research on Māori education and found the unconscious bias of teachers was affecting the performance of Māori students. It compared studies on African-Americans, who share a similar profile to Māori on a number of social measures.

Report co-author Carla Houkamau said racial bias was more subtle in New Zealand but still has a major impact on the success of Māori students.

"These days racism is really socially unacceptable. It's very unusual for you to see examples of explicit racism.

"There's evidence that there's low expectations of Māori kids and what can start to happen is that the kids feel the teacher doesn't like them so much, they don't get as much attention. They start to withdraw and then it's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Judge Becroft, who has just taken up the Children's Commissioner position, was formerly Principal Youth Court Judge.

He said the bias highlighted by the study was also mirrored in other social statistics.

In his time working in the youth court he observed Māori youth getting treated more harshly for the same offences all the way through the youth justice system.

"It struck me when we analysed the education system how in many ways similar the statistics were for the Youth Court.

"So at every step in the decision-making process it gets worse for Māori. Now, the question is why that is. There must be some form of systemic bias or unconscious bias.

"Hard to accept, but it just has to be true."

He said this bias could add to risk factors for families already struggling.

"The 20 percent that don't do so well, that's quite a long tail and it's a tail of relative poverty, of relative marginalisation, of disconnection from education, abuse and neglect issues. Being in that group isn't a script that is for life and inevitable. You can say they are risk factors, nothing's inevitable. But yes, I'm concerned that group appears to be growing."

Some of the research the report reviewed found that teachers believed the most important factor in student achievement is the home environment.

Dr Houkamau said students themselves told the researchers their relationship with teachers was the biggest influence.

"Children themselves are saying 'its our teachers are the most important thing' and the teachers are saying, 'no, it's your family and you that are the most important thing'.

"You've got to remember also that these kids may be coming from families that had really similar negative experiences. They may not feel comfortable dealing with the issues that their kids are experiencing in class, or feel comfortable talking with the teachers about it."

Dr Houkamau says a training program to assist teachers overcome bias, Te Kotahitanga, was scrapped by the government even though it was highly valued by teachers.

Report co-author Hautahi Kingi said research on educational achievement of African-Americans is a useful comparison with Maori because their social profile is almost identical.

He said American research was more comprehensive and clearly showed the link between bias and educational failure.

"The data on their respective social and economic situations in their countries, it's remarkably similar. So once you take a look at that it's difficult to not draw the comparison."

The main aim of the report is to assist teachers improve the results for Māori children.

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