The director of Pacific Strategy and Engagement at the University of Auckland says New Zealand's curriculum fails to reflect its students from Pasifika and other minority backgrounds.
Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa recently published a book entitled Island Time which asks what it would mean if New Zealand saw itself as a Pacific nation.
Dr Salesa was in Wellington last week speaking to students from various colleges in Porirua about how the Pacific has shaped New Zealand's identity.
Ahead of his talk the school hall at Bishop Viard College was a sea of colourful uniforms, abuzz with students from many different backgrounds and schools.
Porirua, Aotea, and Marsden Whitby colleges were also present to hear what he had to say.
Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa said the diversity represented in the school hall that day is what New Zealand's future will look like - but it is not reflected in the curriculum.
"So there are many holes in the New Zealand curriculum where Pacific kids are unable to see themselves; unable to have the depth of knowledge they need to better understand their own place in the world," Dr Salesa said.
"And not just Pacific kids but New Zealanders as a whole."
He challenged the students to think critically about New Zealand's education system, as well as what he called segregation, by race and by wealth, that occurs in schools across the country.
"Because New Zealanders have come to believe…that a richer school, a wealthier school, is a better school," he said.
"I know this because my daughters go to a decile one school…and one of my daughters went to a decile 10 school. And she said dad, man they've got everything. And I understand why kids do that. And I said well they don't have everything. They don't have you."
A step in the right direction
Dr Salesa said the review of the country's education system was an important step in the right direction.
But many New Zealanders, he said, are still living in denial.
"People won't admit that they don't want to live somewhere or they don't want their kids to go to this school or that school because there are lots of Pasifika and Maori people there" said Dr Salesa.
"And they are not just Pakeha people, they are Maori and Pasifika people too that make those same decisions. So the first thing we have to do is we have to get people to be honest with themselves."
The event host and principal of Bishop Viard College Rose Sawaya said having these kinds of conversations is invaluable for young people and particularly so for the largely Pasifika student base at Bishop Viard.
"When they are exposed to various people and their opinions that it gives them a broader perspective and it helps them to place themselves in the world.
"And to accept themselves for who they are and to understand that they are a dynamic force and they are our future"
And this was evident from some of the responses given by students during question time.
"So I think it is really important to tell everyone to just do what you want. You don't have to be like people who came before you. You can be the first to go to university in your family if you want. You can be whatever you want. Just be you," one boy concluded to a round of applause.
"Part of the change that we need to see is also accepting that the colour of your skin does not define your ethnicity. And also changing the stereotypes of people who are seen to come from privileged backgrounds," said another girl.
"Because the more we push that the less likely we are going to see that change and see different cultures come together."
A teacher from one of the visiting colleges also shared her approach.
"Just to make sure students leave my classroom understanding some of this stuff. And understanding that they come from a place of privilege and to understand all the stories of all the people in New Zealand," she said.
"So that when they go out go to university or they are in the work place decisions that they make are mindful of that as well."
The way forward
Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa believes freedom of choice is one of the strengths of New Zealand's education system.
However, he said helping people to make good choices remains a challenge.
Dr Salesa said some parents in Auckland have bought more expensive houses just to get their kids into wealthier schools.
"And people like me use a lot of data and we can show that actually the outcomes of these schools don't justify that."
He said other parents make their children bus all the way across the city to attend richer schools because they believe it is better for them.
"So the most coveted of all these boys schools is a school called Auckland Boys Grammar in Auckland. And Auckland Boys Grammar in 2012 had a pass rate of 80 percent for UE which is fantastic," Dr Salesa said.
"But for Pacific kids of Auckland Grammar the pass rate was 39 percent. And that meant that the pass rate for Pacific kids at Auckland Grammar was thirty percent lower than the school my children go to which is a decile one school."
After the talk Dr Salesa was surrounded by groups of inquisitive students who asked follow-up questions and posed for photographs.
One of them a year 13 student from Porirua College, Josiah Gagamae, said he could really relate to the discussion.
"Because I come from a school where there are many Pacific Islanders but we still have some Pakeha students. And it is just I reckon what we do is we inherit them as well.
"We make them one of our own. That is just the kind of thing we like to do as a school is it is really important to us that we are just one family."
Dr Salesa said New Zealand needs to rethink its approach to education if it wants to harness the full potential of its increasingly diverse youth population.
"So our parents are handing us this challenge to make New Zealand a place where we are all connected to each other, where all talent can prosper, where we love each other equally and include each other but we are a long way from that right now."