This blog was first published in 2013 during the writing of my book: Southern Transformation: Searching for educational success in South Auckland.
Recently, bloggers, columnists and editorial-writers erupted on the news of a secondary school that expelled a seriously disruptive student. Similarly, a Paeroa primary school “took a stand” on a disruptive student against the wishes of Ministry of Education officials. The debate went like this: the rights of many children for uninterrupted lessons outweigh the legal rights of a violent 11-year-old/14-year-old with a pattern of interrupted schooling.
There is significant community support for this dismissal.
Suspensions have become a high-public-interest story. Last year, a special report in the New Zealand Herald provided a table of New Zealand schools with five or more suspensions since 2012—a total of 4700 suspensions over an 18-month period. Most of those suspended return to school within a very short period, but often with “conditions” designed to help a student and his or her family to address an issue, such as emergent drug or alcohol addiction or violent behaviours.
Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft looks to education as the best chance for a “king hit” to reduce youth offending. He claims that about 35 per cent of young offenders before the youth court aren’t at school, and that the research shows that “better than psychological intervention, better than counselling, better than most things is attendance at school.” His credibility in claiming that teachers are the country’s ‘firstline’ crime fighters is undisputed. But schools find his message uncomfortable. “A problem pupil removed is a problem solved for that school, but not for our communities,” he told a conference of school trustees in 2012. “It’s simply relocated”.
Relocation is an end point for a steadily escalating system of disciplinary actions that schools use to create sanctions for bad behaviour. Most people in business or in a job are familiar with the verbal warning, written warning, and final warning employee discipline procedure. These steps are supposed to follow principles of “natural justice”. Similarly, an escalating series of options is open to school managers, in accordance with a series of Guidelines that the Ministry of Education produced in September 2009, in dealing with problem kids.
The first step is the stand-down, a tool many schools use to indicate to students and their families that a serious problem has occurred. A cat-fight among the girls because of a love affair gone wrong, a stand-up argument with a teacher because of a Monday hangover, a victimised student; these are the stuff that Deputy Principals and Guidance Counsellors deal with every day. A stand-down operates as a temporary respite, a cooling-off period to give time for a student to think and learn from inappropriate behaviour. Stand-downs leave kids hanging, like a pause in the music, until the board hearing comes along. All parents will recognise the uh-oh moment of adolescence; these are often not criminal actions, although they can have stiff consequences. The stand-down signals attention, and in itself offers a lesson. But it doesn’t ultimately compromise futures.
The suspension is much more formal. Suspensions are used for more serious problems, such as bringing a machete to school with serious intent, or setting the library curtains on fire, or shouting obscenities at the PE teacher. Schools interpret “serious” differently, but the net effect is the same: you are off to the board for a hearing. A suspension requires the attendance of parents; this is often enough to get parents to pay attention to the issues facing their child.
Only a Board of Trustees can suspend, exclude or expel students. We might think that we have a public education system, but parents on boards have the final say over who enrols in school with their children, and who goes. In effect, the discipline process has parent trustees making a decision about the future schooling for someone else’s child. The responsibility is a serious one, and most schools turn it into an opportunity for remedial action.
Yet a suspension hearing is time-consuming, leading to Youthlaw, a student advocacy organisation, to accuse some principals of running what is called a ‘kiwi suspension’ system—in effect, leaning on a child’s parents (“This could be in your child’s best interest”) to remove the child from the school without waiting for a board process. Kiwi suspensions, of course, do not show up in a school’s official statistics.
A student’s life chances, once excluded or expelled, shrink. It can be months before excluded kids find another place. They fall further behind academically, although they are likely to have learning difficulties anyway. Being tossed out of school scars you, to the extent that you may end up being unemployable. Out of school may be out of mind, but an out-of-the-system young person is much more likely to be involved in crime. So keeping the difficult kids in school is social investment at its best. But as Judge Becroft well knows, the education system retains no safeguard for the right to be at a public school, despite the fact that education is compulsory and free. According to the law, boards have the absolute right to “control the management of the school as it thinks fit”. Parents don’t want their own children held back by the problems of others, and no-one thanks schools who keep the problem kids. Boards will govern according to the values of the neighbourhood or its parent community. If a tattoo, or dreadlocks, or gold hoop earrings are acceptable in one school, it may not be in another. If you are standing on the street corner smoking in one school’s uniform, you might get hauled before the board; at other schools, you might attract a telling-off or a detention or a visit to the Dean or to the Counsellor. Says the principal of one well-known boys’ school: “Look, these are the rules, and, if you don’t like them, you don’t have to come here.”
The decile ranking of schools is the unspoken chain of hand-me-downs for young people with serious problems. Ironically, while people think that the issue of exclusion or expulsion is the preserve of lower-decile schools, the case law for it is built on only a few instances, the first three all involving boys from high-decile schools whose school careers were about to be blighted by the prospect of exclusion. Despite these high-profile cases, it is Maori who are three times more likely to be excluded than Pakeha/Europeans, and Pasifika twice more likely. Students from South Auckland are four times more likely to be excluded than those from the North Shore (where more Europeans are excluded than Asian or other ethnicities).
Where do booted-out students go? Without specialist supports, these students are destined to appear in Judge Becroft’s court. Playing Xbox at home palls after a while, even if your mates have been kicked out with you. Sharlene told me it took about six weeks to find another school, lots of meetings, and lots of disappointment when people said ‘No’. She felt ‘stink like a reject’. Not being at school meant she missed out on the Guidance Counsellor’s support. Eventually, Sharlene found herself at Alternative Education—the system’s twenty-million-dollar back-stop for the toughest nuts to crack. She didn’t stay there long: she’s now a young mother.
Conduct problems at school show up early. “There is no other commonly occurring childhood condition [conduct disorder] that has such far-reaching implications for later development”, concluded a panel of experts assembled by the Ministry of Social Development. It’s not the fault of children that they come unstuck in the system. One of the most robust and pervasive findings in the literature on problem behaviours is that these children will come from homes that are multiply disadvantaged. Their families may be dysfunctional, poor, unemployed, or transient, afflicted by a sweep of social, economic and cultural dis-eases. It is no surprise then, that in the absence of respectful, loving relationships in their own homes, these children fail to meet standards at school. They become disenchanted, disengage, and then disappear.
Yet, all is not lost if interventions can begin early. The expert group’s estimate that “15 – 20 percent of Maori tamariki and taiohi will exhibit conduct problems sufficient to merit attention” is relevant to South Auckland, where there is the largest concentration of Maori young people in New Zealand. Schools that make culturally-appropriate connections with Maori families are far more likely to be able to respond effectively to emerging conduct problems, say some researchers. A seemingly intractable problem may, in fact, have workable solutions when Maori communities and schools engage in meaningful conversations about the kinds of early interventions that could be appropriate and effective. This is, of course, harder work than “taking a stand” on bad kids.
Youthlaw makes a call for policy-makers to set up a review body for Boards of Trustee decisions to suspend, exclude or expel students. It argues that such tribunals have been operating in the UK for some years. This suggestion certainly addresses the symptom of parent boards responding randomly to the rights of other people’s children to a quality public education. But it doesn’t address the key question: how does a public education system balance competing interests inside the slogan: “Quality education for every child”?
The good news is that youth crime does appear to be steadily falling in New Zealand. The latest public data represents a significant improvement from the situation in 1996, when unregulated marketisation of schools first delivered the out-of-control school attendance issues. According to the Ministry of Justice, police dealings with children (the child apprehension rate) peaked in 1996 at 543 per 10,000 population, dropping to 336 in 2008, and further again in 2011. The youth apprehension rate was also highest in 1996 at 1,926 per 10,000 population, declining by 2008 and further still by 2011. Does this represent a reduction in incidents? Diversionary measures such as a ticking-off or a Police Youth Aid alternative action, have had an effect. Cumulatively, by improving their strategies for dealing with youth misdemeanours, and with more overt Ministry monitoring of awful levels of suspensions and expulsions, it is likely that schools also have contributed to this improvement. We know something of the relationship between schools and youth offending. Youth justice researcher Alison Sutherland reported her conversations with 25 young people who ended up in youth justice residences. She concluded school wasn’t the cause of their offending, but negative experiences at school, compounded by a tsunami of incidents in their lives, inevitably propelled them towards truancy and drop-out.
But the bad news is that there is a hard core of “persistent” offenders who appear in the Youth Court, who are probably responsible for 40-60% of offences. Every Western country asks the same question, according to the Principal Youth Court Judge: “How to influence aggressive, impulsive, non-enrolled, teenage boys (disproportionately Maori), often alcohol and/or drug dependent, who have conduct disorders and who come from disadvantaged and dysfunctional families with anti-social friends!?”