Students thrive without streaming so why haven't all schools stopped?

Schools have been told by the Government to stop streaming students, a practice which disproportionately disadvantages Māori and Pasifika, but it's an open secret that many still do.

Some schools hide it by using phrases like 'banding' but the schools that have stopped streaming students are being rewarded with better, more equitable, education outcomes.

Students thrive without streaming so why haven't all schools stopped?

On 16 year-old student representative Mercy Ili’s very first day at Hastings Girls, she was tested and streamed. Or as she puts it "labelled as dumb". In year nine, she was part of the last cohort of students to be streamed by their perceived ability. She’s since experienced the school destreaming students.

In year nine, placed in a lower stream, she thought teachers saw her as on a pathway that could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, that "We will drop out of school to go work at factories and orchards where our parents have broken their backs.”

She remembers what she didn’t see - “brown girls getting on that stage” at school. 

Hastings Girls Principal Catherine Bentley could see the effect streaming was having on her students.

"When students were coming in at year 9, between then and going into year 11, a good half to two-thirds had either stagnated in terms of their progress or they had actually regressed."

Research has consistently shown streaming students is damaging, with one report describing streaming as an example of "systemic bias in education" creating lower expectations for Māori and Pasifika which become lower achievement outcomes.

The Ministry of Education wants streaming to stop, saying: "There is clear and consistent evidence that streaming contributes to inequitable outcomes, especially for Māori learners, Pacific learners, and learners with disabilities."

Bentley says she saw the inequity first hand.

"That a disproportionate number of our Māori and Pasifika girls featured in the lower bands tells us that that's racist."

So in 2019 Hastings Girls became one of the few high schools to make the radical change of dropping streaming altogether. It was controversial and Bentley lost both staff and students.

"It's really hard, but that shouldn't be a reason not to," she said.

"It's about doing what's right. And if you dig deep, I'm pretty sure that for most principals, that's why they are sitting in the seat that they are - because they wanna do what's right for kids."

Hard because continuing streaming is the easiest option for schools - it's what parents and teachers are used to - and they worry change will especially disadvantage the highest-streamed students.

Asked on Newshub Nation why streaming continues, Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti said she is moving to eliminate it but the practice’s long history makes rapid change challenging.

"I would like to see it change very quickly… We will be working on that support for our teachers. I think it's also about changing public perception as well."

Researcher Hana O'Regan would like to see the Government to be more direct about making schools stop, and to provide much more support for schools like Hastings Girls making the change.

"We don't just leave it up to schools to do it themselves," she said.

"Schools did not create this issue. They've inherited this issue. We need to help them with the tools and capability to enable this transition."

However National Party education spokesperson Paul Goldsmith says streaming has been successful in high schools.

"Some of our best performing schools have streamed for generations, and during such difficult times shouldn't have to contend with ideologically-driven Government dictates.

"The Minister would be better to focus on the basics - like getting the kids to school."

Math has a reputation for being one of the most-streamed subjects. Newshub Nation visited a mixed math class at Hastings Girls, taught by head of department Gabriela Isolabella who oversaw plans to abolish streaming.

"They are all equals. The only difference is the amount of effort they put in," she said of her students.

Hastings Girls High School
Hastings Girls High School

Student representative Zyggy Kireka-Russell is in that math class with girls older than her and says those older students have become her mentors.

"You see them around school and they say hi to you in front of their friends. You feel famous, like, 'whoa, they know me!"

History and Samoan teacher Marion Iosefo was a student at Hastings Girls and recalls being streamed higher than her peers.

"Being in a class full of white students I used to think it was a cool thing because my friends used to call me the brainiac… It wasn't actually a positive thing because my friends weren't being supported," she said.

She was expected to go to university - and she did - meanwhile her peers battled the stereotypes.

"We are only seen to be good singers, musicians, good sports players etc, but when it comes to education there really isn't a space for us to thrive."

Now Iosefo is pleased to watch her Pasifika students in particular excel.

"Before, because the students saw themselves in lower learning classrooms, it wasn't really a reflection of the learning they were capable of.”

She says if students aren’t achieving, it’s not their fault. “My students are never the problem. My teaching is the problem."

Since dropping streaming Hastings Girls has seen improved results. Māori students perform better across all subjects and University Entrance attainment increased from 40 percent in 2016 to 54 percent in 2020.

"For the first time, last year our Māori students and Pasifika students and non Māori-Pasifika students had equitable outcomes at level 3. And that's incredible. That's fantastic. That is well worth celebrating," Bentley said.

Mercy agrees.

"I've seen a lot of brown girls walk that stage last year receiving their merit endorsements for level 1, and that's what I wanna see more of."

According to Bentley, the massive change was part of a much bigger vision to value cultural identity.

Previously, students that did have tā moko were issued bandages and asked to cover it up. That practice has ended now and students can also wear pounamu and a lava lava is part of the school uniform.

For its efforts this week the school was recognised with a Prime Minister's Award for Leadership. But for teachers, the real reward is when students become so engaged they enjoy their classes. 

Mercy says, "I like English now."

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