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‘Before you teach me, you have to reach me’: The case for better alternative education

With more than a decade’s experience as an educator, Ngā Rangatahi Toa founder Sarah Longbottom argues that those in alternative education deserve the same standards of teachers and classrooms as their mainstream peers. This is the first of a series of columns following her experiences in the field.

The the cool thing about an election is that it holds a mirror to who we are, showing us the expectations we have of the world we live in. The energy and kōrero an election brings to our day-to-day lives has meant my educator lens has been brought sharply into focus.

My expectation of New Zealand is that every young person will be provided equal opportunities to be their best selves – and equitable educational opportunities are a vital part of this. It feels like this is the kind of ideal our country should hold dear. Unfortunately, the dual system of education for those of compulsory schooling age means we (and our elected leaders) have work to do to make this expectation a reality.

NGĀ RANGATAHI TOA (PHOTO: RALPH BROWN)

I began my teaching in the mainstream education system, including time at a residential school, and a decade ago I came to the alternative education system. This was in the South Auckland classrooms of alternative education and in my role leading Ngā Rangatahi Toa, an organisation that uses creativity and a whānau-based approach to educate and inspire young people to be their best selves. Traversing this landscape of compulsory education provision in Aotearoa and witnessing the disparity between mainstream and alternative made me realise how far we are from levelling the playing field for young New Zealanders.

The mainstream system includes state, state-integrated, private, and partnerships schools, as well as schools of special character established under the New Zealand Education Act of 1989. There are different values, foci, and even curricula between some types of schools (and in the case of Kura Kaupapa Māori, there was a protracted struggle to be recognised by government) but the funding shapes the similarities.

These schools in the mainstream system are shaped towards learning. They are specifically resourced to provide well equipped classrooms, libraries and expert teachers. Even partnership school contracts specify 80% of teaching hours must be from registered teachers. Mainstream schools have on-site student services including guidance counsellors and nurses, and usually a gym and field. At secondary level, there are different departments within each school offering access to a wide curriculum. These places come under fire occasionally, sometimes for good reason, but it is clearly a system with education and development at its core.

NGĀ RANGATAHI TOA (PHOTO: DANIAL ERIKSEN)

As a mainstream secondary teacher for five years, I experienced the state of our schooling system from the inside. However, it was my move into the alternative education system 10 years ago that made me realise that if we aren’t talking about alternative education, then we aren’t even scratching the surface of the issues we face.

This second, largely unknown education system is provided by the Ministry of Education for young people aged 13-16 who are chronic truants or who are suspended or excluded from school. It is a completely different system with completely different rules. Alternative education caters for well over 2,000 of our most vulnerable and at-risk young people every year — those who most need the support to thrive and find their way in the world. It’s in this system where the expectation of a just education system begins to come undone.

Students in alternative education need constant engagement and development to fulfil their educational potential and be their best selves. An obvious expectation would be that these classrooms are staffed with highly expert, trained professionals who are fully equipped to not just survive but thrive with such a class. Instead, there are under-trained and under-supported youth workers giving their all; these staff are often excellent in their field but ill-equipped to be responsible for the educational outcomes of young people. In the alternative education system there is no funding for experienced and registered teachers, nor is it possible to gain or maintain teacher registration. In short, you cannot be ‘a teacher’ in this system. It’s no real surprise that 60% of 18-year-olds who have been through alternative education still have zero qualifications.

It’s not just about qualifications. It’s also about the messages we send about who matters and who doesn’t, and the impact this has on how a young person sees themselves and whether they believe in themselves. Unlike their mainstream peers, we do not provide the vulnerable young people in alternative education with dedicated guidance counsellors or nurses, nor with gyms, fields or libraries. We house them in classrooms often in sad industrial areas. They don’t have access to subject departments, their classrooms are generally under-resourced, and for them, ‘English and Maths’ have been reduced to the bare bones of ‘literacy and numeracy’. What message does this system send to our most vulnerable? There is some good, innovative work going on in alternative education, and there are some student success stories – but these happen in spite of this system, not because of it.

NGĀ RANGATAHI TOA (PHOTO: RALPH BROWN)

A relevant, thematic and integrated curriculum from excellent practitioners is critical in classrooms that rebuild and re-engage young people. Like a few other innovative and passionate organisations focused on what works (not just on what’s wrong), Ngā Rangatahi Toa provides such a classroom. The vision of NRT is ‘before you teach me, you have to reach me’. We provide equitable opportunities for success by providing transformative, supported and holistic teaching and learning relationships, and a deep connection with whānau. Co-design of curriculum and service delivery with our young people sends the message that their contribution is both necessary and worthy. Supported by us, young people in alternative education defy the stats and transform their own lives.

Of the thousands of young people who are placed in the alternative education system every year, 32% are referred to a tracing agency. This means they’re either lost or drop out entirely from education and become NEET —  the depressing acronym for ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’. In comparison to this disheartening national statistic, 94% of those that come through NRT programmes transition successfully back into the mainstream system, into tertiary study or into full and part-time work.

From a decade working alongside these young people, learning from them and loving them, I know them to be incredible young people who are reaching for a lifeline, one that the system fails to throw but one that we as a community can extend. Perhaps I’ll think of my vote on Saturday as part of that lifeline.

This is the first of a series of columns Sarah Longbottom will write chronicling her experiences in alternative education.


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