Written by Joseph Houghton
NZ Born of Pasifika and European descent
University Entrance is pretty poorly named. While you do need it to gain entry into the universities of New Zealand, you also need it to access some of the higher level courses in other tertiary institutions. It is the highest qualification one can gain at secondary school and, therefore, we should be encouraging our young Pasifika men and women to strive for it.
However, are our schools being as culturally responsive as possible when it comes to assisting our Pasifika students in their efforts to achieve UE?
It took me about 3 years before I realised that we could fit our boys’ polyfest performance into the NZQA qualification framework under the subject of dance. It took another 4 years before I realised that I could use it to facilitate a potential pathway to university for them. An eye opening moment for me was when I realised that we awarded more credits to our year 13 polyfest boys than our drama department awarded to year 13s taking drama and almost as many as our music department. All this on almost no budget, no paid staff, no time allowance and no facilities. Just cultural capital and strength.
To achieve UE a student needs to achieve 60 level three credits, including at least 14 in three approved subjects. Dance is one of these subjects (and so are some of the languages of the Pacific - Samoan, Cook Island Māori and Tongan - in case you were wondering). Our school is now committed to making dance a pathway to university for our Pasifika students, who value this particular aspect of their culture so highly and who invest so much time and energy into practice and performance. Schools should be leaping at this opportunity to facilitate both increased engagement and achievement for Pasifika students and communities. The Ministry should be focusing funds for targeted professional development in this specific areas so schools can proceed with confidence.
I have to admit, when I started introducing the idea of “polyfest credits” at my school, I was met with a degree of skepticism from some, and indeed, I too thought long about it, wondering whether I was cheapening the qualification, or even the culture, by reducing the value through attaching a value. However, when I stopped and thought about it, I realised we integrate so many of our co-curricular activities into the curriculum. For example, musicians are able to take music as a subject and are assessed on the quality of their ability, whether it be with the drums or their voice. Sports players are able to integrate their physical prowess into the subject of PE. Both of these subjects are UE approved. So why shouldn't our young Pacific dancers be able to use their ability to create, learn and understand performance? Especially as they forge new conceptualisations and interpretations of the culture they have inherited.
Another concern I had was whether what I was doing and how I was assessing was “legit”. However, I have sent samples of our work into NZQA every year for the past four years and they have always been approved. In fact one year when I gave a boy a merit for his performance and the moderator told me that he deserved an excellence!
It's interesting that we often don't allow or celebrate formal recognition for what we value the most. The saddest thing is that often parents and teachers can be reluctant to let their children and students get involved in polyfest or cultural dance, thinking that it might hinder their academic achievement. However, not only can it contribute to their overall achievement, it can help them get to university - not to mention strengthen their cultural knowledge and identity. The time has come for our education system to start understanding and appreciating what Pasifika people value and begin utilising it in the education of the next generation of the Pacific.
Note - this can (and should!) all be applied to Māori dance and performance and we did this for the first time last year.