Looking for leaders

March 2011


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UNASA ENOSA AUVA’A says our diverse student population needs to be reflected at leadership level.

As a Samoan principal, I have always wondered why there aren’t more Pacific Island principals. What’s stopped my people from thinking about and becoming educational leaders?

Last year I went to Hawaii as Fulbright-Cognition Scholar to research the conditions surrounding the leadership aspirations of native Hawaiian principals and deputy principals. This built on my master’s thesis, ‘Aspiring Towards Principalship: A Pacific Island Perspective’, looking at the low number of Pacific Island principals in New Zealand and why more Pacific Island deputy principals are not aspiring to the top job.

Let’s face it, the population of minority groups is set to increase. By 2051 it is projected that one out of five students will be Pasifika (Ministry of Education 2004). The majority of principals in New Zealand schools though (86 per cent) are of European origin, nine per cent are Māori and five per cent are, like me, of ‘other’ ethnic origin. This means there will be a huge gulf between the number of Pacific Island students and principals if there is not a determined effort to bridge the gap. And bridge the gap we must. If our schools are to be relevant to society, we need more minority principals to reflect our increasingly diverse populations.

Fifteen to 20 per cent of our young New Zealanders, mostly Māori or Pacific Islanders, are failing. For these students, the future is bleak. Minority students need principals who are connected to them, their families and the community if their learning outcomes are to improve.

It is going to be tough for many principals to do this in schools that are predominantly Pacific, because of issues around cultural sensitivity, the aspirations of these ethnic groups and the need to role model success for such groups.

Pacific communities already have their own social structures, their own ways of managing families and communities. In my Samoan community for example, the matai manages his whole village. New Zealand-born Samoan children are heavily influenced by matai because at every important social gathering it is the matai who provides leadership for what is happening. Some of these structures can play a role in getting students to school, or helping with behaviour challenges.

We can go to Tongan leaders and ask ‘how do your children respect you?’, and then apply that in schools. How does their community get together to support their own children in life? We can go to those communities and say, ‘listen, this is the data we have about your children’s success or lack of achievement; how can we resolve this issue?’

As the numbers of Pacific Islanders in

New Zealand increase, we need more Pacific Island principals for better connections and therefore better achievement. Identifying those minority teachers with management and leadership potential and providing leadership programmes for them is the key improvement.

But we will never have the critical mass of Pacific teachers to choose from if we don’t have successful students. Low performance in the education system means that these minority groups are over-represented in high school dropout rates, reducing the number going through to universities. Successful Pacific school leavers have options.

Doctors, lawyers and accountants are all keen to have these students join their ranks. How can we grow the numbers of successful students and talk about learning and teaching in ways that make it their first option and not relegated to their second or third choice?

Deputy principals, particularly those minority groups, need relevant leadership development to encourage them to apply for principal positions. Research shows that mentoring programmes work, but how many minority groups are involved as mentors?

There is little information about Pasifika leadership, its influence on teaching and learning and the conditions required to create leaders. If we don’t know what competencies apply in Tongan leadership for example, how can we know if these competencies can be useful for principals? One way to find out would be for people from these communities to come in to principals’ courses and help build this understanding.

What else don’t we know that we need to know? There is little understanding of the benefits of having more Pacific leaders in schools that are predominantly Pacific in their ethnic mix. We have not really had the discussion about the sort of leaders we are looking for in New Zealand. New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, should provide the framework for asking how the in-bound community, including Pacific and Asian peoples, fit into New Zealand communities.

To be relevant, schools must have the means to connect with their communities but do we know what an Asian pincipal will need so she can connect with the Māori community, or what a Māori principal needs to engage with Pacific Islanders?

Unless these are the questions community leaders, education leaders and policy leaders are talking about together, we will still be asking questions about the 20 per cent of failing students in 20 years’ time.


Christchurch’s Shirley Intermediate principal Geoff Siave has been heading schools for 20 years. Born to Samoan parents in Christchurch, his father is from NoFoali’i and his mother from Togafu’afu’a. Siave started his leadership career at a two-teacher school in rural Gisborne in 1991, followed by a deputy role at Rotorua’s Malfroy School then to principal at Picton School, followed by a couple of years in Samoa heading the Year 1–13 Robert Louis Stevenson School. By 2005 he was acting principal at Rowley Ave School in Christchurch before taking his current role at Shirley in 2006. Siave holds a Master in Educational Administration from Massey, and describes himself as “a one-eyed Cantabrian of Samoan heritage”. He is pictured below, in art classes with Shirley Intermediate students.

### Read Enosa Auva’a’s full report, Leaders

for a Diverse Society: Minority Aspiration –

A Pacific Island Principal’s Perspective is available at www.cognitioninstitute.org ###