NZ Initiative's Martine Udahemuka says the key for parents is to be able to find out which school and teacher will be the most effective for their child

By Martine Udahemuka* 

After returning an English exam paper marked “43%”, a teacher asked her 13-year-old student “did you cheat”? To which the student nodded with a “yes”. 

Three years later, that same student was told by that same teacher, after giving a speech the student was rather proud of, that “try as you may, you will never get anything more than 60% because of your accent”.

That teenager was me. The cheating allegation happened in my first year of high school. To clarify, I had not cheated, I just hadn’t understood the teacher’s accent.

It was my first year as a refugee student in New Zealand. I did not speak English (at least not the Kiwi way) and had been out of formal schooling for almost two years.

Over half of the world’s refugee population are children. Many of them are born in refugee camps. And many will have zero to minimal education.

On top of a disrupted education, there are the language barriers, social barriers from being in a new country and, of course, associated trauma.

Ensuring that these children receive a quality schooling experience may be the key to unlocking not only their potential but that of their communities too.

Last week the Government announced the number of refugees New Zealand will accept annually will increase from 750 to 1000.

In essence, questions about this increase boil down to: will these refugees integrate and contribute to the New Zealand society or will they become a burden to society?

When my family arrived in New Zealand 20 years ago, knowing nothing about the education system, my parents’ only preference was that we attend a state-integrated school.

However we had no information on which schools got the best out of students from refugee backgrounds or which teachers managed to get better outcomes from these students.

As a result of this ad-hoc process of choosing a school, some of us fell through the cracks.

My teachers then had low expectations of me. Perhaps it was because teaching a refugee was unfamiliar territory. Though they expected me to fail, I was not given any extra support. My parents too could not help. As a result I struggled through high school.

Things are different now. The Ministry has refugee student coordinators that work with schools and communities to better integrate these students into the school community.

But things can be better still.

If teacher effectiveness differs depending on the types of students they teach, imagine if parents could easily find out which teachers and which schools continuously get the best out of children like theirs. A teacher’s effectiveness with students could then be compared with that of other teachers in the same school, and in other schools with similar kinds of students.

There is enough information on students at the Ministry and individual school level to make this possible. It needs to be put to better use.

Good teaching disproportionately benefits students from disadvantaged homes. In more prosperous homes, parents can find ways to compensate for poor teaching – they understand the system better, can afford extra tutoring, and can afford computers.

There are plenty of questions nations around the world are having to grapple with as they respond to the influx of refugees within their borders. Though the challenges differ by context, they have common themes. Germany for example, will likely struggle with the challenge of having enough classroom and teachers to take on these students.

New Zealand’s challenge is more manageable and permits for more systematic and appropriate ways to respond.

Students from a refugee background have many things against them. They need top teaching to overcome the disadvantages that have them starting off miles behind their peers.

But the key for parents is to know which schools are good at closing that gap.  This would benefit not only children new to the country, but also those born and raised here whose parents still wind up simply looking for the highest decile local school.


*Martine Udahemuka is a research fellow at the NZ Initiative. This is the Initiative’s fortnightly column for