Part 2: What helps build relationships?

Education for Māori: Relationships between schools and whānau.

In this Part, we discuss what people told us in our surveys, focus groups, and school visits about what helped make relationships between students, whānau, and schools more effective.

What people told us reinforces what is obvious about relationships: they occur between people, not between institutions. Often the simple, human exchanges affect the quality of relationships. Some of these straightforward and common-sense examples might seem “basic” to some people, but they are what people told us helped them engage.

We heard that it was important:

  • for school leaders to value Māori;
  • for schools to collaborate with whānau and iwi;
  • to have open and honest communication;
  • to take a flexible approach; and
  • for some schools, to have policies on building relationships with whānau.

School leaders valuing Māori

The ERO sees leadership as a critical factor in determining home-school partnerships.7 We also found it to be a significant influence on school and whānau relationships.

The principal and staff at one secondary school we visited told us that they felt unable to engage with whānau or the community until they could prove to whānau that they were genuinely interested in Māori students’ outcomes. We heard a similar comment from whānau:

The school has a very strong and valued kapa haka group that my child is part of. For me, this is one of the most important things the school does to enhance my child’s learning and feeling of being Māori. It means that regardless of whether the teacher is well versed in Māori cultural values, my child has the opportunity to be and learn Māori.

We were told that a board of trustees involved with school life helps to build effective relationships with whānau. Whānau or Māori representation on the board also helps, as does a board that supports building stronger relationships with whānau. All but two of the schools we visited told us that the principal and/or their senior management team were the driving force behind Māori achievement.

We were told that it helped when the principal is proactive and open to taha Māori.8 It is important for the principal to model positive behaviours, such as talking to whānau outside the classroom. It also helped when the principal shared the responsibility for building relationships with whānau with teachers:

The success of the Māori students at this school is due to the Deputy Principal.
Due to the high percentage of Māori students at this school, I believe there needs to be more emphasis on learning the Māori language. Our principal doesn’t always make himself approachable to parents.
The board of trustees recognised that a meaningful relationship with whānau means that whānau need to be represented at the governance level.

Whānau, iwi, and schools working together

Whānau and school staff told us that working together and accessing community networks and resources helped build stronger relationships. This is consistent with ERO findings.9

We were told about how some schools and whānau worked together in the school’s daily life. For example, staff worked with:

  • whānau members in the classroom;
  • whānau in school activities, such as teaching kapa haka;
  • iwi to build relationships with whānau and the wider community; and
  • a kaumātua, iwi, or a cultural advisor to provide cultural leadership in the school, such as leading protocol at school gatherings.

We were told that setting up a whānau group (mostly made up of parents) was a useful way of engaging with whānau. Schools consulted with whānau groups to get a Māori perspective on school projects and to connect with iwi. Whānau groups can provide advice on how to deal with behavioural problems with Māori students and can increase the visibility of Māori in the school community. They can also organise and run events, such as Matariki celebrations.

Creating purposeful events seemed a particularly effective strategy.

A low-decile college in the Wairarapa decided to host more community events in the school, aimed at enhancing “school spirit”. We were told that these events had helped build relationships by getting people into the school. We were also told that these events had helped to promote the school to whānau, to reduce negative perceptions, and to foster positive thinking about the school by whānau. The 2012 ERO report for this school acknowledged that the “school spirit” events had contributed to more parental involvement.

A high-decile primary school in Christchurch helped to create a kapa haka competition with similar schools from the northern suburbs of Christchurch. The competition has increased the profile of Māori at the school and increased interest in kapa haka. The 2009 and 2013 ERO review reports of this school acknowledged the kapa haka competition, as well as a range of initiatives by the school. The ERO concluded that the school had developed effective relationships with the Māori community.

Some schools find collaborating with whānau or iwi challenging because the schools do not have access to people with knowledge and experience of working with Māori or of Maori culture. Whānau and school staff told us that schools need access to people with knowledge of, and expertise in, Māori culture inside and outside the school to help them create an environment that supports taha Māori. For example, people with those skills had helped with leadership and governance. They had also helped to prepare policies and procedures, and put them into practice.

People with these skills can help staff build relationships with whānau because they are nearly always there and available when help is needed. Four schools told us that a lack of this expertise in the past had hampered their ability to build effective relationships with whānau.

Some schools we visited had help from iwi groups or kaumātua who were regularly involved with the school. Four of the 15 schools we visited did not have any such relationships and told us that this was a problem for them. Two schools had not contacted local iwi because they did not know how to find out who they are. If schools feel that they are unable to ask whānau for advice about who to contact, schools can contact Te Puni Kōkiri – the Ministry of Māori Development – for help in finding a local iwi contact:

I think the school is trying hard to implement te reo and culture into the school but there is limited support in the community. We don’t have kaumātua and other such resources.

Two schools in Christchurch told us that they were part of a cluster of primary schools that supported each other by sharing good practice and information, and pooling resources. This is effective and efficient for iwi and the schools.

Open and honest communication

In 2014, the Education and Science Committee reported that schools should communicate with parents in ways that are timely, useful, easily understood, and culturally appropriate. Schools should view communication with parents as an important part of their role.10 The ERO has made similar observations.11 We agree.

The need for open and honest communication was something that whānau and school staff commented on in their survey responses, during our visits to schools, and in focus groups:

The open door policy at our school means that at any time I feel welcome in the classroom – to be part of the school and what is going on in my son’s class. I am continually informed about what is going on.
I know the school is committed to student achievement. This has improved my confidence in communicating to the teacher and feeling I will be heard. The school keeps me informed about my child, and improving outcomes for my child.
I have approached the teacher about my child’s learning and she didn’t think I had anything of value to offer.
Staying at the school is not encouraged. Teachers listen to what I have to say, but whether they act on it is another matter. Communication is always on short notice from the school. The school is not interested in what I have to offer as a parent. They have had one hui in the past four years.
The first email we have ever got from a teacher about Māori students in particular, was to tell us about your [the Auditor-General’s] survey!!! It would be better if the teacher “in control” of Māori students rang us at least once a year to check everything was ok!!!

All of these comments relate to whānau interacting with schools about their child’s learning progress and development. The range of views demonstrates the difference that open and honest communicating can have on whānau perceptions of the school.

Taking a flexible approach

Sometimes, it is the little things that count. Being flexible is also important. For example, teachers at some schools told us that simply greeting and smiling at parents helped make parents feel more comfortable walking through the school gate. We were also told that using emails and text messages to contact whānau who are otherwise hard to get hold of also helps to build relationships.

Some staff we talked to said that being aware of whānau circumstances was important in building an effective relationship. Two schools provided after-school childcare services and meals during hui with whānau. Teachers sometimes chatted to whānau over coffee at the school cafeteria. They did this to address potential barriers to whānau attending meetings. Staff considered that these things helped improve engagement.

Schools can use a variety of opportunities to engage whānau, such as sports and cultural events and school picnics.

All these practices are in line with the Education and Science Committee’s report, which said that schools should communicate with parents, face to face, outside of school hours, and outside of school grounds.12

Some people used policies to drive practice

National Education Goals require schools to be administered in certain ways. Some compel schools to “recognise and support parents as their children’s first teachers” and “to take account of the unique place of Māori as tangata whenua”. National Administrative Guidelines set out desirable principles and expectations about how schools are administered. One guides schools to “consult with their Māori communities on curriculum and report to them against the plans and targets identified through that consultation”.13 We saw various examples of schools developing policies to reflect the Goals and Guidelines.

Some school staff told us that they had found it difficult to build relationships with whānau and struggled to write policies to support them:

We do a great deal to prioritise Māori student achievement and engagement. However, we have struggled to entice whānau engagement.
We do need to do extra work on policies and informing our parents. Our issue is getting parents into the school to attend meetings.

Such comments could be seen as criticising whānau for not doing what the school wants, when it wants. As noted by the Māori Advisory and Reference Group in the Foreword, schools are responsible for making engagement relevant and easy for whānau to attend, increasing the chance that they will become involved with the school.

Other schools explained why they had not introduced any such policies. For example:

Our school has a small number of Māori students so what the teachers do is work with individuals, instead of having specific policies for Māori students.

Some schools gave us copies of their policies and processes that support building relationships with whānau. We include excerpts from two of them to show that a simple approach can be used.

One school’s policy covers all relationships. It says:

The Principal must retain and develop the special partnership between the College, families, local parishes, contributing schools, and interact with groups outside the school community which have contact with the College.

Another school had made its policy to help build relationships with whānau and the wider community publicly available. The document included these statements:

To ensure [the school] fulfils its obligation under the Charter and under the Treaty of Waitangi, and the requirements of Ka Hikitia.
The school will provide a welcoming atmosphere for all parents, caregivers and guardians reflecting the needs of all cultures.
The school in consultation with its Māori community develop and make known to the school community, policies, plans and targets for improving the achievement of Māori students.

Whānau whose children attended schools that have a policy to build relationships with whānau were a little more likely than other whānau to agree that they had effective relationships with their school. Therefore, we encourage schools that want to introduce a policy to build relationships with whānau – and are finding it difficult – to try new approaches. These schools might want to think about getting someone with relevant skills to help them engage with whānau.

However, having a policy is not enough. Schools that have policies must try to carry them out effectively or risk losing credibility with whānau.

For example, some whānau told us that they had found it difficult getting copies of school policies about building relationships with whānau. In other instances, whānau were concerned about how the policies had been put into practice:

When asked, the school wouldn’t make their policies, plans, and targets for improving the achievement of Māori students available to me. I’ve tried several times this year to gain access and feel as though I’ve been fobbed off.
I’m sceptical whether the school’s policies will be implemented though – could be lip service. Have seen the school time after time “consult with whānau” and that’s as far as it goes.
There wasn’t a school policy for Māori students until 2013. This wasn’t written, but explained to me in a phone call. I still haven’t received anything written. The school doesn’t stand by what the principal says or what’s written.
We’re sadly lacking in Māori teaching and learning at the school. But a wonderful and strong group of hard working teachers. There are good policies on the whole, where there are policies applying to all students. However, Māori are not seen as separate for cultural difference. I think this is a great shame, as so much more can be done. This school has more than 30 Māori students out of around 600.

In our view, schools that have policies on building relationships with whānau should make them available to whānau without them having to ask, such as on the school’s website. If schools do not do this, they should send copies of policies and other documents to whānau who ask for them.

7: Education Review Office (2008), Partners in Learning: Good Practice, page 18, Wellington.

8: Taha Māori is a Māori perspective on, or dimension to, a subject.

9: Education Review Office (2008), Partners in Learning: Good Practice, page 26, Wellington.

10 Education and Science Committee (July 2014), Inquiry into engaging parents in the education of their children, page 20, available at

11 Education Review Office (2008), Partners in Learning: Good Practice, page 28, Wellington.

12: Education and Science Committee (July 2014), Inquiry into engaging parents in the education of their children, page 20, available at

13: National Education Goals set out government policy objectives. National Administrative Guidelines set out statements of desirable principles of conduct or administration of schools. The quotes are taken from

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