Quality Education for the most Marginalised: The roles of Education Support Personnel, by Mere Berryman

Many children and young people from across the world experience significant barriers to accessing the benefits that society offers through health, education and social services. This can impact negatively on their ability to function at school and in turn the wider community. For multiple reasons, these children and young people are often unable to function within school settings without the support of Educational Support Personnel (ESP). However, despite the obvious skills and expertise of ESP, they are often the lowest paid and most poorly supported staff in the school.

For years this situation has been of concern to many families and educators from across the world, with calls for greater pay equity, job security and increased training opportunities. In some countries unions have been working to make sure that the status of ESPs, their living and working conditions, are more equitably recognised. This is certainly the situation in New Zealand where the Education Institute (NZEI) have been negotiating with the Ministry of Education to make this a reality. Pay equity and central funding are now on the table and being negotiated. Political and system-level support of this kind is essential ifeducation professionals are to combine and maximise their skills and support for these children and young people. In order to ensure our most effective support, the focus must be on collaboration and our complementary skills, rather than on a hierarchy of power and skills, perceived or otherwise.

If we are serious about equity in education, we must all contribute in a coherent and aligned way to the multiple relationships and interactions that secure our children and young people’s sense of  cultural identity and belonging in education. For our most vulnerable children, this is essential. While it certainlytakes the entire workforce to educate the whole child I will share a case from New Zealand that suggests we must also work in family ways and with family if these children are to feel that they belong within the education system.I will propose belonging as a foundational education principle that requires shared collaboration across the entire work force and with families.

Te Whāriki (The Woven Mat), New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum, is underpinned by the vision that children “are competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society” (Ministry of Education, 2017, p.5).  This vision statement shows the importance placed on learning, on holistic wellbeing (healthy in mind, body and spirit) and on a sense of belonging, with an implicit reference to acknowledging that even very young children can both give and receive within our society.  Belonging is one of the “five areas of learning and development in which the focus is on supporting children to develop the capabilities they need as confident and competent learners” (Ministry of Education, 2017, p.16).  This positioning reinforces the centrality of the notion of belonging as being foundational to learning and a significant contributor to ongoing and lifelong learning.  

Belonging is the way in which people feel accepted, respected, included and supported by the community in which they are involved. According to Baumeister and Leary (1995) the need to belong has been identified as a fundamental human motivation, taking precedence in human need over self-esteem and self-actualization.  These authors further argue that belonging is a powerful influence on human thinking and “both actual and potential bonds exert substantial effects on how people think” (p. 505).  A sense of belonging therefore, has clear implications for the social experience of children and young people, it also plays a crucial role in identity and academic performance.  As belonging is important for students and young people, so too is belonging of importance to educational professionals. The onus is on our policy and school leaders to develop educational institutions and structures in which all educators can relate to and empower the diverse voices in our communities, schools and classrooms so that all feel able to share their ways of knowing and know that they will be respected in that environment. Belonging is a state of mind linked to trust, faith, humanity, community, and social justice.

In my presentation at EI’s Education Support Personnel Conference I will begin, as I have done here, by describing some of the current contexts relevant to Education Support Personnel in New Zealand.I will then introduce a learning support centre that draws upon an Indigenous cultural approach to developing inclusive practices so that all children and young people with additional learning needs in this school, can be better supported to belong and succeed. This learning centre, Te Whānau Ora (The Wellbeing of Family), provides a range of cultural relationships and services that foster each student’s sense of belonging and wellbeing. I will introduce the following three Māori cultural metaphors of care:

Mauri ora-caring for the holistic and inner wellbeing of the learner.

Mana ōrite- respecting learners and their families like you want to be respected by them.

Whānautanga– caring for learners as you would want a child in your own family cared for.

A short video of Te Whānau Ora will then be used to exemplify these cultural metaphors. In Te Whānau Ora every adult in the school works with family members to take collective responsibility to nurture these young people as though they were part of their own family. Staff collaborate to grow these students, not just academically, but in personal, cultural and social contexts through the reciprocal sharing of knowledge, skills, values and understanding of each other’s culture.

I will conclude by considering the implications of this approach for wider application.


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Mere Berryman

Mere Berryman is Professor at the University of Waikato, Faculty of Education, New Zealand. Mere’s research focusses on collaborations with school communities and school reform aimed at promoting the success of marginalised students, in particular New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori students. Ongoing evidence of educational disparities for Maori and other marginalised students continues to make this work political and a priority.

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