Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries
Sustainable Development Goal Number 10: Reducing inequality, emphasizes the need to “ensure equal opportunities and end discrimination” (1) Part of reducing inequality is identifying inequalities which may be existing as societal norms, and to challenge them.
I attended Avondale College in the early 2000s. Classes were “streamed,” meaning students were placed in classes ranked according to their perceived academic ability as measured by an entry examination. My class was ranked sixth from the top, and I was one of only two Pasifika students among a majority of Pakeha students. The higher-ranked classes shared a similar ethnic composition with my own. Looking at the lower-ranked classes, the situation was reversed: Pakeha formed the minority whilst most students were Pasifika.
This way of “streaming” classes to rank students academically sent a clear message: our intelligence and potential could be measured by a placement test, and Pakeha possessed more intelligence and potential than Pasifika. We were taught this message through our school system, and this was reaffirmed by the actions of our teachers who, if they had not implemented this system, certainly seemed to support it.
I noticed the drastic difference in the ethnic composition of each class, but never questioned it. It was just how things were. Yet it made no sense to me that the ranking could be about intelligence. I knew many other Pasifika students who were undoubtedly smarter than me, got higher grades, and definitely seemed more focused on their studies. Yet, they had been placed in lower streamed classes. What my younger self was too privileged to understand, were factors such as opportunity to prepare for the placement test, familiarity with the language and style of testing, and circumstances at home and in the classroom affecting study and learning.
A 2012 national survey of Pasifika young people showed that Pasifika students were twenty times more likely to live in an overcrowded home, four times more likely to sleep in rooms that weren’t bedrooms, and nine times less likely to have a computer or laptop at home (2). These statistics reflect the unequal field on which students compete for academic achievement. How different are students who have their own space to study and rest, and the tools to complete their assignments from students who may not even have desks or their own beds?
I recently talked with my older brother who attended the same school, about his experience of “streaming.” He was placed in the top “stream” of his year. Unlike me, he was always aware of the inequality in a system that created classes with a Pakeha majority that were deemed to be “better” students than those in the “lower,” predominantly Pasifika, classes. My brother even took it seriously enough to write a formal letter to the principal expressing his concerns. Growing up, he had noticed early on that there was a dissonance between how Pasifika people were viewed within their own community (within our family or within our church) and how they were viewed by wider, Pakeha-dominated New Zealand. For example, an adult Pasifika man might be known to us as a pastor from church, or he might hold a Matai (chief) title, or simply be a relative that we were taught to respect. Yet his Pakeha classmates would tend to see the same man as a minimum-wage worker, or even as a criminal, who couldn't speak English properly - and all the associations that go with those perceptions. My brother could see that it was only because he was half-Pakeha, and therefore had more exposure to Pakeha culture than most other Pasifika students, that he had made it into the top class. It was not due to raw intelligence.
Not until much later in life did I consider the inequity of academic “streaming.” In hindsight it is painfully obvious that the system was faulty, and not serving students equally. The lack of ethnic diversity throughout the “upper stream” didn’t just look bad from a political or cultural standpoint, it was also unfair. It wasn’t only unfair to Pasifika students, it was unfair to all students whose circumstances hadn’t allowed them the same resources, tools and opportunities before the day of that placement test.
Though I’ve highlighted race and socioeconomic inequality within education, the United Nations acknowledges that inequality also exists for those of different abilities, ages, genders, and religions and persists in many different areas such as income, migration policy, politics and social policy (1). Focusing on decreasing these inequalities and “ensuring no one is left behind” is fundamental in achieving this Sustainable Development Goal (3).
- Fa’alili-Fidow, J., Moselen, E., Denny, S., Dixon, R., Teevale, T., Ikihele, A., Adolescent Health Research Group, Clark, T.C. (2016). Youth’12 The Health and Wellbeing of Secondary School Students in New Zealand: Results for Pacific young people. Auckland: The University of Auckland.