Current provision of Pacific bilingual education in New Zealand

This section reports on the current state of play in Pacific bilingual education provision. Existing public domain information about provision was found to be incomplete or out of date. ERO therefore contacted 30 schools that were identified, in consultation with the Ministry of Education, as offering Pacific bilingual education, and asked schools to provide information about the level of bilingual education provided using the following definitions:

Bilingual: teaching in 50 percent of the Pacific language and 50 percent English

Immersion: teaching in more than 50 percent of the Pacific language

Other: learning the Pacific language rather than learning in the Pacific language

Twenty-five schools responded to ERO’s survey. Twenty-two schools clearly identified that they currently provide Pacific bilingual or immersion education, overwhelmingly in Samoan (all but seven of the forty-four units taught in Samoan, see Table 2 below). Others stated that they offered Pacific languages as a subject only – learning the language, rather than learning in the language. In five schools, ERO was unable to make a definite determination about the level of bilingual or immersion teaching offered. For more information see Appendix 1.

Some schools provided both bilingual and immersion education within the same language. Documents shared by some of these schools, particularly primary/contributing schools outlined the transition from immersion to bilingual education for Pacific learners from Year 0 to 6, including outcomes which could be used to assess progress and achievement in bilingual language development. Table 2 is a summary of the languages taught by the Pacific bilingual units.

Pacific languages taught by the 30 schools 


Immersion (10 units)

Bilingual (22 units)

Other - language class

(5 units)


Immersion (2 units)

Bilingual (4 units)

Cook Island Māori

Other (1 unit)

There were 5,455 Pacific learners in the schools that ERO could be sure offered bilingual or immersion units. Of these, the schools identified 1,863 students enrolled in these units, or 34 percent. Generally, fewer than 50 percent of Pacific learners in a school offering this provision were in Pacific bilingual or immersion units. The percentage of Pacific learners in the schools surveyed ranged from 16 to 76 percent. The schools with the largest percentage of learners in Pacific bilingual education units offered immersion education across several year levels. ERO found no clear link between the percentage of Pacific learners in a school and whether or not the school was likely to offer bilingual or immersion education. Across New Zealand, there are many schools with a higher proportion of Pacific learners than some of the surveyed schools that nonetheless do not offer teaching in any Pacific language. Further investigation could shed some light on whether this is due to a lack of demand, or a lack of staff capacity and capability, or some other reason.

What is the philosophy of Pacific bilingual education units?

“If you know from where you come, there is no limit to where you can go.  If learners can connect and know who they are, and celebrate those things that make them unique, then we have a better chance to raise their achievement levels.” 

Bilingual teacher.

This quote reflects many of the ideas that came through about the philosophy behind the Pacific bilingual education units at these schools. These schools want to nurture and grow Pacific learners’ confidence and sense of value, to preserve Pacific culture and identity, and to provide the curriculum in their heritage language. One school also noted that their approach supports the understanding that parents and families are the most important teachers.

Schools’ philosophies echo the aims of the 2013-2017 Pasifika Education Plan for learners to be “confident in their language, culture and identity’ which contrasts with the literature about the design and delivery of bilingual education programmes where the focus is solely on the language.  Perhaps the uniqueness of Māori and Pacific bilingual education programmes aim to embrace the broader features of cultural and linguistic diversity, and how these contribute to the success of learners in New Zealand. 

Some schools shared their philosophy statements. One was a comprehensive outline of how immersion language would transition into bilingual practices for Pacific learners from Year 0 to Year 6. This included outcomes, which could be used to assess progress and achievement in bilingual language development. Another was a ‘Pasifika Profile” which outlined the different aspects throughout the school that reflect the development and support of the language and culture of Pacific learners at the school. The profile provided learners and their families with a big picture of the different ways the school can support the learner to engage in bilingual education through the curriculum, participation in academic and cultural activities such as Pacific language forums and Polyfest, and whānau support. The document also celebrated success and outlined goals for the following year, as well as more general history and values of the school.

However, it’s unclear, from the data, the type of bilingual education model schools followed to support Pacific children and young people to learn and engage in the curriculum using their heritage language. Having clarity about their bilingual education model could help schools to understand the aims of bilingualism and biliteacy, in relation to providing effective bilingual education.

Based on the data gathered, ERO infers that many of these units attempt to provide a version of the enrichment model of bilingual education. These schools spoke about their philosophy, the aspirations of Pacific parents and communities for their children, and the theory underpinning their provision of bilingual education. However, there seemed to be a disconnect between the practical implementation, in terms of pedagogical practices, and the delivery of a broad curriculum, in relation to the aims of bilingualism and biliteracy. This could be related to the demands of an English-medium education system and the focus on learning the English language to prepare learners for latter years of schooling.

How is the language taught?

Figure 2 illustrates the approaches taken to teaching or incorporating language throughout the school years. Total immersion is predominantly practiced in the early school years, continuing until the end of contributing primary years. This is also the most common approach used for this age-range. As learners progress through school the dominant approach becomes bilingual education delivery, preparing learners for the latter years of schooling and external examinations.

Figure 2: Shift from immersion to bilingual emphasis over school years

This bar graph shows the shift from immersion to bilingual emphasis over school years.  There are two bars a dark blue which represents Bilingual and an orange bar that represents Immersion.the Y axis is 5 points they are from bottom to top Years 0-2, Years 3-4, Years 5-6, Years 7-8 and Years 9-13.  The x axis runs from 0-12 in steps of two.  The bar graph runs horizonitally and is as follows: Years 9-13 Bilingual 2, Years 7-8 Bilingual 11, Years 5-6 Immersion 5 Bilingual 8, Years 3-4 Immersion 8 Bilingual 4 and Years 0-2 Immersion 10 and Bilingual 2.

The above approach is a mix of the enrichment, maintenance and transitional models of bilingual education. When deciding on their model/s of bilingual education, schools may have taken into consideration the requirements of New Zealand’s English-medium education system and default to the norm, which may not necessarily be the aims of bilingualism and biliteracy or the school’s philosophy. 

Six schools fit the ‘other’ approach which has remnants of the maintenance bilingual education model that is, affirming the Pacific learner’s culture and identity. However, in some of these schools, they had a mix of up to 70 percent English in Years 5-6, and 80 percent in Years 7-8 which seems more of a transitional model of bilingual education. Figure 2 excludes the 6 aforementioned schools. 

One school shared how they have used research about the significance and importance of bilingual education to develop and implement their programme. This school understood the aims of bilingualism and biliteracy, and reviewed their bilingual education programme accordingly. They engaged with academics, practitioners and whānau to understand the theoretical framework, pedagogical practices of an appropriate model and their aspirations for their children.

This school was the exception. In general, there was a lack of clarity about the bilingual education models that schools utilised to inform their programme.

How are learners supported to transition?   

Few primary schools identified having transition plans from early learning services. They visited Pacific early learning services and spoke to leaders and teachers. One school had a transition support strategy for its Pacific learners, including a welcome pack for Year 1 parents that included how they can help at home and a buddy system. Fluent speakers of the language were partnered with new learners, dependent on their age and level of language use.  

Other schools reported that, while some learners’ transition from a Pacific bilingual early learning service into their school, often they would return to their local schools. Three of the primary schools said the transition involved only the parents’ expression of interest in their children learning in a bilingual unit. Two of these schools also indicated that entry into the bilingual unit was only at five years old. These schools may utilise an age-specific approach in their provision of bilingual education.   

For intermediate schools, the transition support consisted primarily of competency assessments and interviews with families. The competency assessments and interviews were considered as entry requirements for learners who particularly may not have been part of bilingual education in their earlier years of schooling. Two schools offered an ‘open day’ so that learners could familiarise themselves with the expectations of bilingual units.   

Documents shared by some schools outlined the challenges schools face in pursuing their aims to support the cultural diversity of both Māori and Pacific learners.

“Learners have variable ability in both Samoan and English. Some have received bilingual education for 5 or 6 years - the rest are mostly literate in English. It is the families’ desire for the children to utilise their Samoan heritage in their learning and improve both their Samoan and English literacy. This is a challenge for our teachers to provide a dual-medium instructional approach to a very diverse range of [literacy] abilities”.

Transition to another institution 

For many of the schools, there were no transition plans or support in place for bilingual learners moving to another institution. A number of schools felt there was no need to have formal transition plans because the learners were proficient in English and had the capability to continue with bilingual education or other language options offered by their next school, should they wish to.

Several primary schools stated there were no formal transition plans or that they followed the same process of providing information as they do for any other learner. A few primary schools had school visits and transition meetings for new learners. Intermediate schools who responded to the survey had no formal transition plans for bilingual learners.  

One school provided reports about learners to the new school. Only one school had visits from staff and learners from the bilingual units, and also supported Samoan bilingual learners to visit the high school.

One school acknowledged an initiative, Komiti Faufautua[3], with whom they have been accepted as a strategic partner, because the secondary school does not have a bilingual education unit. Komiti Faufautua is similar to Kāhui Ako whereby schools with common interests work collaboratively to achieve their goals.

ERO was also informed of some schools collaborating to provide bilingual education, either as individual schools or as part of a network. Two schools provide a joint Pacific language class and two others access an online tool for their learners. Half of the respondents are members of Auckland Samoan Bilingual Education Cluster (ASBEC), established in 2005. They ‘share the same philosophical base and commitment to bilingual education and a passion to strengthen our efforts through co-operative and collaborative practices’. ASBEC has worked with the Ministry of Education and other agencies to develop appropriate resources and tools, organise professional learning and development and lobby support for their Samoan teachers.

What are the links or pathways from early learning services into bilingual units, and into other schools?

Many of the schools visited early learning services and organised open days for parents of learners who were thinking of enrolling their children in bilingual education units. A few schools offered additional information such as enrolment packages to parents who wished to enrol their child in the bilingual unit. Other schools reported having no pathways but were developing these through their Kāhui Ako. This was still in its infancy stages.

Some schools reported that their connections to particular schools and early learning services helped them to make links for their learners or identify potential pathways. One of these schools stated that their learners tended to transition into mainstream schools and often opted not to continue bilingual education in secondary school.

Some of the challenges for developing suitable links and pathways for bilingual learners could be due to the requirements of the compulsory schooling sector, and the lack of bilingual education programmes at senior school years. Another challenge is the declining interest from parents for their children to learn their heritage language in later years of schooling.

How are learners’ progress, achievement and success monitored and reported?

Half of the schools indicated that learners were assessed in the same way as the rest of the school. An additional four schools used overall teacher judgements (OTJs) or teaching as inquiry to monitor progress, achievement and success.

Other schools reported to the Board of Trustees, with one also holding annual Pacific leaders’ evenings where they reported to the community. One school also held monthly parent fono.

Five schools assessed learners both in the English and Samoan languages. They used Anofale, the Samoan equivalence of STAR, which is heavily based around literacy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that high achieving learners score highly in both Samoan and English. Anofale was developed with assistance from the University of Auckland and the Ministry of Education. The Auckland Samoan Bilingual Education Cluster (ASBEC) worked with the Ministry of Education and others to develop tools such as Samoan Individual Prose Inventories Kit, School Entry Assessment Kit, 6 Year Net kits, High Frequency Word Lists, Anofale, and Samoan Writing Benchmarks.

Schools acknowledged the challenges they faced with assessing bilingual learners in the heritage language, and reporting their progress and achievement against the backdrop of English reading and writing benchmarks. This aligns with research about the need to develop and utilise tools to determine bilingualism, in relation to language use and language proficiency (Baker, 2001).

What support do Pacific bilingual units currently receive?

Pacific bilingual programmes are categorised analogously to Māori bilingual education programmes, which are divided into five levels according to the quantity of language instruction. This breakdown is shown in Appendix 3. In the Māori bilingual context, these categories correspond to funding levels, but Pacific bilingual education programmes are funded through the host school’s operational funding grants. The funding levels vary and funding decisions are made by schools’ individual Boards of Trustees. Schools also do not receive additional funding for the development of resources.

A few schools reported fundraising from families and parents as another source of funding, particularly for cultural exchange trips.

Some schools employed teacher aides to help make resources, while other schools said they made their own reading materials because financial resources were tight. One school noted support from ASBEC and ongoing professional learning and development, such as the Graduate Diploma in Teaching English in Schools to Speakers of Other Languages (TESSOL). 

What other support is needed?  

Common responses from schools were the need for:

  • specific and targeted professional learning and development (PLD), in particular about bilingualism, biliteracy and bilingual education
  • better access to resources, for example reading materials in Pacific languages.
  • additional funding to recruit and retain bilingual education teachers
  • greater recognition of bilingual teachers’ additional work in designing and implementing a bilingual curriculum
  • established pathways and incentives for bilingual education teachers, similar to mainstream teachers.

Some schools highlighted the need for initial teacher education providers to be part of the discussion about bilingual education and the aims of bilingualism and biliteracy, and teacher training programmes. One school talked about the need for more support from Pacific leaders which would help grow their own school leaders.

[3] Similar to Kahui Ako.