I wonder what was the most difficult thing you learnt in the last three months? Recently I went on a family trip to the USA. It was the first time I had travelled outside Aotearoa New Zealand in 18 years. Everything had changed. The Visa was online. The passport application was online. We tried AirBnB online. Even talking with the friends and family we were going to visit was mostly through Messenger, email and FaceTime.

In a short space of time I had to learn a bunch of new skills (which slightly freaked me out). Learning usually comes easy to me, but as we navigated international airports, train stations, hotels etc., it was my 14 year old who kept showing me and teaching me how to access the information I needed. She made me acutely aware that learning comes in a range of ways and that we need to be open to learning in different and innovative ways, especially as we get older. I wonder what gets in the way of you learning new things?

In February 2016, Bill English released some information on the profile of youth at risk, who we consider part of the vulnerable children within our communities. This was focused on young people aged 0–14 years and came from the Statistics New Zealand created Integrated Data Infrastructure.

This data has been collected in response to the concern that there are common factors in these young people’s lives that lead to poor outcomes later in their lives. This means they will have a bigger cost, financially and socially, to our society both now and in years to come if we do not address the causal and contributing factors.

There are two statements within that profile which I would like to pull out. The first is that one of the four key factors that leads to poor outcomes is having a mother with no formal qualifications. This is identified internationally as being a factor that will increase the likelihood of a child living in sustained poverty. Alongside that is the statement that this group of young people are three times more likely to leave school with no qualifications themselves. This will not only lead to poor outcomes for themselves later in life, but also for any children they might have or that might live in their household, especially if they are female (as the statement above suggests).

“There are many contributing factors as to why young people absent themselves from the formal education system, many of which have roots in a young person living in poverty.”

When we look at the numbers for early exemption for school leaving we see that young people in the two lowest socioeconomic quintiles are more likely to leave school via early exemption and without qualifications.

Early school leaving exemptions for 15-year-olds in New Zealand

School leavers with NCEA level 1 qualification or higher in NZ

The age of these young people is 15. We know that there are many young people younger than 15 that also fall into this space. The ethnic breakdown of the first graph also shows those young people most likely to leave school early are Māori. The results of young people leaving school early are varied but there is a high likelihood of them ending up connected to the youth justice scene (youth crime).

Children and young people charged in court in New Zealand

The Wellington City Mission Alternative Education programme, Mission for Youth, has found over the last two years that the average age of the rangatahi (young people) enrolled has dropped to 14.5 years and that 80% of our rangatahi identify as Māori. Many of our rangatahi experience the effects of intergenerational poverty. These young people are incredibly creative, innovative, adaptable and resourceful.

Alternative education is, in its essence, an innovative approach to re-engaging with young people who have been excluded from mainstream education for a variety of reasons. This engagement in alternative education increases their likelihood of both gaining a qualification and no longer being connected to the youth justice system.

“Alt Ed looks to the needs of the young person, not the problems being presented.”

The challenge is to create an educational pathway for each young person which takes into account their abilities, any additional assistance they may need (such as around dyslexia, behaviour disorders, health and addiction needs) and what their hopes and dreams are. This is done with a team approach keeping the young person at the centre of that team but including teachers, youth workers, social workers, health workers and whanau so that goals can be set in meaningful ways. This is done knowing that when a person is hungry, struggling with health issues or distracted by home issues, their ability to engage in learning can be diminished. In any given day the team have to be prepared to change and adapt the plan as a young person’s needs can change very quickly, especially when their external environment is unpredictable. Innovative creative solutions around social enterprises, work experience, physical activity, street art, current political youth issues, music, dance, drama and more are tailored for each student’s individual pathway.

Over the last year (July 2015 to June 2016) rangatahi (student) attendance has increased from 27% to 60%, 75% of the rangatahi have not reoffended and 50% have moved onto other educational programmes (as opposed to employment) which will lead to qualifications.

A big part of the solution is learning to reframe things, to enable our young people to look at things including their own abilities in different ways using a strengths based viewing point. This reframing is a life skill that digs deeply into innovation. Part of this innovation is about offering these young people a village of people who are there for them, who are committed to walking alongside them, listening to them and mentoring in those skills of reframing things and applying their own unique skills to the world.


Reverend Tric Malcolm, Wellington City Missioner since March 2014 and an Anglican priest for 15 years. Tric has a background in youth work, mental health, elder care and community parish ministry. Tric has always been passionate about social justice and advocating for those who are vulnerable within our communities.

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