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Henderson South – Samoan achieving success as Samoan

Principal Trevor Diamond.

Henderson South School is one of 11 schools in the Auckland Samoan bilingual education cluster. It offers Samoan bilingual education in the O le Fetu Oso unit, which focuses on students learning in gagana Samoa, from years 1–6.

With almost half of the students identifying as Samoan, many with Samoan as their first language, the O le Fetu Oso unit was opened in 2009 with one class of year 1–3 students. The following year a second class of year 4–6 students was added. There are currently 36 children enrolled in the bilingual unit. Samoan students still make up the biggest ethnic group in the school.

“In 2009 we had a willingness of the community to participate in a bilingual unit, qualified staff fluent in Samoan, and the support of the Board of Trustees. As well as being fluent speakers, readers, and writers of both languages, teachers need to have professional content knowledge and qualifications in bilingualism.” 

Principal Trevor Diamond

Up until 2017 the school had three bilingual classes but in 2018 there are only two. Trevor says he and other principals in the Samoan cluster are noticing parents are not delivering the heritage language to the same extent. That is, more Samoan parents are not using their language so often and therefore their children don’t have as strong a heritage understanding as they did 10 years ago.

Ava bowl.

Cluster schools are putting more pressure on the parents to lift the ability in gagana Samoa, but there’s an erosion of the language that is happening out there. Parents are also being assimilated so that has resulted in a drop off in interest for their children to have a bilingual education. Sometimes this creates friction between the bilingual teachers and the parents. The uptake is always better if the parents are on board. Parents have to commit their time at the school. At Henderson South, Trevor talks to parents about their journey and what that looks like so they understand the importance of a bilingual education.

Benefits for a child educated bilingually

Being bilingual means:

  • the child’s whole life will be very different to a child who knows only one language.
  • they have a fuller understanding of who they are and be proud of that
  • they will better understand their extended family and its history
  • they have TWO worlds – the first/home language world and the world of the second language
  • language and culture are one … so the child will have a better understanding of two cultures
  • they can better communicate with parents and older people in the family
  • the child gets the family’s language treasure/taonga
  • there are more opportunities in education and careers later on … bilingual people are very valuable to employers
  • they develop an ‘elastic’ thinking brain
  • they have an enhanced feeling of self worth… and about their family and family values as a whole
  • the child gets a warm, loving and enriched language from parents, because it is their ‘comfortable’ language
  • the child understands language in a way that a one-language child cannot and does not.

Jannie van Hees (1997), from Bilingual Education NZ

“Without the language you don’t have a culture.”

Principal Trevor Diamond

Maninoa Elu has been teaching in the O le Fetu Oso unit since it began in 2009. Before that she was teaching in a mainstream class at the school. She is disappointed in the drop in interest from parents in bilingual education but understands that for many Samoans living in New Zealand today, Samoan is not the first language at home. She teaches a year 2 and 3 class and uses 50:50 Samoan and English.

“If the parents really value their mother tongue they can see the benefits and get behind the children’s learning at school. They will push it at home and attend consultation sessions where they can share what they think is important in the Samoan language. My students are happy and confident with being Samoan. They love the Samoan traditional stories.”

Maninoa Elu


Maninoa is proud of her language and wants to pass that on to the children she’s teaching. She feels empowered to be teaching their language and can see the benefits every day. Many children can’t speak it well when they first arrive but they can speak, read, and write in Samoan by the time they leave. There are pathways once they leave as there is now a Samoan bilingual class at the local intermediate.

Henderson South staff meet once a fortnight for collaborative curriculum planning. Teachers from the O le Fetu Oso unit try to weave the Pasifika education Plan themes throughout, feeding Pasifika aspects into a big idea.

Matou te talitonu o mea e mafaia e le tamaititi ona a’oa’oina e sili atu lona taua, moe le aogā i lona olaga. E le ola ma aogā lana Aganuu, e aunoama lana Gagana muamua.

We believe that the achievement of the learner is paramount. A culture cannot exist effectively without its own heritage language.

Adjustment levels have changed accordingly. All schools in the cluster were teaching 80% heritage, 20% English in the junior school; 50:50 heritage and English in the middle school; and switching back to 20% Samoan to 80% English in the senior school. The idea is to get students proficient in both languages. If they are proficient in the heritage language they will be doing their thinking in that language. There’s always a slide when students have to change to become more fluent in English but that picks up again in the senior school.

The Samoan cluster schools use the STAR test and have also adapted this as a Samoan version called the Anofale test, which is heavily based around literacy. Results show that as students become more bilingual the rankings start to even up. The top students score highly on both STAR and Anofale, that is, heritage language is high and English is high.

“Our top academic student last year had no Samoan whatsoever when he was enrolled but his parents wanted him to go into the bilingual class. He was staying with auntie who also didn’t have Samoan. The assimilation of the language meant that he was working below standard at year 3, reading at level 10. Within a year and a half to two years he started to accelerate. He was scoring high on both tests by year 6. I put that down to an affirmation of his culture, feeling confident and happy. In his senior years he was leading the Samoan culture group.”

Trevor Diamond

Samoan artefacts.

Trevor says there is still more to be learned about the balance that is needed in the bilingual context between the use of English and of Samoan.

“There needs to be more investigation about students' language background and capabilities, and what impact these have on achievement outcomes.”

Trevor Diamond

At Henderson South they value the potential of their Samoan students. Students attend cultural festivals and have a dedicated day for Samoan speeches during Samoan Language Week. They use every opportunity to affirm the language. When the O le Fetu Oso unit takes the school assembly they begin with a tatalo (karakia).  

What do the students say?

Henderson South School students.

“It’s important to know how to do stuff in the Samoan way, to speak Samoan, know what to do on special occasions, like the sasa, and show respect. We speak mostly Samoan at home.”

Tasi (Year 5, NZ born Samoan)

“We should know our language and cultural ways. We know who we are instead of hiding it. At home we speak both Samoan and English.”

Danny (Year 5, NZ born Samoan/Tongan)

“When we go to visit our grandparents we can speak to them in Samoan. We can learn from them too.”

Iulai (Year 4, NZ born Samoan)

Setting clear goals

In 2017 Trevor visited schools in Samoa which gave him a better cultural understanding of where their students’ parents originated from and allowed him to experience first-hand the education systems that they would have been exposed to. Talking to many principals and teachers, both in New Zealand and Samoa, has given him the moral purpose to set clear goals for the bilingual unit at Henderson South and to focus on closing the gaps between the highest and lowest achieving students in order to raise achievement levels.

Henderson South School goals:

Woven fans.
  • To build strong and purposeful relationships with teachers, students, and community built on trust, respect, and openness.
  • To have a commitment to ongoing learning and a commitment to supporting and guiding students.
  • That the BOT is fully involved in providing opportunities for students and staff to gain stronger pedagogical knowledge.
  • That the BOT must draw upon a variety of services beyond the school to build expertise in a bilingual setting in order to strengthen organisational capacity and effectiveness.
  • That the whole school supports the bilingual classes and makes that a priority to enhance learning in the school.

Published on: 11 Jul 2018