Prioritising ethnic data from schools: who are we missing? A research note.

AuthorLeather, Frances


This note reports on research investigating whether the ethnic groups of young adolescent New Zealanders are fully represented when data are prioritised so that only one ethnicity per person is counted. Prioritised data reported from the school sector are compared with non-prioritised reported data from the 2006 census, and also with census data when prioritised. The research clearly indicates that the prioritising of data leads to significant understatements in the reporting of proportions of Pacific and Asian domestic students enrolled in our schools.


It is not uncommon, in both the media and official reports, to read sentences such as "16% of the students at the local school are Pasifika". (2) Although this statement seems straightforward, it is not. It depends on which data are being used. Schools record up to three (or more) ethnicities for each student at the time of enrolment, but the collector of official education statistics, the Ministry of Education, reports ethnicity based on only one per student, following a system of prioritisation that used to be used by Statistics New Zealand but which it no longer recommends. Under this system, for example, at the broadest level "Pacific peoples" comes second to "Maori", so that a student who identifies as Pacific peoples/Maori is reported only in the Maori category. So although schools may have a complete count of all students who include Pacific peoples as an ethnicity, reported national education statistics do not. Without further information (which is sometimes, but not always, provided in fine print), it is simply not clear whether the 16% is based on the complete school count or on a count based on the prioritised list.

This research note draws on a longer technical working paper (3) that considers the reporting of ethnicity for New Zealand's school students (Leather 2009). The wider paper examines 2006 data for ethnic groups as categorised by the Ministry of Education at the broadest level--European/Pakeha, Maori, Pasifika, Asian and Other--as well as specific Pacific and Asian ethnicities where data are available. A number of associated issues are discussed, including "New Zealander"-type responses being observed in census collections (see Kukutai and Didham 2009). In this note, however, I focus on the findings for the three ethnic groups Maori, Pacific peoples and Asian in order to present the effect of the continued use of prioritised ethnicity data. The system of ethnic prioritisation, including why it was introduced, what may be wrong with it and alternative ways of counting, is described in other papers in this collection in Issue 36 of the Social Policy Journal of New Zealand.

One way of assessing the impact of reporting based on prioritisation is to compare census data with national school roll data. Census ethnicity data can be reported in a variety of ways (see the other papers in this collection), but in this note the two systems used, both based on the "usually resident" count, are:

* new (2005) statistical standard--multiple responses

* old statistical standard--prioritised to one response in order to match the method of reporting ethnicity data used in the school roll return.

There are acknowledged limitations to a comparison between the census and the national roll return, and the main paper presents a detailed...

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