Tokelau is ‘formally a non self-governing territory of New Zealand’ and Tokelauan people are New Zealand citizens. Executive and administrative powers are delegated to a local government whose structure follows traditional village rules. Despite Tokelau’s special relations with New Zealand, the application of international conventions and treaties is not automatically extended to its territory.
The Constitution of Tokelau does not explicitly enshrine the right to education, but in recognizing its importance in the Preamble, it declares ‘respect for the rights of all individuals and non-discrimination’. Education is organized to address the needs and respond to the wishes of the Tokelauan people.
Following the 2004 devolution agreements with New Zealand, the council of elders (taupulega), the highest authority at the local level, holds the responsibility for administrating, governing and allocating resources for education in each village. As a national advisory institution, the Department of Education sets national standards and monitoring systems to evaluate their achievement, coordinates education policies and manages the Tokelau Scholarships Scheme. The latter has a strong commitment to strengthening local culture and identity. Since 2010, it has been working with school managers and the taupulega to design village education plans. The Department of Education also liaises with and manages relationships with New Zealand and international organizations and donors concerning the education sector.
As stated in the 2011 Tokelau–New Zealand Joint Commitment for Development, improving the quality of education has been named among the country’s key priorities, with the specific aim of enhancing community social well-being. In its 2010–15 National Strategic Plan, Tokelau further committed to promoting equal opportunities and learning outcomes for all. In recognizing the need to strengthen the cooperation between the taupulega and the Department of Education and to increase the quality of education at the school level, the strategic plan intended to develop a community-based education and training programme to cater for individuals’ and communities’ needs.
In relation to special education needs, the 2010–15 National Strategic Plan intended to roll out an early intervention inclusive education programme for all learners, with a specific focus on those with special needs. However, there are no formal procedures for the identification of children or guidelines on how to support their learning. In order to provide tailored teaching and learning approaches and methods, educators are supposed to develop individual education plans with the involvement of parents. Implementation varies across the schools. In one of them, in alignment with the Tokelau National Curriculum Policy Framework, special education needs are adequately identified, and teachers work with parents to develop individual education plans accordingly. Overall, either formal identification of students with special education needs or guidelines for their support and evidence of differentiated approaches to support their learning exist.
The 2008–13 Education Sector Strategic Plan reaffirmed the necessity to develop a new strategy for an effective early identification of special education needs with support of the New Zealand Ministry of Education Group Special Education. The same documents highlights that the mission of the Tokelau Department of Education is ‘to raise educational achievement, promote equality of opportunity and outcomes for all students, and to improve the quality of educational services delivery’, to be achieved ‘through the provision of quality education and equitable opportunities for all students to achieve to their potential. To achieve this outcome our education system will have to undergo many changes some of which will be very challenging.’
The Tokelau school system consists of three schools: Tialeniu School (Fakaofo), Matiti School (Nukunonu) and Matauala School (Atafu). As reported by the 2014 National Evaluation of Education Provision in Tokelau, carried out by the New Zealand Government’s Education Review Office (ERO), the physical infrastructure of all three institutions has been considered inadequate. In particular, barriers to accessing education include the long distances between atolls and the lack of regular transport between Tokelau and Samoa. The management of school buildings, facilities and equipment is a responsibility of the taupulega under the advice and guidance of the Department of Education. The taupulega is also accountable for developing national guidelines and curricula and for training teachers.
Concerning language learning, the assessment further points out the need to improve teaching and learning in the local language. Yet, the 2006–10 Tokelau National Curriculum Policy Framework affirmed, ‘bilingualism in Tokelauan and English as an important goal of education. To be bilingual is to be literate in both languages.’ The Tokelau curriculum is expected to ensure that all children have a good command both of Tokelauan and of English. However, teachers’ lack of knowledge and expertise is reported to be the main barrier to effectively implementing a bilingual curriculum. Differences are observed across the three schools.
To address the issues highlighted by the ERO review, a five-year work programme was developed to strengthen the school governance and management and an education plan was developed. The latter was approved in 2016. All of Tokelau’s three schools have been supported with the recruitment of new teachers, and Tokelauan teacher candidates were trained at Massey University in New Zealand. The commitment to continuing with the reform process has been reiterated in the 2016–22 Tokelau Education Plan.
Based on New Zealand’s review of the education sector carried out in 2013, the 2006–10 Tokelau National Curriculum Policy Framework, developed in consultation with representatives from each village, ‘provides the foundation for education provision’. The purpose is to enable students ‘to develop the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes to maximize the opportunities that are available to them both locally and internationally … within an environment that values lifelong learning and sustainable development’. A key principle of the policy framework is that ‘the curriculum upholds the traditions and values of Tokelau society and affirms the value, maintenance and advancement of Tokelau language’.
Concerning gender, the 2010–15 National Policy and Action Plan for the Women of Tokelau aimed to promote equal access to formal and non-formal education by ensuring adequate resources, awareness of education opportunities and availability of vocational and community-based training. To achieve these objectives, the action plan intended to mainstream gender in the Department of Education’s activities, provide education data disaggregated by gender and roll out inclusive vocational training, also catering for the needs of women and girls with disabilities.