The Family So’otaga: stronger connections between home and school

Issue: Volume 95, Number 22

Posted: 5 December 2016
Reference #: 1H9d5a

A new initiative at Holy Family School in Porirua aims to remove barriers to education by forging closer relationships between home and school. Education Gazette explores the impact of the Family So’otaga programme so far.

Family So’otaga facilitator Metua Tengaru with student Rick Jayden Tawa and his mum Fiona Aluia

Parents have the power to make a massive change to their child’s education pathway.

That’s one of the key messages of the Family So’otaga, a special new programme established at Holy Family School this year.

The integrated Catholic primary school in Cannons Creek, Porirua has always enjoyed a close relationship with whānau and the wider community.

But the Family So’otaga programme, launched in May of this year, sets out to enhance these relationships further.

One way is by turning the traditional parent-teacher interview on its head.

Instead of parents trying to understand their child’s learning progress in a rushed 10-minute interview, a programme facilitator will visit each of the school’s 120 families in their own homes for one hour, three times a year.

The hope is that this close work with families will help them develop a better understanding of what school should and could deliver for their children.

It also aims to boost the confidence of school families, so they feel comfortable to come into the school at any time, and to ask some harder questions of the school about their children’s progress.

Stronger connections

Holy Family School principal Chris Theobald has worked closely with acting deputy principal Gina Lefaoseu to develop the Family So’otaga, which has seen the employment of programme facilitator Metua Tengaru to meet and engage with families.

The school is ethnically diverse: currently 85 per cent of its students identify as Pasifika (mainly Samoan but also Tokelauan, Tongan, Niuean, Kiribati, and Tuvaluan and Cook Island Māori), 10 per cent as New Zealand Māori and 5 per cent Burmese and European.

Chris says the school’s diversity is a “huge privilege” but that it also means that some parents have no personal experience of the New Zealand education system, and can therefore find it challenging to navigate.

“While our diversity definitely brings a richness to our school and community it also means that the link between home and school is more important than in other situations,” he says.

“We know that whānau, especially mothers, have a huge influence on a child’s education, and therefore it’s very important to us to include everyone in the learning process.”

Gina says that at the heart of the programme is ‘So’otaga’ – a Samoan word that translates to ‘connection,’ and therefore it was very important that the entire school community was included in the planning process.

“We hope that the programme will help our families to develop a deeper link to the school, based on a strong relationship of trust,” she says.

“So’otaga is about wanting to bring everyone who is involved with a child together – it’s about nurturing that sense of family and belonging.”

The first term of 2016 saw the programme trialled with various families and subsequently adapted as a result of feedback from the participants.

“It’s really important to us that the school systems are designed to suit Pasifika parents and the framework of this programme reflects that – we need to have built a good foundation of trust in the teachers and school, before we can start working on the academic performance of a child.”

Gina says many of their parents are respectful and there can be a sense of ‘trust the experts’ when it comes to questioning what is happening at the school and individually for their children.

The leadership team wanted to actively empower whānau to ask questions and engage in their children’s learning journeys, beyond the traditional 10-minute parent-teacher interview.

“We believe that once we’ve established a strong relationship with our families, they will in turn be more open and honest with us."

“The So’otaga project is all about switching from politeness to honesty, and forming stronger and better parent-teacher relationships for the benefit of the children,” she says.

A community effort

Chris says the Family So’otaga has been made possible with the financial support of the wider Wellington community, in particular, The McGuinness Foundation Trust. The McGuinness Institute, as distinct from this foundation, provides practical assistance to the programme with design, coding and editorial support as needed.

Principal Chris Theobald and McGuinness Institute chief executive Wendy McGuinness join with Gina and Metua to form the steering group for the programme.

The programme has also been widely supported by the Pasifika community, including Ladi6 (Karoline Tamati) who lent her music to the programme’s website, Tofiga Fepulea’i from the Laughing Samoans who helped launch the programme, and a range of people who lent their career stories for motivational clips on the website.

Making action plans

Central to the Family So’otaga are ‘Aiga (family) Education Plans (AEPs).

These are created by programme facilitator Metua Tengaru for each child and their family, and every AEP is tailored to an individual’s strengths and needs.

Metua also formulates AEPs for siblings and other family members who don’t attend Holy Family School, but are interested in setting out their aspirations in this way.

These plans set a pathway for academic success for students and provide avenues for parents and ‘aiga to upskill in many ways too.

In the first instance, Metua visits the home of a school family and spends at least one hour getting to know the child and other family members.

A second meeting is set at a later date, and this is when Metua will talk with the student and their family about their aspirations and hopes for the future.

A third meeting may also be held in the home, but Metua also has an office at the school where parents and students are welcome to visit.

And they do. Chris and Gina both say they’ve noticed parents popping in for chats and to ask questions. The sense of ownership and comfort with the school has greatly increased.

“Over this series of meetings, school staff are developing deep relationships with our families and working out ways to help them feel more comfortable at the school,” says Metua.

“The AEPs we make for each student are often based on future careers they are inspired by – and it’s not so much about making them stick with these plans, but providing guidelines and goals for how to get there, and encouragement."

“The AEPs also include guidelines for parents – how they can get involved and support their children to reach their particular goals. The plans are inspiring to everyone! We keep hard copies at school, and families have wanted to come in and have another look, and update them sometimes,” she says.

Other resources

Metua works with Holy Family School teachers to put together comprehensive kits of resources to support each AEP.

These kits will look different for every family involved, and sometimes include maths and reading games, and other educational materials.

Through the Family So’otaga website, parents can access a range of online resources to help support their children’s learning.

The programme has also included a range of workshops and events held at the school, such as explanations of how National Standards work and the finer points of NCEA, as well as other workshops on how parents can support their children’s literacy and numeracy skills.

Gina points out that these are made more accessible and culturally relevant by rearranging the seats in the school hall to be in a circle, or small groups, rather than all facing a single microphone or stage.

“Thinking about our families, and removing barriers for them to be involved with the school is what So’otaga is all about for us,” she says.

“All these workshops are part of a family celebration of learning at our school,” says Chris.

The Family So’otaga: key aims

  • Collaborate with families to allow parents to have a better understanding of what they should provide to facilitate their children’s learning.
  • Enhance families’ confidence in the school by encouraging conversation between parents, students and the school.
  • Encourage parents to ask questions so that parents know where their child is at with their learning and can express where they want their child to be in the future.
  • Create strategies to help each child achieve their goals to enable children to get the best out of their education.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:06 pm, 5 December 2016

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