John McCaffery looks at the growing drive to promote te reo Māori within New Zealand’s education system, but he says the struggle is not over. 

Recent stories from the parents of Māori tamariki and others who want to continue learning Māori as a medium of instruction, have provided insights into the growing but un-met demand for te reo from Māori, Pākehā, and Tauiwi (non-Māori). Last week the issue reached the UK with the Guardian newspaper and UK radio following up on Alexia Russell’s great article in Newsroom about the current buzz and dilemma around te reo.

On one hand, it brings enormous satisfaction to see partial realisation of hopes and dreams held by my generation of young, largely urban Māori and Pākehā in the 1970s and 1980s. As Rawiri Rangitauira, President of Te Reo Maori Society in 1974, said; “It is important to ensure that the status of Māori is raised in the eyes of both Māori and Pākehā as it is the status of the language that governs people’s desire to learn & speak it”.

On the other hand, the struggle is not over. Some young people may believe we have always had access to te reo in our education system. But not so.  Back in 1972, the Te Reo Māori Society, originating at Victoria University (of which I have been a lifelong teina member) went to Parliament with Ngā Tamatoa to deliver a petition to roll back the loss of language. We wanted everyone to benefit from this language taonga that our kaumatua, Te Oenuku Rene (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa), described in his tukutaonga karakia (ritual blessing at Parliament) as a treasure handed down to the ancestors from the gods.

This treasure was offered as a gift to the whole nation and was strongly supported by the Labour Government of the day. It was understood Māori needed to be first priority because, with less than 10 percent of speakers in the school age population, the language was facing intergenerational extinction.

But the nation has consistently refused to accept this koha of Māori for all New Zealanders as a core part of school, and to establish and resource Māori Medium education, immersion and bilingual opportunities for all who wish to participate. It is true many of the 1970s goals of Te Reo Māori have been achieved including acceptance of Māori as a national language, establishment of the Māori Language Commission, early childhood centres like Te Kohanga Reo, Māori Medium schools including Kura Kaupapa Māori, the launch of an optional Māori Syllabus for English Medium schools and establishment of Māori Iwi radio and Māori TV.

However, there remains much to be done. The dream has been a long time coming but recent evidence of overcrowded and over-subscribed te reo classes for adults, parents and students tells us the moment for change is here. We need to seize this moment together, as Māori, Pākehā and Tauiwi New Zealanders, and make it happen. As Pōtatau, the first Māori King, said: “There is but one eye of the needle through which the red, black and white threads must pass.”

The challenge now is to agree on what needs to happen to meet the growing demand for te reo Māori.

First, the Ministry of Education and politicians need a far more realistic understanding of how to produce capable, confident, skilled teachers who are also speakers and teachers of Māori, and can teach curriculum areas as well. It takes at least five to six years to produce such graduates so planning beyond the annual Budget and three year election cycle is required. Successive governments have argued there are not enough teachers to implement Māori for all. But we know the number of places for Māori Medium education and teachers of Māori is decided by the politicians and Ministry which means those who are saying most loudly that we have no teachers are responsible for failing to provide them.

So no more government protestations about why we cannot commit and plan for  the developments Māori and our diverse communities are calling for.

Recruitment is the second major challenge.  There are enormous demands on teachers of Māori –usually four years training and student loans. This is made up of three years plus at least one full time year of personal Māori language acquisition through immersion, a further year of post graduate study, continued high levels of te reo proficiency to be done in your own time, low salaries on graduation and pressure to be saviour to all things Māori in their schools.

Additionally, the Huarahi Māori medium programme presented by the University of Auckland at the Epsom and Whangarei Campuses, is the only Māori Medium programme at any New Zealand university. All others have closed and the Government must ask itself why.  The only other institutions graduating Māori Medium teachers are the four Wananga at Royal Oak, Mangere Whakatane and Otaki.

Research and experience has shown you cannot become a speaker of a second language through three lessons of 40 to 45 minutes a week. At present, most students in English medium programmes at most institutions receive a generic nine to 10 hours of a Māori course, of which only three to four hours is actually learning te reo Māori. The balance is general Māori Studies and Treaty focussed. The Education Council and successive governments apparently think this pitiful exposure to te reo is adequate to meet the graduating teacher requirements, but impose very different standards in English for bilingual teachers born and schooled overseas, and unrealistic grade point averages for Māori students to enter undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

Professional development is another area which has declined for existing teachers. Governments have cut costs over the past 10 years by putting most professional development online for teacher access and denying face to face training even for curriculum innovations. But there is clear evidence that languages and the essential cultural skills and understandings that go with them cannot be learned online only. 

Also needing resolution is the question that the Education Council has been promoting since 2013. That perhaps primary teacher education should be a shortened to all postgraduate profession. Any universal move to postgraduate-only courses from three years, to one year to 18 months, together with the possible exclusion of the current largely undergraduate Wānanga programmes, would make it very difficult to achieve any of the te reo Māori proficiency goals and opportunities for even basic introductory Māori that would make a difference in schools.

Finally the frustrating and all too frequent collapse of quality programmes in English medium programmes when boards of trustees, principals or charters change, strongly suggest programmes need the protection of section 156 Designated Character provisions to be sustainable.

So in summary, the workforce, tertiary education and professional development services must build and sustain the Māori language initiatives our communities are clearly calling for.  

Much more strategic planning will be required from professionals who actually understand what is needed to turn the hopes and dreams of so many previous generations of Māori and other New Zealanders into reality.  

People with expertise, research knowledge and experience must be brought together to make this happen. Leaving it all to Māori to yet again carry the load should not be part of the plan. As the proverb says “He waka eke noa” – essentially meaning, we are all in this canoe together – and to end where I began: personally, I hope to see that gift of the language for all which was offered to the nation in 1972, finally accepted and implemented. Can you help make this happen? Yes, you can.   

John McCaffery is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland and lifelong member of Te Reo Maori Society.

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