By Katie Cammell
In 2017, the Green Party proposed a new policy which would see all students in New Zealand up to year ten required to learn te reo Māori . This policy proposal sparked huge debate and controversy, with many people asking: why should we have compulsory te reo education?
History of te reo in New Zealand schools
Historically, the use of te reo within schools was systematically prohibited and devalued. The Education Ordinance introduced by Sir George Grey in 1847 required all education to be carried out in English, with the aim of converting the primary language of Māori children from te reo to English by the time they finished school . By the mid-nineteenth century, the Pākehā population had grown substantially larger than the Māori population, and the need for non-Māori to learn te reo faded . The negative attitudes and connotations associated with te reo that were entrenched in the school environment often carried over into home life, where English eventually became the dominant language in many Māori homes .
In this way, the schooling system entrenched negative attitudes and connotations associated with te reo, which often carried over into home life. Eventually, English became the dominant language in many Māori homes.
The revitalisation of te reo was a major focus of Māori activist movements in the 1970s. Their concentrated efforts culminated in the Māori-language petition presented to Parliament by Lee Smith of the Te Reo Māori Society and Hana Te Hemara of Ngā Tamatoa in 1972 . By the time this petition was presented, te reo was declared an “endangered language in a perilous state” with only 70,000 Māori fluent enough in te reo to teach the language to the next generation . The petition resulted in the eventual introduction of te reo into secondary schools, although the subject was not offered in all schools and there were limitations regarding when and how it was taught .
What is the status of te reo now?
According to Te Puni Kōkiri (the Ministry of Māori Development), attitudes towards te reo amongst Māori and non-Māori are consistently improving . Their Survey of Attitudes toward the Māori Language in 2006 found that te reo enjoyed positive acceptance amongst the majority of non-Māori New Zealanders, and held a high status in Māori society. In 2013, Statistics New Zealand reported that the number of Māori aged 15+ who had “some ability” to speak te reo — that is, they could speak more than a few words or phrases — increased from approximately 42 percent in 2001 to 55 percent in 2013 . The percentage of Māori who could speak te reo “very well” or “well” remained around 11 percent, and the proportion who could speak “fairly well” or “not very well” also remained relatively unchanged at around 44 percent.
Despite positive growth in some areas, the survival of te reo is not guaranteed. Between 2001 and 2013, the proportion of Māori adults who reported they could hold an everyday conversation in te reo decreased from 28 percent to 24 percent. Significantly, in 2013 only 3.7 percent of all New Zealanders could speak te reo Māori .
Is compulsory te reo education in schools a good idea?
There are various arguments against compulsory te reo education in schools, including doubt of the utility of the Māori language and concern that it would detract resources away from other, “more important” subjects . Additionally, there is disagreement over whether compulsory te reo will indeed foster a revival of the Māori language — historian Paul Moon points to failures in Ireland, Singapore, Luxembourg, and Wales to improve proficiency in a minority or indigenous language through compulsory education .
Another potential issue of concern with this policy is resource constraints. Significant government investment in professional development would be necessary to support the implementation of this policy, including training for teachers at the pre-service level and in the classroom . Another challenge is attracting fluent te reo speakers to a career in teaching, as a significant number will need to be recruited to meet the heightened demand for teachers that the policy will engender . There is a substantial financial cost involved in these activities — the Green Party advocated for the reinstatement of Te Kotahitanga programme to support change within schools for improved Māori learning, costing approximately $10 million anually .
For those who advocate in favour of compulsory te reo education, the potential benefits of the policy for Maori and non-Māori alike outweigh the challenges and costs involved. According to the Ministry of Education, persistent and significant equity gaps remain between Māori and non-Maori in educational participation and achievement . In 2017 the Ministry of Education reported that not all learning environments are providing Māori with emotionally and mentally safe spaces, with Māori reporting experiences of bullying at a higher rate than any other group. The Ministry of Education stated that Māori perform better “when they feel safe, included and valued”, and that a learning environment that respects and nourishes Māori identity, culture, and language can help to facilitate the achievement of Māori educational aspirations. Learning te reo will have benefits for English-speaking, non-Māori students too — evidence suggests that learning a second language equips young people with the skills to live in a culturally diverse country and broaden their linguistic and cultural understanding .
A case can also be made for compulsory te reo in schools as an ethical responsibility of the Government. Both the Waitangi Tribunal and the Courts have found that the Government has a responsibility under Te Tiriti o Waitangi to actively protect te reo Māori . According to the Tribunal, te reo Māori is a taonga (valued possession) and is therefore protected by Article II of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. As such, the Government has an obligation under the Treaty to actively preserve and encourage the use of te reo. However, it is not certain whether compulsory te reo education is the most appropriate and effective way to fulfil this obligation.
There are persuasive arguments on either side of this issue. Even so, the recent budget announcement of a $12.5 million boost to te reo Māori education may indicate a favourable future for the language.
The Public Policy Club is a non-partisan club at the University of Auckland that aims to encourage, educate and involve students from all backgrounds in the education and development of political knowledge. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PPC.