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Kura Whakapumau I Te Reo Tuururu

Aotearoa/New Zealand

new internationalist
issue 248 - October 1993

Kura Whakapumau
i te reo Tuururu
*the school has retained our ancient language

All over the world indigenous peoples whose cultures are under
threat are rallying by teaching children in their traditional language.
Glenn Inwood shows how a revival of Maori education in
Aotearoa/New Zealand could enrich the whole community.

Ten years ago, most Maori children in Aotearoa/New Zealand went to non-Maori, or pakeha schools. Maori language was moving towards extinction: it had been banned in all New Zealand schools as long ago as 1905. Maori children were suffering from loss of self-esteem and in some cases anti-social behaviour. A feeling of alienation coupled with resentment and anger saw many young Maori drop out because they couldn’t survive in the system.

Today Maori have stopped looking to the State for a solution. They have looked for their own answers and have at last begun to determine their own future.

An important part of this has been the establishment of Maori schools. It is just over a decade since the first five Te Kohanga Reo (Language Nests) were established as a pilot scheme. These schools catered for children up to five years old. They taught only in the Maori language and, just as importantly, they taught the Maori culture. Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, the general manager of the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board says that this gave the Maori hope. ‘We believed that total immersion was the only way to go. Without the language we couldn’t address the culture in its entirety. We wanted our mokopuna (children) to speak to us in our own language.’

The benefits of Te Kohanga Reo were soon evident among Maori. Within one year of the five pilot centres being established, 112 were set up throughout Aotearoa. Tawhiwhirangi says there are now more than 800 in operation, and more are planned.

But other problems soon became apparent. When children left the Kohanga Reo environment and entered mainstream education at the age of five, they lost their Maori language within three weeks. Neither this, nor their culture, were taught in the pakeha system, which was based on very different cultures and espoused the virtues of rugged individualism and competitiveness. The effects on the children were devastating. They were still dropping out of school as the pakeha system continued to fail them.

It wasn’t long before Maori primary schools were being advocated. The first Kura Kaupapa Maori opened in Auckland in the late 1980s. All teaching, including mathematics and science, is done in the Maori language. English is taught, but through the medium of Maori. Karakia (prayer) is said at the start and end of each school day and reflects a traditional part of Maori life. New children are given a ‘keeper’ to be with them when they start, who helps them adapt to the new environment. It is not a requirement for children entering the school to be of Maori descent, but children should have a commitment to Maori language and culture and have come from a Kohanga Reo. The principal of the Kura Kaupapa Maori in Christchurch, Kulei Latimer, says that children who were deemed failures in mainstream education were ‘excelling’ at the Maori school. Her co-principal, Tania Fitzpatrick, says: ‘We are producing children who will be great Maori leaders; a whole new generation of Maori that we once had.’

The schools are run in a different way from pakeha schools. The members of the school board are all parents, and they are answerable to the wider community. This has led to problems with the Ministry of Education, which says that schools have to meet certain requirements before being funded.

But Iritana Tawhiwhirangi maintains that despite initial problems, the setting up of such schools is a sign of change. ‘We believe there is a mood of joy and hope and ownership in a way that has not moved Maori before.’ She hopes that eventually the pakeha New Zealanders will bring their children to Kura Kaupapa schools, to the enrichment of the whole community. The ultimate aim is for more mainstream schools, including high schools and universities, to accept the Maori culture, not just to teach it, but to become part of it. ‘I have a lot more hope for Aotearoa than I did ten years ago. We will see the change in the country when the children come through the Maori schools. Another language and culture will benefit all children, whether Maori or pakeha.’

Her hope is given added urgency by the fact that more than one-third of the population of Aotearoa/New Zealand will be of Maori or Pacific Island descent by the year 2020.

Glenn Inwood is a journalist living in Christchurch. He is of Tuhoe and Ngati Kahunga descent.

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