The call to make te reo Māori compulsory is getting louder and louder. This year, with Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori falling smack bang in the middle of the election, it’s almost impossible to ignore.
But making Māori compulsory isn’t necessarily the magic bullet people are looking for.
It’s not that we shouldn’t strive to give our indigenous language the status and recognition it deserves. Absolutely we should. But it’s easy to declare the things we want. Much harder to sit down and devise a comprehensive strategy for how we go about achieving it.
Let’s say, for example, we made te reo Māori compulsory overnight. Every school in the country would be required to teach Māori. But how often? And by whom? Is any standard of te reo acceptable? And would we attempt to enforce or monitor such a policy? In the Middle East, our local school had to report the kids who missed more than eight consecutive Arabic lessons. Would we do the same?
A better approach would be to overhaul the curriculum, so te reo, tikanga and history are incorporated as core subjects alongside English, maths and science.
This is what the Māori Party wants to do. Te reo wouldn’t then be a marginal subject within the arts programme, but would form a part of the backbone of our curriculum.
This makes sense because, as anybody who’s studied te reo knows, our language is so much more than a collection of verbs and nouns. Te reo Māori is a rope of interwoven fibres — culture, history, knowledge, values and whakapapa. You can’t just pick out one strand.
But, as great as it sounds, a policy like this isn’t straightforward to deliver. Our national curriculum is a framework that props up our entire qualifications system. If we change the curriculum, it’ll set in train a domino effect that will impact on everything from achievement standards to unit standards to the quagmire that is NCEA.
It’s not that it’s not a worthy project. But you have to ask yourself: is this the best use of limited resources? Are we happy to sink more money into the bureaucracy?
Besides, there’s no guarantee this investment will result in the change we want to see on the ground. Far better, I reckon, to spend the money on the people already doing the doing: kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa, wharekura, and all the Māori teachers putting in extra unpaid hours in mainstream schools.
Anyway, the Ministry of Education would argue that the curriculum is already inclusive of te reo and tikanga Māori. Freshening it up so it’s slightly more prescriptive around te reo doesn’t mean that schools will automatically incorporate it in the way we want them to.
English is a core subject, but it isn’t taught at my local school in exactly the same way it’s taught at yours. That’s because the curriculum is flexible and open to interpretation. Our system recognises, in theory at least, that education isn’t a one-size-fits-all model.
The other danger of compulsory te reo relates to the question of power. The last thing we want to do, inadvertently or otherwise, is give the power to dictate what is taught, and how, to the government.
The same reason we don’t want the government to direct schools on the teaching of Māori history. As Morgan Godfery writes: "Asking the state to step in and revise the curriculum is like asking the school bully to take up a position as the school counsellor.”
Finally, and arguably most important, there’s the issue of capability. Where are all these qualified te reo teachers supposed to come from? We're not hiding them in the wings somewhere — we simply don’t have the supply of quality teachers to meet the demand yet.
This is critical, because schools that lack capacity internally won’t be able to deliver a quality programme in te reo. And quality does matter. A lot.
But just because it's difficult to implement compulsory te reo, doesn’t mean to say the government is off the hook. Nor should we be satisfied with a National Party policy that would give Māori no greater priority in the curriculum than half a dozen foreign languages.
The groundswell of public opinion calling for compulsory te reo is an expression of the value New Zealanders place in our indigenous language. It’s evidence that the status quo “leave it up to schools” just isn’t good enough.
But there are smarter ways to go about it.
For a start, we need to increase the investment in schools already delivering te reo and tikanga Māori within the curriculum. That means kura kaupapa, bilingual units, kōhanga reo, Māori boarding schools. We need only compare Māori rates of achievement in these environments to understand the value of this investment.
But Māori medium education is only a narrow part of the picture. The majority of Māori students are in English medium schools. They're no less of a priority just because they’re in schools that don’t produce fluent speakers of te reo.
More to the point, ensuring Pākehā New Zealanders also learn te reo is vital. Pākehā are the dominant ethnic group in this country and, like it or not, will always be much closer to the levers of power than us. It’s in all our interests, as a bicultural nation, to increase the number of Pākehā who understand, speak, and value te reo and tikanga Māori.
So how do we do that, exactly? At least part of the solution lies in knowing how much mainstream schools invest in te reo. At the moment, the education ministry can’t say with any certainty exactly how much money is spent on the teaching of te reo Māori within an English medium environment. That’s because schools are independent, and free to spend their operational budgets as they choose.
If we're to lift te reo Māori from a "nice to have" to a “must have” we need better accountability measures in place. Let’s require schools to be transparent about their investment in te reo. But before we do that, we have to make sure they have sufficient resources in the first place.
An increase in funding for te reo in schools would allow us to address first and foremost the capability issue. We spend millions on scholarships for new teachers of te reo, but we need to extend that opportunity to current teachers. The kinds of teachers who are already committed to learning te reo in their own time. Let’s offer those teachers release time and immersion opportunities so they can study at an advanced level without having to quit their jobs and sacrifice their salaries.
Giving incentives to current teachers to learn Māori isn’t rocket science. We could also provide an annual bonus for teachers and principals who speak te reo. The better and more fluent you are, the bigger the bonus. We do it for public servants, why not teachers too?
The resources available to support the teaching of te reo Māori, particularly in English medium schools, also need an overhaul. Te Kete Ipurangi, the Ministry of Education’s portal for curriculum resources, is neither enticing nor technologically-friendly. Broken links, videos that don’t play on certain platforms, and audio files that have to be manually downloaded before you can listen to them.
We should also provide examples of best practice that other like-minded schools can follow.
Auckland Grammar School, one of our largest secondary schools in the country, didn’t need to wait for a Ministry of Education directive to introduce te reo Māori as a compulsory subject. They went ahead and did it off their own bat.
Now, all Year 9 students at AGS, some 500 students every year, are required to take te reo Māori. It wasn’t something the school’s board could do without prioritising the resources for it, so a full-time head teacher of Māori was appointed.
Tim O’Connor, headmaster of AGS, said that the decision made sense, because it aligned with their philosophy and values. "There had been a push to introduce Mandarin, but we asked ourselves: why would we introduce Mandarin before one of our other official languages?"
Of course, you could argue that a school like AGS, sitting in a decile 9 zone, is better equipped to adopt a compulsory te reo policy than some other schools around the country. But that’s an issue to do with a lack of resources, rather than a lack of will. So let’s level the playing field and establish an uncapped fund to assist schools who want to adopt a compulsory or universal policy on te reo.
The interesting thing about AGS, is that there wasn’t any backlash. The board had been prepared to defend their decision, but there was no need. The programme was received with the full support of the community — and next year, they’re planning to extend it.
It’s a lesson — and a wero — to other schools to follow suit. It’s also proof that our system isn’t broken, it just needs fine-tuning in the right places.
As Tim O'Connor says: “We’re on the tip of a revolution with te reo. To make it political, to talk about compulsion, isn’t going to assist the process. It’s already happening. Let it go. Make some decisions, look strategically to the future. The demand is already there. Just let the revolution continue."