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Te Wehi Wright and his whānau (Photo: Supplied)
Te Wehi Wright and his whānau (Photo: Supplied)

ĀteaApril 21, 2022

The ongoing fight for Māori to school our own, our way

Te Wehi Wright and his whānau (Photo: Supplied)
Te Wehi Wright and his whānau (Photo: Supplied)

The government wants to grow the number of tamariki Māori in Māori-medium education but has ruled out a separate governance body. Advocates says they need less government interference, not more, to grow Māori excellence.

Māori-medium education, taught entirely in te reo with Māori values at its heart, has long fought to be recognised as an education model that works for our people. However, since its inception, the government has tried to bring it into the mainstream system, much to the frustration of advocates for the kura kaupapa movement, like Te Wehi Wright (Ngā Ruahine, Ngāti Rangitihi, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa, Ngāti Uenukukōpako, me Ngāti Whakaue), also a graduate of Māori-medium education. 

“Kura Kaupapa Māori Aho Matua are constantly framed to be the problem child within the education system, but that’s because they’ve constantly tried to fit us into a system that won’t ever be sophisticated or reflective enough to love and grow our tamariki,” he says. 

The Wright whānau have been part of the kura kaupapa movement since its inception (Photo: Supplied)


In 1867, the Native Schools Act ensured that English was the only language taught in the education of tamariki Māori. This was part of the annexation of Aotearoa by the Crown, and is one example of the many injustices inflicted upon Māori which saw our land and language forcibly removed from us.

The education system, as one of the institutions of state, was not built to provide Māori with equity. It was instituted to do the opposite, but Māori have resisted. Kaupapa Māori education has been at the core of that resistance, and traditional kaupapa Māori education movements like te kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa Māori, kura ā-iwi and wānanga were developed by Māori, as Māori solutions for Māori futures.

The opening of Te Kura o Hoani Waititi in 1985. On the verandah are (left to right) educationalist John Bennett, prime minister David Lange, marae founder Dr Pita Sharples, Lady Reeves, and governor-general Sir Paul Reeves (Photo: Archives NZ/Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga, AAMK W3495 2/f)

Te Aho Matua: A philosophical foundation

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi was the first kura kaupapa Māori, established in 1985. Since then, over 60 kura kaupapa Māori have been established around the country. 

I believe that Kura Kaupapa Māori Aho Matua should be the main schooling option for tamariki Māori, as it provides a space that is totally dedicated to that tamaiti and growing the limitless potential within them,” says Wright. 

Te Aho Matua is the foundational philosophy of kura kaupapa Māori, which was legislated through the Education (Te Aho Matua) Amendment Act 1999. Kura kaupapa Māori are state-funded schools that follow the curriculum for Māori-medium teaching, learning and assessment, Te Marautanga o Aotearoa. 

 “Te Aho Matua offers an authentic indigenous framework on growing intergenerational strength, leadership and breaking cycles of intergenerational trauma,” says Wright. “It highlights the importance of a framework that isn’t measured by western constructs of academic excellence, but instead looks to grow and empower tamariki so they are able to determine their own excellence. That isn’t something that is predefined, but is guided and supported by core Māori values. If we get that right then we know that no matter what they choose, they will grow to be raukura for their people.” 

Te Aho Matua is what makes kura kaupapa Māori fundamentally different to mainstream schools, where students are immersed entirely in te reo Māori and enveloped in a value-based educational system that encompasses the whānau unit.

“Similar to the passive resistance movement in Parihaka, Ngā Tama Toa, Te Reo Māori Society, kōhanga reo and many others, kura kaupapa Māori is a tauranga ātete, or a site of resistance against those institutions of state. For me, it’s not even about the Māori-medium versus total-immersion distinctions. That’s just a distraction,” says Wright. 

In 2010 the government introduced national standards at primary level, resulting in a drop in literacy and numeracy among the target age group. It has since been scrapped, much to the relief of teachers and students across both kura kaupapa Māori and non-Māori sectors, who continue to oppose the Crown imposing its own educational structures upon kura kaupapa Māori. 

Photo: RNZ/Meriana Johnsen

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Kura kaupapa Māori success 

A 2021 report by the Education Review Office, Te Kura Huanui, confirmed what kura kaupapa advocates have been saying for decades: that tamariki excel in this education system, primarily because of the focus on the child being immersed in their culture.

“This communal approach to education could be best explained through the concept of a village raising a child, but for us it was the village raising the village,” says Wright.

“Home was like school and school was like home. There wasn’t a huge distinction as our community did everything together, which developed a strong sense of whānau and kaupapa,” says Wright. 

Kura kaupapa Māori are also driving up the level of proficiency in te reo and the number of scholarships awarded for te reo, which more than tripled over the last decade.

Despite the proven track record, inequity remains in funding, infrastructure, workforce and resources, and late last year Te Rūnanga Nui o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori lodged an urgent claim, WAI 1718, with the Waitangi Tribunal, calling for the government to equitably fund Te Aho Matua, and to create a standalone Māori education authority. 

Te Rūnanga Nui o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori claim

Lead claimant Dr Cathy Dewes is a founding member of the movement and started Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ruamata in 1987.  

“This is about the right of tamariki Māori to grow and develop as Māori through a kaupapa Māori schooling option,” she says. 

The claim is a result of over 30 years of Crown failures to actively protect and strengthen tamariki who attend Kura Kaupapa Māori Aho Matua, while intentionally undermining Te Rūnanga Nui in the process, claimants say. 

“This has manifested in surreptitious legislative manoeuvring, intentional policy barriers, inequitable funding, abuses of power, property and building disparities, misuse of data, predefined terms as well as a lack of inclusion or consideration in kaupapa Māori education solutions or directions,” says Te Wehi Wright. 

The claim comes off the back of a 2019 report, Our Schooling Futures, commissioned by minister for education Chris Hipkins, which recommended that an autonomous governance body be formed to support the educational organisations currently recognised as kaupapa Māori.

This is what kura kaupapa Māori, and other kaupapa Māori education providers, are calling for in their claim.  

“There is no rangatiratanga in a process that is totally controlled and determined by the Crown, and kura kaupapa Māori are not willing to wager the future of our tamariki on another review that looks to ensure the institutions of state remain only with the Crown,” says Wright. 

In the last week, there has been some progress in moving the claim forward. Te Rūnanga Nui have agreed to enter into mediation as “an expression of good faith towards the Crown”, Dewes said in a statement.

She added that they hoped mediation would “bring about a remedy more swiftly than an urgent Waitangi Tribunal process”.

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngā Mokopuna students play a board game at parliament as associate education minister Kelvin Davis looks on (Photo: RNZ/Meriana Johnsen)

The Crown

The associate minister of education (Māori education) Kelvin Davis has ruled out the option of an independent authority, and is conducting a review process with an independent group called Te Pae Roa that will inform the introduction of new legislation next year, which he says will restructure and reshape Māori-medium education for the better. Davis has said there would be a parallel pathway for kaupapa Māori education in his strategy, but Te Rūnanga Nui aren’t down with it, and they’re not alone.

Te Matakāhuki is a coalition made up of Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, Ngā Kura-ā-Iwi, Te Tauihu o Ngā Wānanga and Te Rūnanga Nui o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori. Four positions were set aside for these rōpū on Te Pae Roa, which they declined. 

“What’s really at issue here is the constant desire of the Crown to demand control over and to regulate or manage the affairs of Māori so that the state can maintain its power. Here we’re talking about education, but we see it in health, justice, child welfare, the access to and use of natural resources as well. We as Māori just need to be awake to it,” says Wright. 

In conjunction to the claim by Te Rūnanga Nui, is the WAI 3072 claim by the Te Arawa Education Taskforce who largely represent Kura-ā-Iwi and Te Arawa rangatahi  have been failed by mainstream schools. 

This paints a wider picture of perspectives and experiences within Māori communities that Māori-medium education in mainstream schools isn’t serving Māori. 

“I believe that what we’re seeing is a stance that has been maintained by successive governments for over 206 years, over a range of issues that speak to the heart of colonisation, otherwise known as the institutions of state, such as the church, the education system, parliament, media and militia,” says Wright. 

Te Pae Roa has this month released the findings from its first review, in which it recommends that Davis, as the current agent acting on behalf of the Crown, present a formal apology to kaupapa Māori education providers for failing to provide adequate support over the last 35 years. 

The report highlights that, “the education system and successive governments have made decisions that have negatively impacted both kaupapa Māori education and te reo. The consequences of those decisions are still impacting whānau today.”

There are recommendations for new legislation to reshape policy that kaupapa Māori education providers currently feel constrained by, and to facilitate better pathways for whānau Māori to engage in kaupapa Māori education. 

The Te Pae Roa report states that, “We are aware that the minister has ruled out the option of an independent authority – and Te Pae Roa has no comment to make on this position.”

In a statement, Davis told The Spinoff he had received the report from Te Pae Roa. “I am working through the next stages in this work programme, and cabinet is yet to consider the report and the next steps. It will do so in the coming months.”

Davis said he was “committed to a revamp of the Māori-medium and kaupapa Māori pathways programme that will reconnect more Māori tamariki with their language and culture” and was “keen to work with Māori to support this”.

At the heart of the issue is a battle for control, where kura kaupapa Māori want to retain autonomy over Te Aho Matua, essentially to continue building upon their own community-made models of success, with equitable resourcing and the ability to grow and flourish further without Crown intervention. 

For Te Wehi Wright, kura kaupapa Māori is a way of life that highlights the very best of what it means to be Māori. The graduates are engaged in their communities, and are an example of what happens to a person when they are absolutely loved, cared for and developed by everyone around them.

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