A century of desire – How our Education Ministry can boldly and bravely go where they have not gone before!

Dr Mere Skerrett, Victoria University of Wellington

As people, children, parents, grandparents, researchers, teachers, politicians, I am sure we all share some common desires and aspirations. We all hope to make our mark on the world and to have what it is that we stand for taken seriously. Those of us privileged to be able to reflect, review, explore, and write about these matters want to be assured that whatever it is that we write about is taken notice of; we want it to count for something, somewhere, someplace. To that end, all manner of stakeholders in the education system showed up ‘en masse’ (and I mean ‘en masse’ – 800 strong) over the past weekend to the first Education Summit 2018 in Ōtautahi, Te Waipounamu. We trusted in the process of consultation and also continue to trust in what will come out of the Summit. We have not had such a Summit in Aotearoa NZ for over 80 years; it was long overdue. We came together to co-design the much needed paradigm shift in education; to co-construct our tomorrows, our shared visions, our dreams and our futures. That is the stuff of transformation.

The legacy of our history

Whilst many of us came away from the Summit totally committed to the process, and therefore to what comes out of it, it is a truism that the forces that shaped previous centuries’ forms of ‘schooling’ and ‘education’ in this country continue to shape the destinies of humankind in this 21st century. So one disappointing moment was when the Minister of Education, The Honourable Chris Hipkins, drew on the on a sexist, dated and somewhat dangerous 1938 quote written by Clarence Beeby (for the then Labour Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, and often referred to as the ‘Beeby dictum’) that:

“… every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.”
(emphasis added)

Beeby cemented the enforcement of this philosophy with a “free, secular, and compulsory” directive for public education provision. It doesn’t take much to scratch below the surface and see the problems with this legacy:

  • The “free” that permeated the education system involved regulatory state-bureaucratization of education. As a result of this approach, education has now become very costly – especially within the early childhood sector, kōhanga reo and at tertiary level – making it prohibitive because of cost for many across the whole sector.
  • Public education was also never really “free” when you consider the costs of language loss, of identity disruption, of cultural fragmentation, which for Māori were so high.
  • The “secular” came with the augmented racist power elites and proto-elites.
  • And the “compulsory” came with the nation-state polity, Western culture, and what is arguably one of the biggest exports out of Europe in the expansionism of the British Empire: the English language.

So, as mentioned, all this institutionalisation came at great cost to Māori children growing up in the ‘state system’. As I have argued elsewhere:

“When you analyze it, the much revered and celebrated Beeby dictum was not far from the 1848 mantra of the evangelicals and their godly ordered world reflected in the third verse of the Anglican hymn [which endorsed the Georgian hierarchical system], All things Bright and Beautiful. The line ‘The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate,’ is a particularly poignant piece of propaganda.”

The British school system (with its hierarchical class structure) which was under the control of the clergy in the 19th century was imported to Aotearoa for the education of Māori children. Māori had to ‘gratefully’ undergo assimilation; the “ordering of their estate” pushed many Māori into landlessness, so that Beeby’s words “for which he is best fitted” became the influential by-product of the new social order. For many Māori, being “fitted” meant little more than giving up their identities, their language, and their culture in the lure of some sort of social mobility, econo-political power and a good life. Well, those promised benefits haven’t happened. Rather, it is well established that many Māori struggle to belong and find a place in the current ‘racist’ system – both within schooling specifically (see here and here) and within society more broadly (see here, here and here).

The Honourable Chris Hipkins would therefore be well advised to drop the outdated and problematic Beeby quote and the associated ideologies, especially if we are to dream a new dream and start again from a different position than that adopted last century (which we believe to be the primary goal of the 2018 Education Summits).

Forging new ways

To look at better ways forward, let’s start with the findings of the Education matters to me: Key insights series of reports (co-published by the NZ Children’s Commissioner and the NZ School Trustees Association) and take real steps to eradicate racism in our schools. Some of the insights from the students who contributed their experiences to those reports highlight the importance of:

  • understanding and ‘valuing’ the whole child (complete with their identities and home life experiences);
  • knowing that relationships are at the heart of every teacher/learner encounter;
  • teaching from a positive perspective;
  • teaching in the knowledge that the set-up of the environment contributes to the comfort, happiness and wellbeing of children;
  • and finally, listening to the voices of our tamariki/mokopuna and taitamariki. They are not empty vessels.

I have to say, I was also a little perplexed that, within the recent Education Summit event, the status of Te Tiriti o Waitangi was relegated to an ‘optional value’ as part of a popularity contest where participants selected from a range of values bubbles to indicate what they felt should be used to guide the future of education in Aotearoa NZ. It is clear that Te Tiriti is not a value; Te Tiriti is not a metaphor; Te Tiriti is not going to go away (see here, here and here). Instead, Te Tiriti is overarching and must underpin everything in education. That message, too, was made abundantly clear by Summit participants.

The key idea, then, as we envisage the future of education in Aotearoa NZ is that we need to be able to co-construct a new way forward from a starting base that is significantly different to the bases we have worked from in the past! And if there is a genuine desire to make it all work, then it must be understood that, as was reiterated in the Summit over and over again, the languages we use are critical. They matter – all of them. Our Māori language matters. It is the language that comes out of this land. It is official. As Dr Eruera Tarena stated during the Summit,

“Māori language is what makes Māori more Māori. Māori language is what makes Pākehā more Pākehā”.

Our languages are aligned, and make us who we are. So the summit came together to co-design a system that has the versatility, flexibility, and adaptability needed to fit all of our children.

We have all heard of the saying “you cannot fit a square peg into a round hole”. Schools can be a bit of a “round hole” for our tamariki – a deep large black hole that can be harmful. We also know that we have a broken system that rests on the broken promises of the past. But we also know that this past weekend our Minister Chris Hipkins and his various officials, were bold enough, brave enough, trusting enough and risky enough to engage in a summit process that was about co-designing our future pathways with thoughtfulness, and with the genuine desire to co-create anew whilst rising to the challenge of taking our education system to places it has never been before. So we await the outcome of the second Summit to be held in Tamaki Makaurau next weekend. We applaud and commit to the idea of continuing the dialogue for the sake of every child that will grow up as a New Zealander in Aotearoa in this bold and brave new design, and we call for a new approach that rejects the damaging ideologies of the past, but instead enacts the genuine partnerships, active protections and equitable participation promised to Māori in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.


In addition to the two Education Summit hui, all New Zealanders are invited to contribute to #EdConvo18 – a national consultation about the future of education in Aotearoa NZ. Visit https://conversation.education.govt.nz/ to learn more and share your views before consultation ends on 31 May 2018. “Because education belongs to, and is about, all of us … and because second-best isn’t good enough for our kids. Or for New Zealand.”


mere-skerrett.jpgDr Mere Skerrett (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Rakiāmoa, Ngāti Ruahikihiki, Ngāti Māhuta, Ngāti Unu, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Te Rangiunuora, Ngāti Pūkeko) is a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington and the Vice President of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE). She has a background in early childhood teaching, with a focus on Kōhanga Reo. Her research interests include bilingual education, language development, equity issues, Māori education and Māori politics.

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