Māori education – going forwards, backwards or standing still?

Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, University of Waikato

This is the final post in a four-part series. The earlier posts are available here (post 1), here (post 2) and here (post 3).

In previous blogs I’ve discussed Māori education achievements, the education system and then asked some system type questions we could ask if we had the organisational infrastructure to do so. Here I will give quick snapshots of issues across a number of categories that are causing concern for many Māori. In the course of one day I get lots of critiques of some aspect of education and I have listed some of those here. The New Zealand education system still produces inequality for Māori and for Pacific Peoples. That inequality is produced and reproduced across the whole system. Successful initiatives for Māori are always pitted against other options that reinforce the inequality, for example choosing Māori language or another key subject the student also needs, choosing a small Kaupapa Māori school across town or a large school with more curriculum options down the road.

Tertiary sector

The University system – going backwards. Why? Because it isn’t going forward. Compared to the energy of Australian and Canadian Universities in their push for indigenisation and reconciliation for example, our system has stalled. There has been no investment in appointing more Māori staff across subject areas, rather the word is that more Māori are being made redundant or are leaving the system. Building flash marae is not the same as building sustainable capability in the core areas of teaching and research. The internationalisation agenda for academic appointments pits Māori and New Zealand research expertise against ‘international’ appointments who know little about New Zealand. Also, an active forgetting of the Treaty of Waitangi responsibilities of each University, they have become too comfortable and think they’ve “nailed it” in some horrid tick the box approach to the Treaty. They also lack innovation and cannot respond to Māori curriculum needs.

The Polytechnic system – going under. Why? The tertiary funding model clearly doesn’t work equitably for Universities who are the best at grabbing funding, polytechnics or Wānanga. Easy to blame governance and management but there is something structurally wrong. Despite calls for technical and professional skills across key infrastructure sectors of New Zealand, the polytechnic and ITO systems are at risk. Some programmes are essential for New Zealand but may be losers in terms of the funding models. International education may be subsidising the system but in doing so, diverts key focus away from core skills that should be developed for a New Zealand workforce. The Māori workforce in the polytechnic system is also as vulnerable as those in the University system.

The Wānanga system – standing still. Why? Some of the same structural issues as polytechnics and the added dimension of ‘status envy’ by Universities and some Polytechnics. Would it be true, for example, that a University or Universities have written letters to organisations, say in China, to warn them that Wānanga are not real Universities? Or that they have moaned about the use of the term Indigenous-university? Is it still the fact that the funding of an EFT (equivalent full-time student unit) for the same or similar qualification programme is not equal across Universities, polytechnics and Wānanga? Is there hyper surveillance of the Wānanga by TEC and NZQA?

Compulsory schooling

NCEA – upside down. Why? Too complicated for anyone other than experienced secondary school teachers and NZQA people. An over assessment mentality that has produced a generation of young people who have academic anxiety concerns and teachers who have forgotten the joy of teaching. A manipulation within schools of NCEA 2 through subtle and not so subtle management of students who may not be seen as achieving the Level. A confusion around unit standards and NCEA. Too many suspensions of Māori and Pacific students. Still too many community concerns about racism and tokenism.

New Zealand National Curriculum Guidelines – standing still. Why? Guidelines fine, but rely on teachers to develop and deliver appropriate curricula. The core curriculum is stale and most subjects are out of date as curriculum ‘subjects’. Stymied by a lethargy around creating new curricula and proding transdisciplinary ares of study, lack of genuine engagement with mātauranga, teaching the status quo units of work even when they don’t work, failure to address the basics of literacy and numeracy, including critical literacy and real life numeracy. No attention to economic aspirations for Māori and still no teaching of Māori or NZ history.

Governance and Boards of Trustees – standing still. Why? Too many conventional Boards in areas where Māori are a minority are generally hopeless in addressing Māori aspirations and concerns and they lack access to a reliable set of practices, approaches and resources that can assist them. When a community does manage to get Māori on to Boards, they are often hamstrung from leading change through the division of ‘operational’ vs ‘governance’ duties. School Management may or may not have a sufficient level of competency to support Māori student success, yet must lead these changes within schools. In some schools they make the 1970s look good. The on-going use of Commissioners when things go wrong is not the best way to invest in the capability of communities to govern their schools.

Initial teacher education

Initial teacher education – Going in circles! Why? Firstly we have too many teachers and next we have a shortage of teachers. Is there a retention and progression problem? If so, why? Maybe it’s really horrible being a teacher. Then we have a Bachelors degree qualification for teaching and then we have a post-graduate qualification. Then we have a shortage of secondary teachers in particular subject areas like science. Perhaps we should be training transdisciplinary teachers because at tertiary level the multi-disciplinary and transdisciplinary skills are vitally important. And then, we still produce teachers who cannot pronounce the names of our children, are ignorant of New Zealand history and, in some cases, continue to perpetuate racist practices in classrooms.

Early childhood education

Early childhood – going to pieces. Why? Big difference between the moral high-ground taken by early childhood and how it works in practice across New Zealand. This is a very privatised sector. The one group in society who need the best on offer in early childhood, such as parents who are poor or who are the working poor still can’t afford early childhood, and do not get access to important parent education programmes alongside what their children are experiencing. A big disconnect between the kinds of programmes available and the kinds of lives parents with young children live. Rumours of warehousing models for young children.


As I said in my previous blog we also see the inspiring and innovative elements of what happens in Māori education. There is also variability across and within our system. However, some things look innovative simply because they stand out from the humdrum of same old same old. And, some things look inspiring because success is inspiring if you come from communities who do not see or experience success everyday. Every day a Māori student should experience educational success. That does not happen to every Māori learner. 

This post was originally published at Te Puna Kōrero, a new blogging platform focused on Māori perspectives on issues past, present and future. The post is reproduced here by permission. 

linda-tuhiwai-smith.jpgLinda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa) is Professor of Education and Māori Development and Pro-Vice Chancellor Māori at the University of Waikato. She is a Fellow of the American Association for Research in Education and the Royal Society of New Zealand | Te Apārangi, and a life member of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education. Professor Smith was made a Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit in 2013 for her services to Māori and education.


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