New Zealand Must Fight the New Curriculum
This article is rather long but then we are talking about the education of future New Zealanders and there is much to be said. The refreshed national curriculum concerns the education of millions of students over future decades and will impose costs of several billion dollars to New Zealand taxpayers. Readers for whom this piece is excessively lengthy can use the headings to go directly to sections of particular interest.
The Proposed Refresh is Unfair and Divisive
Recently, I wrote two articles about the current refreshing of the New Zealand Curriculum "Te Mātaiaho", expressing concerns about the heavily Treaty-centric nature of the proposed national curriculum, the embedding of traditional knowledge across the curriculum (Lillis, 2022a and 2022b) and that the new curriculum will be imposed on all students and not only Māori. I repeat the main objections:
1. Traditional knowledge is to be embedded across the curriculum
2. Traditional knowledge is to be accorded equal status to modern science and possibly taught as science
3. The curriculum is being used as a political tool to elevate the status of one ethnic and cultural group at the expense of all others.
In my opinion the situation today is very dangerous for education and hence this third and rather long article. We recognise ongoing inequities for Māori and others and that ways must be found to enhance learning and lift the performance of all disadvantaged groups. We recognise that Māori inhabited the islands of New Zealand before others. We agree that a special place should be made for Te Reo and matauranga Māori in our history, our education and our culture. However, the proposed curriculum goes much too far in configuring an entire national curriculum around one minority language and world-view, to the detriment of education and to the disadvantage of most students in New Zealand. At a time of transfer of power to a new Prime Minister (Chris Hipkins) who formerly was Minister of Education, New Zealand now has the opportunity to halt the refresh or else to re-direct it substantially.
This article addresses several issues, including a very revealing interview given by three leading proponents of the new curriculum and particular statements that are to be found in the Ministry of Education document, Te Mātaiaho Draft for Feedback (Ministry of Education, 2022a).
I estimate that, over the decade from 2026, when the curriculum finally comes into force, a minimum of 1,536,000 New Zealand students will have experienced the curriculum, the vast majority non-Māori. Some 2,263,000 New Zealand students will have experienced the curriculum over 20 years, at a minimum (later in this article I explain my method of estimation). We have duty of care, to all of those future students, to ensure that we do not force a brand of education on them that works to their disadvantage.
Traditional knowledge has contributed much to humankind over millennia and matauranga Māori still has much to offer to this day. However, an unavoidable consequence of the new curriculum will be the effect, on each and every student, of substituting teaching and learning time on material relevant to life in 2023 and beyond, with instruction in how to live in a small, isolated kin-related, pre-contact community, and that incorporates beliefs based partly on myths, legends and superstition.
A Suggestion for the Ministry of Education
Here is a suggested mission statement for the Ministry of Education’s curriculum refresh:
Deliver a relevant curriculum that indeed nurtures Te Reo and teaches matauranga Māori, but not at the expense of critical skills and learning; that teaches elements of the languages and world-views of all immigrant communities; that recognises the diverse needs of all students of all backgrounds equally, and that retains a clear distinction between science as the most widely-accepted and overarching approach to generating knowledge yet devised by humans and the traditional knowledge of groups of people across different parts of the world.
Having said that a special place should indeed be made for Te Reo and matauranga Māori in our history, our education and our culture, as proposed the refreshed curriculum does not yet meet criteria that the tax-paying public of New Zealand might expect regarding the extent of enforced exposure of schoolchildren to a minority language and traditional knowledge, the status and needs of students other than Māori, and in recognizing the very clear differences between traditional knowledge and world science.
In particular, infusing school science with traditional knowledge could lead to the emergence of non-viable hybrids of the modern physical and biomedical sciences, such as quantum mechanics with spiritual values. The best hope for New Zealand’s future is as part of an advanced, science-based, world-wide culture, based on a more “equalitarian” economic system. Many Māori cultural practices, such as communal living, and family support and respect for the environment, would fit well with such a system. However, forcing everyone else to accept traditional world views and the customs of AD 1750, and possibly governance from one ethnic group, would be disastrous. Rightly or wrongly, the proposed curriculum changes are perceived by some as the first step in such a project.
How the proposed changes would enhance any hope of improvement in the life prospects of Māori is unclear. The problems of most underperforming are primarily socioeconomic, including poverty, poor housing and poor health, perhaps the world-wide outcome of neo-liberal, market rules economies. Possibly, this is the level where reform is most needed.
We remember the motto of the Royal Society - Nullius in verba - which translates as “Take nobody’s word for it.” As such, the motto excludes traditional knowledge as science until it has been tested through the methods of science and shown to be valid. Perhaps within our refreshed national curriculum this notion should constitute a demarcation between the two domains.
Inconsistencies in the Refreshed Curriculum
We are told that the New Zealand’s histories content needs to be taught from the beginning of 2023, but that schools will have until the beginning of 2026 to work towards implementation of the remainder of the refreshed curriculum. I understand that the curriculum will govern, or will at least provide continuity for, education from years 0 to 3, up to years 11 to 13 (see page 14 of the Draft).
However, on page 11 we read:
The intention of the ‘calls to action’ is to give effect to the purpose statement for Te Mātaiaho and the key shifts and actions that will honour Te Tiriti and ensure an inclusive curriculum that is clear and easy to use. These are the actions for those in the education system who have the responsibility of driving the key shifts needed to ensure that equity and inclusivity for all ākonga are a priority. These shifts, therefore, aim to transform the inequities and experiences of schooling and education for Māori learners and their whānau. Their intent is to provide the basis for a more inclusive and diverse approach to curriculum design and delivery, to ensure all ākonga are present, participating, and enjoying success.
Are the key shifts and actions intended to honour the Treaty of Waitangi first and only then ensure an inclusive curriculum? We hope not, though it is pleasing to see that the Ministry aims at clarity and ease of use. We recognise that much is yet to be done to enhance the achievement of Māori and others in education but one critical sentence in the above extract tells us that the proposed shifts aim to transform the inequities and experiences of schooling and education for Māori learners and their whānau. Is this a statement of inclusivity and equity for all students, irrespective of cultural, ethnic or religious background or country of origin? Where are Asian, Pacific, North African, Middle-Eastern and other recent immigrant communities mentioned specifically? Such students outnumber Māori students by a factor of about two-and-a-half, and the final sentence only partly repairs the omission.
On page 12 we read:
For ākonga to succeed, we need a curriculum centred around positive and inclusive relationships, connectedness, and a sense of belonging for all ākonga. This curriculum draws on local as well as broader knowledge and histories, contributes positively to wellbeing and success, and has the potential to address inequities for many ākonga. It also fits the strengths and interests of each ākonga and gives access to knowledge and resources that build on their educational, social, political, economic, and cultural capital.
This statement reads well and is one with which we can agree in principle but there remains debate as to how to engender a sense of belonging and address inequities. We can agree with the notion of a national curriculum that is centred on positive and inclusive relationships and a sense of belonging for all students. However, does a matauranga Māori-based curriculum fit the strengths and interests of every student and give access to knowledge and resources that build on their educational, social, political, economic and cultural capital? Although the entire complement of New Zealand students are referred to many times in the draft, nevertheless much of the text and many of the descriptors of the draft curriculum speak to one group only.
In tandem with the refresh of the curriculum, the National Certificates of Education Achievement (NCEA) are undergoing a change programme (Ministry of Education, 2023a). My personal belief is that most of the proposed changes are positive and deserve to be supported; for example: making NCEA more accessible, simplifying the structure of NCEA, devising clearer pathways to further education or work and strengthening literacy and numeracy requirements and assessments. However, another change is to introduce: “Equal status for mātauranga Māori.” On the relevant webpage it is not specified as to exactly what mātauranga Māori is to be made equal, but we are told:
All of these changes will honour our past, and our obligations to Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
It is not clear how most of the proposed changes will either honour our past or our obligations to the Treaty of Waitangi and we are not informed as to what exactly comprises our obligations to the Treaty.
A Troubling Media Article
One particular article that appeared in the online media last year made many people feel greatly concerned (Jones, 2022). In that article, Scott Haines, principal at Nelson’s Waimea College, said that the reforms, currently being rolled out at secondary schools through Government’s National Curriculum Refresh and NCEA Change Programme, represents the most significant change to the curriculum in twenty years. So far, so good, and he also makes valid points about various aspects of the education system and student performance. However, he also stated the following:
Māturanga Māori would have equal weighting to the traditional world-view in all subjects.
Many teachers across the country needed to upskill to a significant degree, having not learnt the Māturanga Māori content in teacher training.
I and many others find this situation to be deeply troubling for education, especially for the education of non-Māori. The proposed curriculum is not only unfair on them but also unfair on teachers and schools. In addition, embedding Te Reo and matauranga Māori will impose very significant costs on the New Zealand taxpayer.
Interview with Three Proponents of the Refreshed Curriculum
The interviewees are Mera Penehira (Head of the School of Indigenous Graduate Studies at Awanuiarangi), Vaughan Bidois (Executive Director Academic at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi) and Graham Smith (CEO and Vice-Chancellor at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi). This brief interview is available on the Ministry of Education website (Ministry of Education, 2022b).
As a rule, I am comfortable about providing only constructive, or at least well-intended, criticism of policies or institutions but refrain from criticism of people. However, I feel that in the case of the proposed curriculum refresh, I must depart from my own rule because the consequences of allowing the refresh to proceed unabated are highly pernicious. In this video, Mera Penehira asserts that Māori underperformance in education is a reflection of the curriculum and that instead we need a curriculum that wipes out inequities in education outcomes for Māori and Pacific people.
She goes on to say that we need a curriculum that works with whanau, hapu and iwi, that meets the aspirations of whanau, hapu and iwi, and that ensures that our kids excel as Māori, in Te Reo Māori and in Te Reo Pakeha hoki. Here she appears to talk of Māori students only. What of non-Māori students? Else, does she expect all kids to excel in Te Reo Māori and Te Reo Pakeha hoki? What does she mean by “excel as Māori” and is it the purpose of a curriculum to ensure success across the board and, if so, how?
As a researcher and expert in education, Mera Penehira should know that underperformance of minorities or any demographic group in education usually results from a mix of factors, of which in the case of New Zealand the design of the present curriculum is a possible factor but most probably is relatively insignificant. Though bias in the past has led to certain inequities today, not every disparity reflects racial or other systemic bias in the present, and most probably this is true for our current curriculum. Why should our national curriculum be wrong for only one or two demographic groups? In my view Mera Penehira’s assertion here is highly misleading. Though she talks about all students, most of her text pertains to Māori, suggesting an agenda that is about special treatment of one self-identifying ethnic group, when others also experience poor outcomes.
Mera Penehira’s perspective ignores evidence. Much research into educational performance and, indeed, underperformance, across many countries has demonstrated that disparities in educational outcomes are associated very strongly with socioeconomic inequality, and that when socioeconomic factors (e.g. low income, unemployment and job insecurity, poor housing and greater likelihood of household overcrowding, low levels of parental education, greater prevalence of single-parent households, reduced access to educational resources, greater likelihood of family discord) are considered, ethnicity becomes relatively minor as a factor. This finding has been demonstrated specifically for Māori (e.g. Marie et. al, 2008).
. . . those of Māori ethnic identification were exposed to significantly greater levels of socio-economic disadvantage in childhood. Control for socio-economic factors largely reduced the associations between cultural identity and educational outcomes to statistical non-significance. The findings suggest that educational underachievement amongst Māori can be largely explained by disparities in socio-economic status during childhood. (Marie et. al, 2008).
Mera Penehira should be aware of that particular research study and other similar studies. If she has reviewed such research, then she would know that it is wrong to ascribe blame for underperformance of any demographic group on the current national curriculum, or at least to ascribe blame primarily on that curriculum.
Vaughan Bidois tells us that the intent of the curriculum is about transformation, about enacting Te Tiriti and making a difference for our mokopuna (grandchildren or great-nephews or great-nieces etc). What about non-Māori students? He asserts that without Te Tiriti we cannot “get there.” On what basis does he make this claim? What does he mean by “getting there”? Does he mean the destination of first-class education and equality of opportunity for all students, or is he referring to a destination where the status and world-view of one group are accommodated preferentially, at the expense of others?
I believe that we are seeing very dangerous political maneuvering here, as we are when Graham Smith asserts that through the curriculum refresh we have a game-changer and that the timing is right in terms of what is happening in society generally. Is he referring here to the emergence of greater social and environmental awareness today (a very positive development in the modern age) or is he in fact referring to co-governance initiatives and elevation of the status of one group? He says that we now seek new ways of bringing people together. Graham Smith’s discourse sounds very plausible but does not convince. How will the new curriculum bring people together when, despite claims that it is intended for all students, clearly the curriculum is configured to enhance the status and world-view of one ethnicity? He says that we must be more focused on what holds us together, rather than on what divides us. This is a very beautiful notion but are we to realize it through a matauranga Māori-based curriculum and by forcing all students, regardless of ethnic, religious and cultural background and regardless of language of origin, to spend very significant class time on Te Reo throughout most or all of compulsory education and possibly beyond?
How much class time is to be devoted to Te Reo is not yet clear. However, the stated policy of the Māori Party is to ensure that Te Reo Māori and Māori History are core curriculum subjects up to Year 10 at secondary schools and that all primary schools incorporate Te Reo Māori within 25% of their curriculum by 2026 and 50% by 2030 (Māori Party, 2023). The proposed curriculum may or may not go to the extent demanded by the Māori Party, but such a level of incorporation for all students lies well beyond that required to preserve the language.
Politicization of the National Curriculum
Budget 2022 provided additional operating investment of $1.66 billion and capital investment of $815 million over four years for Vote Education, which included $64.65 million in operating funding to support provision and growth of Te Reo Māori, including a boost to Māori Language Programme Funding going directly to schools and kura operating at the highest levels of immersion. Another $5 million is to go towards supporting the workforce Iwi Māori scholarships. Some $7.7 million is to be disbursed to expand Check & Connect: Te Hononga and Te Mana Tikitiki, which provides targeted and intensive supports for Māori and Pacific learners at risk of disengaging, using kaupapa Māori and bicultural evidence-based approaches. Another $105 million will be provided for Māori medium and Kaupapa Māori school property (Ministry of Education, 2022c). This is a substantial taxpayer investment in Te Reo and education of Māori (and justified, in my view) but perhaps not enough for Mera Penehira and others.
I am not qualified to judge the costs and benefits of such investments. Possibly they are indeed insufficient and in reality further investment and greater activity are required to preserve and further develop Te Reo and enhance the learning and success of Māori students. However, is a traditional knowledge-based education, forced on everyone, the most desirable and equitable approach to achieving these objectives?
If proponents of the refreshed curriculum spoke less of one group and more about the needs of all New Zealand students and did not engage in the pretense that a curriculum that is based on one cultural world-view will bring people together, they would invoke greater credibility. Further, if the intent of the three interviewees and others were simply to enhance the welfare and academic achievement of Māori and to enlarge the profile of, and respect for, Te Reo and matauranga Māori, then those aims would be most desirable and would engender greater support. Unfortunately, as I see it, their intent is to force both Te Reo and matauranga Māori on everyone into the far-off future, possibly as part of a wider initiative to achieve co-governance and greater political and economic power. In my opinion, their purpose, to win a game of politics at the expense of the majority of New Zealanders, is morally wrong and they know it. So, quite frankly, does the Ministry of Education.
All good policy is based on evidence, rather than ideology, and no compelling evidence has been advanced that supports the placing of traditional knowledge at the core of a national curriculum that will govern the teaching and learning of millions of students, teachers and other educators (we have approximately 150,000 registered and certificated teachers in New Zealand in early childhood, primary and secondary schooling and in English and Māori medium settings - Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand, 2023), and about 2,500 schools, over several decades. The fact that these people are themselves Māori does not in any way absolve them of their responsibilities towards the entire complement of New Zealand students, irrespective of ethnicity, or for misleading the New Zealand public on the reasons for underperformance of particular groups, or for further misleading the public to the effect that a matauranga Māori-embracing curriculum is desirable for everyone.
I repeat what I wrote in a previous article - that it is not the purpose of a national curriculum to support political change outside the sphere of education. Neither is it the function of a national curriculum to advance purely political dimensions of a nation’s constitution or even to ensure equality of outcomes. Instead, the objectives of a national curriculum should be to provide for equality of access and opportunity to education and to give life to education of the best possible quality that enables all students to learn and succeed within the scope of their abilities.
How Many Students will Undergo the New Curriculum?
Here I suggest numbers of New Zealand children who will experience the proposed curriculum and I give some detail in case others wish to calculate the numbers independently. I have adopted a relatively simple analysis (admittedly, very approximate) that should be easy to follow and others may adopt more sophisticated approaches. An explanation of my calculations is given in the appendix to this article.
To summarize: over the decade from 2026, a minimum of 1,536,000 New Zealand students will have experienced the curriculum. If the percentage of citizens self-identifying as Māori remains at approximately 16.5%, then the number of non-Māori students required to learn Te Reo and absorb matauranga Māori over ten years will be at least 1,282,600.
Approximately 2,263,000 New Zealand students will have experienced the curriculum over 20 years, at a minimum. If the percentage of citizens self-identifying as Māori remains at approximately 16.5%, then the number of non-Māori students required to learn Te Reo and absorb matauranga Māori over twenty years will be approximately 1,890,000, at a minimum.
In other words, over a period of two decades, on the basis of my conservative estimates, more than two and a quarter million children will undergo the matauranga Māori-based curriculum. This is a great number of affected children and thus we have duty of care to ensure that they are treated fairly within our education system. I suggest that a matauranga Māori-based curriculum is not fair on any of them, or indeed their families, their teachers or their schools which, of course, must train staff to achieve competence in Te Reo and matauranga Māori and provide the necessary resources.
Misleading the Public
New Zealanders are well aware of past oppression of Māori and what we might call “Pakeha supremacy”, and the nation has proved itself willing to admit that injustices were indeed committed, just as Māori and other minorities have benefitted in various ways from colonialism. However, I believe that these activists and others are willfully misleading the New Zealand public on the curriculum and indeed are using the curriculum to impose a minority world-view on all students and everyone else in New Zealand. The arrogance, greed and narcissism of those who wronged Māori historically are acknowledged, but those same qualities are evident in certain activists today and will impose long-term negative consequences on this country. Perhaps justifying their political activism partly on the basis of present-day inequities and partly on the basis of historic injustices, some activists wish to force all New Zealanders today into complying and to force every person, students especially, to not only accept and adopt a minority world-view and an education system configured largely around that minority, but indeed to engage actively in achieving these objectives and, furthermore, to hold ourselves to account in doing so.
Fundamentally, these people know that their agenda is unjustified and unfair on the majority of New Zealanders. Ministry of Education documents “call us to action” in order to achieve precisely those objectives (e.g. Refreshing the New Zealand Curriculum - Your Guide to the NZC Refresh). Surely, the Ministry must know that the intent of the refresh is quite wrong. We must now stand up to the activists and to a Ministry of Education that seems either willing to indulge them or else is too supine to stand up to them.
Purpose Statement for Mathematics and Statistics in the Refreshed New Zealand Curriculum
The document referred to above contains numerous assertions that have little or no basis in fact, as well as Te Reo terminology that makes it difficult to understand. For example, on page eight we are told that:
By learning Te Reo Māori, students are able to:
· participate with understanding and confidence in situations where te reo and tikanga Māori predominate
· integrate language and cultural understandings into their lives
· strengthen Aotearoa New Zealand’s identity in the world
· broaden their entrepreneurial and employment options to include work in an ever-increasing range of social, legal, educational, business, and professional settings.
Indeed, class time should be devoted to Te Reo and Tikanga Māori (Māori customary practices or behaviours) and both should be treasured and preserved but, past primary school as a matter of choice and never at the expense of literacy, numeracy and other critical learning. However, the statement above is inflated and is not a convincing justification. Given that only about 3.5% of New Zealanders speak Te Reo as their mother tongue (World Data.info, 2023 - though the Māori party claims only 3%), most New Zealanders experience very few, if any, environments where Te Reo and Tikanga Māori predominate. It is indeed highly desirable that students integrate language and cultural understandings into their lives but, in addition to Te Reo and matauranga Māori, various languages and cultural understandings that reflect New Zealand’s increasingly diverse population. Indeed, we agree that Te Reo and Tikanga Māori will strengthen New Zealand’s identity in the world. However, the assertion that Te Reo and Tikanga Māori will broaden students’ entrepreneurial and employment options to include work in an ever-increasing range of social, legal, educational, business and professional settings, is also greatly inflated, is presented without evidence, and is very unlikely to be true for the vast majority of students.
However, as a former teacher of mathematics and statistics, former tertiary lecturer in statistics and research methods and as a former professional statistician, I do believe that the overall design of the mathematics and statistics curriculum in relation to content and progress outcomes is robust. For many teachers and students, teaching and learning mathematics and statistics will not seem very different to teaching and learning those subjects in the past, apart from the presence and equal status of matauranga Māori. However, the Purpose Statement for Mathematics and Statistics in the New Zealand Curriculum includes the following claim:
Being numerate in Aotearoa New Zealand today relies upon understanding diverse cultural perspectives and privileging te ao Māori and Pacific world-views.
In my last article I expressed the view that this statement is patently a great exaggeration and that understanding diverse cultural perspectives is desirable for ethical reasons, but does not contribute much to being numerate. However, we note the use of the word “privileging”. Of course, as I said in my previous article, privileging te ao Māori and Pacific world-views has absolutely nothing to do with being numerate, but the message here is that proponents of the new curriculum may not be content with mere parity, but instead may be looking for something greater - privilege. Both te ao Māori and Pacific world-views are to be treasured and preserved for future generations, but is traditional knowledge to be considered, not only the equal of science, but in fact to exist beyond science in some way?
Today Māori already receive privileges that in some cases are not accorded to other groups to a similar extent. I have already written of the poor outcomes in education and, in particular, in the health of Pacific people where we see that Pacific people are even more disadvantaged than Māori on certain indices (Lillis, 2022c) but will not receive a dedicated health ministry within the foreseeable future, and most probably never will. Other policy interventions to support Māori include COVID response, business support, economic and employment initiatives and Māori health and wellbeing initiatives, the creation of the Māori Health Authority, grants aimed at encouraging Māori into tertiary education and financial support to help Māori landowners to build housing (Lillis, 2023b).
What is Driving the Refreshed Curriculum?
On page 11 of the Draft for Feedback we read under “Actions for school leaders”:
1. Leading kaiako to give effect to our obligations to Te Tiriti, through genuine actions and the intent to build a more inclusive, bicultural sense of nationhood
2. Leading kaiako to design local curriculum that includes content about Te Tiriti, covering local and national contexts and the significance of Te Tiriti in highlighting and responding to persistent inequities and disadvantages for Māori
3. Leading kaiako to incorporate te reo Māori and mātauranga Māori in the co-design of localised curriculum with whānau, hapū, and iwi
Again, we see that the proposed curriculum is primarily about one group and, of course, a bicultural nation. Here, we must remember that non-Māori/non-Pakeha people number two-and-a-half times the number of self-reporting Māori, and many of them also experience disadvantage. So do many Pakeha. Further, we have the phrase "obligations to Te Tiriti ", but it is never stated what this phrase is intended to mean. The Crown has obligations only to protect tangible property rights (Article 2) and make Māori subjects of the Crown (Article 3).
The new Histories Curriculum comes into force this year - 2023. I am no expert in Māori history or culture but here I attempt to understand some background behind the refresh and co-governance initiatives and I welcome feedback and possible correction of fact and opinion. Given the unavoidable, and often negative, history of conquest and colonialism, it seems that a key driver behind the present movement towards co-governance and the curriculum refresh is status or “mana”, a concept central to Māori culture. Pre-contact Māori culture was hierarchical and status was very important. Possibly, Māoritanga (Māori culture, traditions and way of life) and matauranga Māori (Māori practices and beliefs) defined much of Māori life. After 1840 Māoritanga and matauranga Māori were relegated behind European practices and culture. Previously, a Māori chief had wielded authority and supreme status within his tribal area, but after the Treaty was subject to “Euro-laws”, or British laws and courts. It is possible that the ultimate aim of some activist groups today is to return much control to Māori, though in what form and to what extent remains unclear.
On review of various literature, it seems that there was no unified Māori nation before 1840, but instead a number of competing and warring tribes. Today there is still no unified Māori voice (just as there is no single Pakeha voice, Asian voice or Pacific voice), but instead a collection of tribes, hapu (clan, tribe or kinship group) and activist groups, some of which may be behind the curriculum refresh. The infusion of Te Reo within radio, television and other media is seen to raise the status of Te Reo and giving public institutions Te Reo names has a similar purpose. Unfortunately, this movement could prove to be counter-productive, as we sense growing public discomfort.
English or Te Reo – Traditional Knowledge or Science?
English is a world language, spoken by approximately 1.5 billion people (Statista, 2023), by far more than any other language, including Mandarin. It is the predominant language of science and commerce, with an extensive literature. Though I am comfortable with the increasing use of Te Reo in the public sphere, for many people mingling English and Te Reo makes New Zealand look odd, and does not improve ease of communication. For many, saturating the curriculum with matauranga Māori, at the expense of knowledge that is more useful in the modern world, will leave our students disadvantaged, compared with those from other countries (and we already seem to be falling behind in key areas).
A vital element of education is literacy, which opens a person to the world of knowledge. Originally, Māori had no written language (just as many other indigenous communities, including European communities, did not), which might possibly influence some towards the traditional tales of ancestors, replete with myths and legends, gods, taniwhas, life forces, spiritual values etc. Conflating world science with matauranga Māori has similar intent – to elevate the status of Māoritanga, matauranga Māori and the Māori world-view relative to science. However, mixing any kind of traditional knowledge and world science provides poor preparation for life in the world of today and can only degrade both primary and secondary education.
The Curriculum Advisory Group
The Ministry of Education’s Curriculum Advisory Group comprises 12 members (Ministry of Education, 2021). Eight are female and, as far as I can ascertain, five (possibly six?) have Māori ethnicity and two have Pacific ethnicity. It seems that all members of European (Pakeha) ethnicity are female and I can identify no Pakeha males on that committee whatsoever.
I have no particular issue with the composition of that committee and it is understood that people who demonstrate particular skills and backgrounds are those most needed for any major public policy initiative. Nevertheless, people who self-identify as Māori constitute 16.5% of our total population, while on that group they appear to constitute 42% (50%, if six members identify as Māori). Thus Māori are over-represented by a factor of more than two-and-a-half (and possibly over three, if 50% are indeed Māori). We need not be concerned about such over-representation, provided that the group works in good faith towards a balanced curriculum that is truly equitable for all. However, the criteria which the Ministry used to identify and select group members involved background in the following areas:
1. Te Marautanga o Aotearoa
2. The New Zealand Curriculum
3. Te Whāriki
4. Te Whāriki a te Kōhanga Reo
5. Mātauranga and te ao Māori
6. Te Reo Māori
7. Lived experience of curriculum ‘in action’
8. Ākonga Māori in English-medium settings
9. Inclusive education (including for learners with additional needs)
10. Te Tamaiti Hei Raukura
11. Pacific education.
Is the above set of skills and experience a truly representative sample for the redesign of a national curriculum in a nation where non-Māori constitute 83.5% of the population? How much science expertise do we see in that group? When they establish traditional knowledge as equal in status to world science as a matter of policy, on what level of scientific understanding is this position based?
Teaching the History of New Zealand
All New Zealand children should be taught New Zealand history, as best we understand it, including the story of the land wars and Pakeha acquisition of some Māori land through deceit, trickery and unjust confiscation (but also that most Māori land was acquired through lawful purchase). The history of the negative aspects of colonialism should be balanced by an unvarnished account of Māori life before 1840, objective accounts of tribal warfare, generational utu (“revenge” or “putting right” – which, of course, we see in many other cultures), slavery, cannibalism and the narrative of Te Rauparaha’s invasion of Wellington, Marlborough and the Chathams. Surely, an objective history of New Zealand will include the Musket Wars – among the most violent events in the history of New Zealand.
The belief that returning land to Māori, beyond very legitimate Treaty settlements, could solve the social and economic problems of Māori in a capitalist society today deserves careful analysis and evaluation - and possible acceptance or possible refutation. However, it is crucially important that the history of New Zealand and the present discourse regarding co-governance and the curriculum are placed in perspective, as the story of successive colonisations of two small islands in the south Pacific is trivial compared with the history of the rest of the world. Surely, a strong case can be made for exposure to the histories of Māori and other immigrant communities at the expense of the histories of the Wars of the Roses and other negative conflicts and conquests of the British Empire.
Notably, the Ministry of Education’s Implementation information sheet ”Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories (in social sciences)” tells us that we are getting started as we improve knowledge of Te Reo and mātauranga Māori and know and connect with local whānau, hapū, and iwi (Ministry of Education, 2023b). It does not mention improving our knowledge of Samoan, Mandarin, Indian, Middle-Eastern or Somali languages (or others) or indeed suggest that we reach out to those and other immigrant communities.
The information sheet also tells us that we are implementing Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories, as we collaborate with students, parents, whānau, hapū, iwi and communities to refresh our social sciences programme and implement Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories, reflect New Zealand’s bicultural heritage and use mātauranga Māori sources. Other members of New Zealand’s population are mentioned but one ethnicity forms a special category and once again the notion of a bicultural, rather than a multicultural, nation is advanced.
It tells us that we are embedding and sustaining Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories, as we grow enduring and reciprocal relationships with hapū and iwi. Again, other citizens are recognized but there is no mention of any special relationship with them.
Māori as the first Colonists
All distinct human groups develop cultural practices which enable survival in their environments. In these islands the first Pacific colonists of the thirteenth or fourteenth century encountered a harsh environment, which required substantial modification of their Pacific Island life-style. Over time their practices settled down and became the traditional way of life, incorporating the knowledge and beliefs needed for life as a member of a Māori community. This cultural knowledge at contact formed the basis of today’s matauranga Māori.
All cultural groups have their cultural story. After 1840 and the Treaty of Waitangi, the culture of British settlers, British culture came to dominate, though matauranga Māori persisted in predominantly Māori communities. We now have diverse cultural groups, each with the culture of their land of origin. For a harmonious future for this country, these cultures could merge slowly into a distinct New Zealand culture, though kin-groups will long retain those aspects of their cultures which remain important to them.
These cultural stories, particularly matauranga Māori, are often confused with science - the systematic study of the universe. These cultural histories - Māoritanga, British, European and Chinese etc - are localized, each with a distinctly different focus from science, which is universal.
Each cultural story incorporates observation of the local natural environment, necessary for survival of the group. Generally, there is little interest in causes or relationships, and natural phenomena are explained away - “that’s the way things are”, or attributed to acts of supernatural entities, incorporated within myths and legends or tales of the ancestors. However, the observation of natural phenomena pertaining to these Islands, and other elements of genuine scientific truth within matauranga Māori, should exist comfortably within a national science curriculum. However, cultural practices belong elsewhere in the general curriculum.
World science is also based on detailed studies of nature, but this knowledge is subject to questions such as how and why? Are these phenomena related and can they be replicated? How can we make use of this knowledge? Above all, it includes the concept of falsifiability. Any concept in conflict with later observation must be tested and verified or else abandoned. Present-day science curricula are largely about systematic observational activities derived from European culture. Generally, students are taught little about the philosophy of science. Current ideas are taught as the facts, rather than “to the best of our current knowledge, but subject to revision as better knowledge becomes available.” This problem leaves science vulnerable to nonsense pervading the Internet, including “alternative facts”, such as vaccines causing autistic behaviour. An understanding of basic scientific principles makes the world a more rational place and should help its citizens to navigate through the maze of untruths emanating from the political, commercial, Internet and other worlds. Of course, students proceeding to STEM careers require deeper understanding of relevant sciences, but for non-STEM students the principles of science and an understanding of the science of everyday life and natural phenomena are probably more important than any detail of present-day science.
Mathematics at the junior school level is essentially about arithmetic, and everyone in our society needs proficiency in basic arithmetic. Clearly, early Māori could count and perform arithmetic, so that there should be no conflict. Mathematics extends arithmetic to an understanding of the underlying relationships between numbers, quantities and arithmetic processes, with which many students experience difficulty, but most will probably never need (though an understanding of the underlying principles of statistics would be useful). Curricula, for many students, should focus on aspects likely to be useful to the average citizen, rather than on the principles and skills and knowledge significant to a mathematician or needed for STEM-oriented students.
I believe that the draft curriculum is ill-posed and, unless halted or at least re-directed, will cause damage to education into the far-off future and will give rise to resentment. I know teachers and other educators who are already very uncomfortable with what is now expected of them in delivering a matauranga Māori-based curriculum, but feel unable to voice concerns. Unless revised substantially, the new curriculum will cause discontent among students, their families and educators who are forced to engage unwillingly in teaching or learning considerable volumes of Te Reo past primary school and in teaching and absorbing matauranga Māori when, in fact, the vast majority do not embrace any form of traditional knowledge beyond historic and cultural interest. I suggest that harm to the learning of generations of students and significant diminishment of the credibility of New Zealand's education system are much too great a price to pay for acceding to an ideology that pertains primarily to one ethnic group, even to one that settled in these islands before others. Action must be taken immediately to correct the situation. Indeed, we should treasure and preserve Te Reo and matauranga Māori, teach and embrace both within reason, along with other world-views, but we must stand up to agitators who demand a traditional knowledge-based curriculum because it is not only people and societies of European origin who are capable of domineering and ambition and thereby causing harm.
The onus is now on Mera Penehira, Vaughan Bidois, Graham Smith, the Ministry of Education and other promoters of the refresh to demonstrate to the tax-paying public of New Zealand as to why a curriculum that places any form of traditional knowledge at its core, and prioritizes the culture of one minority above the cultures of others, is indeed what is needed in the twenty-first century for our country and for all students. They must make a very compelling case to Pacific, Asian, Middle-Eastern, African and Pakeha parents as to why their children should spend significant class time, beyond primary school, acquiring one minority language and assimilating one particular kind of traditional knowledge as truth.
I have written this article and other prior articles on the refresh for a very important reason - to highlight genuine concern for the wellbeing of New Zealand, which many believe to be at great risk, mainly in respect of the education of future New Zealanders of all backgrounds, ethnicities and religions, but also in other ways; for example, a tangible polarization of society today resulting directly from initiatives relating to co-governance and potential damage to mutual respect and relations between communities and demographic groups.
Just as we should confront the negative aspects of colonialism and repression of Māori in the past, we must now stand up to a very divisive and pervasive ideology and a weak Ministry. Otherwise, our children will pay a heavy price for a distorted curriculum that will result inevitably from inaction on our part.
Estimating the Numbers of Students who will Experience the New Curriculum
Here, I begin with the number of people under 15 years of age for 2022 but need to estimate future numbers from the 2022 number. When inflating total student population numbers from a given year to later years, I use the current annual rate of increase in numbers of 0.6% per annum. The actual increase may or may not approximate this value over the next 10 or 20 years and is very uncertain (Statistics New Zealand, 2022a), but I believe that this figure is acceptable for a very approximate analysis. I estimate the final numbers at the end of some period of time using a “compound interest” formula that is taught at NCEA Level 1, viz: F = S*(1 + r)**n, where F is the final number, S is the starting number, r is the rate of annual increase expressed as a decimal, and n is the number of years over which the estimate is made. Here, the single asterisk denotes multiplication and the double asterisk denotes raising to a power. At each stage in my calculations I round the estimated numbers, recognizing the uncertainties involved and to make the logic easy to follow.
Part 1. Estimate the Number of Children between 4 and 17 years of age in 2022
In 2022 the population included 964300 children under the age of 15 years (Statistics New Zealand, 2022b). Numbers up to 17 years are not given, so that we must estimate that number for 2022. On average, there were 64300 children in each year group up to 15 years, so that a reasonable estimate of the number of children, up to and including the age of 17 years, in 2022 is 964300 + 2*64300 = 1092900 (where the asterisk * denotes multiplication). Primary school begins at around five years of age but some children begin earlier and pre-school will undoubtedly teach Te Reo and matauranga Māori a year beforehand (and rightly so). If we count only those children aged four and above (i.e. those old enough to experience the curriculum or a precursor to the curriculum), then we have about 1092900 - 4*64300 = 835700 children.
Part 2. How many Students would begin the New Curriculum in 2026?
Schools have until the beginning of 2026 to work towards the new curriculum, so that is probably the year in which it will come into force. How many would begin the new curriculum in 2026? Here we must agree on a figure for the annual rate of increase for that age group from 2022 and use that figure to estimate the number in 2026. Statistics New Zealand figures show that between 2012 and 2022 the number of children under 15 years grew from about 909800 to 964300, or about 0.6% change per annum, on average. We now use this figure as the estimate of the annual population growth for children aged between 4 years and 17 years. Assuming this 0.6% annual change (almost exactly true for 2021 to 2022) and, using the compound interest formula above and the 2022 baseline number of 835700, I estimate the number starting the new curriculum in 2026 (i.e. four years from 2022) at approximately 835700*(1.006)**4 = 856100 (where the double asterisk ** denotes raising to a power). To summarize - a minimum of 856100 students will start the new curriculum in 2026.
Part 3. How Many New Students enter the System Each Year after 2026?
The number of additional children exposed to the curriculum increases each year, in tandem with population growth for that age group of about 0.6% per annum. In 2026 the number of children in any one year of age between 4 and 17 years will have grown from 64300 in 2022 to about 64300*(1.006)**4 = 65900. Again, compounding the totals at 0.6% growth per year, over the next ten years (measured from 2026), those 65900 additional students entering the system will have increased to about 65900*(1.006)**10 = 70000, averaging 68000 additional students coming into the education system each year from the 2026 baseline. To repeat - this is a conservative estimate, because the actual annual growth in numbers increases every year and the true average increase is likely to be higher than my conservative arithmetic average.
Part 4. How Many Students will Experience the New Curriculum over One and Two Decades?
Over a decade from 2026, a total of about 856100 + 10*68000 = 1536000 New Zealand students will have experienced the curriculum, at a minimum.
Similarly, over twenty years from 2026, the 65900 additional students of 2026 will have grown at 0.6% per annum to about 74300, averaging 70100 additional students per year over that period (again, a conservative arithmetic average). These figures give a total number of students undergoing the curriculum at: 861100 + 20*70100, so that approximately 2263000 New Zealand students will have experienced the curriculum over those 20 years. Again, this is a low estimate that does not account for the higher rate of annual growth in numbers in the later years of the two decades.
The author wishes to acknowledge contributions to this article by Emeritus Professor Neil Curtis, .
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