JUDE BARBACK looks at the arguments for and against making te reo Māori compulsory in New Zealand schools.

Ever since the Green Party tabled their proposal for every New Zealand child to learn te reo Māori, there has been a flurry of debate on the subject. From large, ideological questions – Why should it be compulsory? Will it help Māori engage with their education and culture? What is the benefit for non-Māori? – to the practical – How do we ensure teachers have enough training to teach it? How do we achieve it? – there is much to discuss.

An online survey by Te Ipukarea, the National Māori Language Institute at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), showed strong support for making te reo compulsory in New Zealand primary schools. The vast majority of the 5,391 survey respondents agree or strongly agree that the Māori language should be compulsory in New Zealand primary schools, including 83 per cent of Māori,
80 per cent of New Zealand European/Pākehā and 78 per cent of other ethnicities.

However, not everyone agrees. Some have argued that it would take time away from other subjects. Some that it is not a “useful” language. Some don’t like the idea of it being compulsory.

So why make te reo compulsory?

Greens’ Māori development spokesperson Marama Davidson says there is a responsibility to ensure that Māori language “not just survives, but thrives in Aotearoa”.

“Despite huge progress over recent decades, the survival of te reo Māori is still not assured. In 2013 only 3.7 per cent of New Zealanders spoke te reo Māori and the percentage of Māori who can hold a conversation in te reo Māori is falling,” says Davidson.

The Greens say that introducing all children to te reo at school is one of the best ways to ensure the language survives.

Kapiti College’s Head of Māori Language, Paora Trim strongly agrees.

“Without Māori language, the culture would not survive,” he says simply. “A lot of Māori students all across the country are disengaged with their language, their culture, their people.”

And many are disengaged with their education. There is so much talk of Māori underachievement that it is almost stigmatising. Such a relentless focus on lifting Māori achievement levels is bound to have the effect of making Māori students feel singled out.

By normalising the use of reo in the classroom, Trim suggests that Māori students will feel more engaged in their learning if they see that everyone is participating.

Ultimately, Trim believes it could help to iron out some of the inequities that define our schools and society.

“It would also help encourage empathy among our students, by showing an understanding of someone else’s culture and language.”

But is making te reo compulsory in schools the way to achieve such vast societal goals?

Education Minister Hekia Parata doesn’t think so. Parata, while supportive of te reo, is opposed to making it compulsory, describing compulsion as “the antithesis of motivation”.

Project director for Ako Panuku, Hineihaea Murphy agrees – to a point.

“When I was a classroom teacher of te reo Māori, I would not have wanted to teach students who were not really interested in learning my language (and being responsible for their success!) Ideally, for such a strategy to work we would have other things in place to pave the way,” she says.

Murphy says she would love to see every child in this country learning and speaking Māori, but thinks that making te reo Māori compulsory in schools needs to be part of a wider strategy that extends beyond our schools. She thinks that talking about the issue of compulsory te reo Māori in schools in isolation is probably counterproductive “as it brings out a lot of red herrings that lead us away from the ultimate goal”.

“To make te reo Māori compulsory successfully on a national scale will need the value and status of the language to be raised in our communities and nationally.”

Murphy believes we need people – adults, children, Māori, non-Māori – to be motivated to learn te reo Māori.

“Motivation to learn can be extrinsically created if the strategy is implemented in conjunction with a range of other initiatives which value language in our society, raise the status of te reo Māori and normalise te reo Māori in our society.

“Sometimes we have to take big bold steps to create the kind of change that is ultimately needed… but in this case, it may be dependent on what level of conflict and tension will result in productive change.”

A practical solution

Big bold steps they may be, but Paora Trim has come up with a simplistic and scalable way that teaching and learning te reo could be achievable in our schools.

Trim’s practical solution is one that his son’s primary school is trialling this year. Each week, teachers will teach their classes two Māori words and one Māori phrase. The following week, they review the previous week’s words and phrase before learning new ones.

“Imagine if a child was taught two words and one phrase of te reo Māori each week from the time they started New Entrants. After 10 years at school they could potentially know 800 words and 400 phrases.”

It would take an estimated five minutes each day to teach two words and one phrase a week.

Trim acknowledges that teachers will have different levels of reo proficiency, but he doesn’t see this as a problem. He points to various apps and online programmes that could be used by anyone.

“They’d learn along the way too,” he says.

The key to the success of a programme like this is getting the buy-in from a school’s senior leadership team. They need to motivate and make staff accountable, says Trim, while the school’s language expert is responsible for providing resources and supporting staff.

More investment needed

Trim’s solution could probably be adopted by New Zealand schools fairly easily and cheaply.

However, primary and secondary school teacher unions – both supporters of making te reo compulsory in schools – say more investment into teacher training and professional development is needed to realise the vision of every child learning Māori language.

“Of course, having the right number of teachers of te reo is critical to the success of this policy. Currently the demand for teachers of te reo Māori outstrips supply,” says PPTA president Jack Boyle.

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart agrees.

“Many more fluent Māori speakers need to be attracted into teaching, and strategies and resources are needed to ensure that professional development and training is provided both at the pre-service level, and for teachers in the classroom,” she says. “This requires a plan, but also much more government investment if it’s going to happen.”

The global picture

Such hurdles haven’t stopped other countries from introducing language schemes that have helped to revive languages.

Since the Welsh language was made compulsory in Welsh schools in 2000, the language has seen a revival. A similar programme in Ireland has also seen the Irish language kept alive. Malaysia is considering reintroducing knowledge of the Malay language as a requirement for citizenship.

Director of Te Ipukarea Professor Tania Ka’ai says the rest of the world looks to New Zealand for inspiration and guidance on how to keep indigenous language alive.

Ka’ai points out that Scandinavian countries like Finland, Norway and Sweden are exploring Māori language immersion models such as Kura Kaupapa and Kōhanga Reo.

“We are world leaders in language revitalisation. The next step is for government to make te reo Māori compulsory in primary schools. Now, let’s lead the world in this.”


  1. 2017. This article was posted awhile ago.
    But I have just arrived back to NZ a year ago and my young children have been enrolled into primary.
    I was quite suprised to see that they are teaching Maori language to everyone in class. And there is no option to opt out of it.

    Why are children of ALL nationalities being forced to learn a language they; 1. Don’t need. 2 Don’t want to learn. 3. Will never ever use it ever. 4. Is not their language at all and have no roots or interest in the Maori peoples history nor want to be.

    So, to live here everyone must speak Maori now? Really? What on earth is going on?
    You can’t just force people to learn a language? What is this? The 1800’s?

    We hate it and will not take part in it nor ever be a part of it. It is NOT our family’s history. It is not who we are and we ARE Kiwis and have generations upon genrations who have lived here. But we are NOT and never will be, Maori.

    So why are we being forced to learn someone elses language?

    • Hi Gerry,
      Why is learning Te Reo Maori such a bad thing? In New Zealand, bilingual people (especially those who speak Te Reo) are more likely to get jobs, more likely to receive leadership positions throughout their lives, and overall learning another language helps intelligence. I think you’re forgetting that Te Reo Maori being an official language of New Zealand comes with obligations in the Ministry of Education. For example, learning about the treaty of Waitangi is compulsory. If you have a problem with Te Reo Maori being taught to your precious children, I suggest you brush up on the subject. If you still have a problem I hope you will be working next February 6th and not taking a day off work for the Waitangi holiday seeing as you have no interest in Maori History. Let’s also not forget that English isn’t even an official language of New Zealand, yet somehow its overthrown the indigenous language of New Zealand. If you put your children through school in Samoa would you complain about them learning or speaking Samoan?

      It seems your problem isn’t with your children learning a language, its that your children are learning Te Reo Maori specifically. It may be a pointless language for world travel outside of New Zealand, but in New Zealand there are so many practices and traditions your children will face on a regular basis regardless of whether they know Te Reo Maori or not. So why not allow children to understand these traditions and practices that they are inevitably going to face, instead of them standing there not knowing what is going on because YOU opted them out of it in School.

      Nga Mihi xoxo


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