From next year children aged 5 to 15 will study New Zealand History. A draft curriculum has been circulated for public comment and you can access this through: Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories in our national curriculum – Education in New Zealand Having a browse at the proposed prescription will be helpful in following the articles.

Today we begin a series examining this important document.

What the government says will be covered

By Roger Childs

Back in 2019 the Ministry of Education announced that there would be seven over–arching themes.

  • The arrival of Māori to Aotearoa
  • First encounters and early colonial history of Aotearoa
  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi and its history
  • Colonisation of, and immigration to, Aotearoa, including the New Zealand Wars
  • The evolving national identity in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries
  • The role of Aotearoa in the Pacific
  • Aotearoa in the late 20th century and the evolution of a national identity with cultural plurality

No mention of New Zealand. Alarm bells immediately started ringing and well-known historian Paul Moon commented:  Of course, there are risks that if done poorly, compulsory history in our schools could veer in to the realm of indoctrination.

‘The Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi’ 1938 oil on canvas by Marcus King

Warts and all

Many historians and teachers emphasised that there should be a “warts and all” approach so that students would not merely be given a sanitized version of our history. Some people voiced fears that iwi leaders and Maori academics might have too much say in the final shape of the prescription. If this happened, the final document might have an over-emphasis on the Treaty of Waitangi, the evils of European colonisation, breaches of the Treaty by “the Crown”, the New Zealand Wars and the Waitangi Tribunal.

Would the curriculum developers – half of whom are Maori – include “warts” like 

  • the extermination of the moa, Haast’s Eagle and many other bird species 
  • the burning of huge areas of forest by Polynesian settlers 
  • the devastating inter-tribal wars 
  • cannibalism and slavery 
  • the genocide in the Chatham Islands 
  • the scores of breaches of the Treaty by Maori such as Te Kooti’s massacres at Matawhero and Mohaka 
  • the destruction of the natural environment by European settlers to create farms. infrastucture and towns 
  • the Gallipoli disaster 

Concerns about the “big ideas”

There are three.

  1. Maori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand.
  2. Colonisation and its consequences have been central to our history for the past 200 years and continue to influence all aspects of New Zealand society.
  3. The course of Aotearoa New Zealand history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power.

Each “big idea” is followed by a paragraph of explanation – 6-9 lines – which you can find by accessing the document. Some thoughts on each of the big ideas.

Maori history is not the foundational and continuous history of our country. There were people in the country when Polynesians first arrived in the 13th century. In New Zealand today over 80% of the people are non-Maori and their history has been important in transforming the environment, building a modern economy, constructing infrastructure, expanding the labour force and creating a modern welfare state. Such developments have benefited all ethnic groups.

Colonisation was not designed to …assimilate Maori through dislocation from their lands and replacement of their institutions, economy and tikanga with European equivalents. There was a desire, supported by many chiefs, to end the worst elements of tikanga at the time – inter-tribal wars, killing prisoners, cannibalism, abducting women, slavery and female infanticide. After the Treaty Governors Grey and Gore Browne offered Maori chiefs wide powers of local government – runanga – under the colonial government and the umbrella of the rule of British law.

Overall, colonisation has been hugely beneficial for all New Zealanders — raising living standards; increasing life expectancy; providing education, health and transport services; and introducing modern technology.

The big idea on the exercise and effects of power incudes reference to ways that have led to  damage, injustice and conflicts. Is the implication here that the actions of governments and colonial troops adversely affected Maori?

Will 5, 6, 7 year old and older learners understand these big ideas? They would challenge university students.

How about these for “big ideas”?

  • New Zealand is a nation of immigrants who have arrived at different times. 
  • The early Pacific Island immigrants were mainly hunters and gatherers who lived as different tribes across the country.
  • The tribes were often at war with one another and practiced cannibalism and slavery.
  • James Cook and other European explorers made the existence and resources of New Zealand known to the world.
  • The Inter-tribal wars between the native tribes halved their population.
  • There was no united New Zealand nation until 1840.
  • The British reluctantly took on New Zealand as a colony and made a treaty with the native peoples and settlers which was as far-sighted as any in human history.
  • There was conflict between the government and a minority of central North Island Maori tribes in the 1860s and 1870s.
  • British and other settlers transformed the landscape and economy to develop farms, industries, infrastructure, towns and cities.
  • A welfare state was created by the Liberal and Labour governments and added to by governments after World War Two.
  • Depressions and World Wars affected all New Zealanders.
  • Maori New Zealanders generally benefited greatly from colonization but there have been social problems and economic disparities.
  • All ethnic groups have provided inspirational leaders who have contributed to the development of national identity and the reputation of the country.
  • Asian and Pacific Island peoples immigrated in large numbers from the 1960s on and enriched New Zealand’s culture and made a significant contribution to the economy.
  • New Zealand has had an on-going close relationship with Pacific countries and the wider world.

This is not totally comprehensive, but would make sense to children and give them an idea of what they will be studying over the years.

(Article 2 will examine the question Is the proposed curriculum weighted too much towards Maori interests?)