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Māori education – mātauranga

by Ross Calman

Traditionally Māori learnt cooperatively in groups, with rituals marking steps in the process. Those with the appropriate lineage sometimes attended whare wānanga (houses of learning). In the 2000s wānanga had been revived to provide tertiary education, while kōhanga reo (preschools) and kura kaupapa Māori (schools) used the Māori language to educate younger learners.

Education in traditional Māori society

Process of learning

In traditional Māori society, all important aspects of life had systems of knowledge transfer and skills acquisition that had been refined over the centuries. The learning process began in the womb, with mothers chanting oriori (lullabies) to their unborn children. When a child was born, tohunga would undertake rituals to prepare them for their future role within the iwi.

As children grew, it was crucial to the survival and success of the hapū and iwi that they learnt a positive attitude to work, and practical activities such as gathering, harvesting and preparing food, and weaving, carving and warfare. For such activities there was a mixture of on-the-job training and formal learning, similar to an apprenticeship. Games that mimicked adult activities were an important part of the learning process.

Rituals and transmission

A ritual marked each step in the learning process, including some form of test for the student. Group learning and cooperative teaching was the norm, with uncles, aunts and grandparents all playing important roles. In a society in which the main form of social control was tapu (religious restrictions), a respect for tapu and knowledge of its operation was an essential aspect of the education process. In an oral culture, waiata (songs), whakataukī (proverbs), kōrero tawhito (history), pūrākau (stories) and whakapapa (genealogy) were important educative tools for transmitting an iwi’s history, values and models of behaviour.

Whare wānanga

The whare wānanga (house of learning) was a traditional educational institution reserved for a select few with the proper chiefly lineage. Students also had to have the mental aptitude to retain the vast repertoire of waiata, karakia, whakapapa and other kōrero tawhito that prepared them for the role of tohunga.

Ngā kete wānanga – the baskets of knowledge

Knowledge was divided into curriculum areas according to the three kete brought from the heavens by Tāne. Te kete aronui contained religious, ceremonial and other advanced knowledge relevant to the enlightenment of people, and to the preservation of physical, spiritual and mental welfare. Te kete tuauri represented knowledge of benign ritual and the history and practices of human lineages. Te kete tuatea was the repository of evil knowledge.

According to Ngāti Kahungunu tradition, the god Tāne ascended to Te Toi-o-ngā-rangi, the 12th and topmost heaven, and returned with three kete wānanga (baskets of knowledge) and two whatukura (sacred stones). The kete came from a house named Matangireia and the stones from another named Rangiātea. Tāne then descended the heavens and suspended the kete along with the stones in Wharekura, a house in Rangitāmaku, the second heaven.

The first earthly whare wānanga was said to have been constructed by Ruatepupuke (who represents knowledge) at Te Hono-i-Wairua, and was also named Wharekura. Perhaps the most well-known whare wānanga in New Zealand was Te Rāwheoro at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay).

The operation of whare wānanga

Most tribes had a comparable institution, although they were known by different names in different areas. In addition, there were a number of other more specialised and practical learning institutions, including whare pora (weaving), whare mata (bird-snaring and fishing) and whare tātai (astronomy).

Participants were carefully selected and learning was conducted in a state of tapu, away from the village. Instruction took place from dawn until midday through the winter months. Whakapapa, religious and mythological information was recited by the tohunga, who was assisted by other teachers, and students had to memorise the information. The last traditional whare wānanga were held in the second half of the 19th century.

Missionaries and the early colonial period

Mission schools and the arrival of literacy

The first school along European lines for Māori in New Zealand was established by the missionary Thomas Kendall of the Anglican Church Missionary Society, at Rangihoua, in the Bay of Islands, in 1816. Kendall used rote learning to teach basic reading and writing, and also included religious instruction. Reports suggest that he had difficulty in keeping his charges fully engaged in their learning, and the school ran effectively only when he could provide them with food. Lessons were held in the early morning and late afternoon, with the pupils spending the rest of the day foraging. Kendall developed the first published books in the Māori language to use in his classroom. Kendall’s school only lasted two years, but by the 1830s there were numerous schools attached to mission stations, including those of Methodists from 1822 and Catholics from 1838.

Maussie schools

The first school for Māori was actually in Australia. It was established by Anglican missionary Samuel Marsden at his home in Parramatta, Sydney, from around 1813. In 1820 Marsden was instructing 25 young Māori in the ‘customs and manners of civilized life’.1

Interest in literacy

Māori became increasingly interested in learning to read and write. While the missionaries saw literacy as the key to the scriptures, Māori were more interested in understanding the new European world with its tall sailing ships, firearms and iron tools. Māori who had attended the schools returned to their villages and created their own schools. When George Clarke, a missionary and the chief protector of aborigines, travelled through Waikato and Hauraki in late 1840 he found a Māori-run school in nearly every village he visited. It is estimated that by the early 1840s half of the adult Māori population was able to read and write to some extent. All teaching was in Māori and, because of a lack of reading material other than the scriptures, Māori interest in the schools declined after the early 1840s.

Books for all

William Colenso had established a printing press at Paihia, in the Bay of Islands, in 1834 and printed millions of pages over the following years. By 1845 there was a bible or prayer book for each member of the adult Māori population.

Grey and Māori education

George Grey, governor of New Zealand from 1845 to 1853 and again from 1861 to 1868, was the architect of the government’s racial amalgamation policy in the early colonial period. The effect, however, was more like assimilation, and this was the dominant theme in Māori education policy until the 1930s. The prevailing belief at the time was of the superiority of British civilisation. It was thought that the greatest favour that could be bestowed on Māori would be to turn them into ‘brown Britons’. There had been open warfare with Māori in the mid-1840s and education was seen as a way of pacifying Māori. There is evidence too that the government saw in Māori a potential labouring class to help build the young colony.

Education Ordinance 1847

Running a cash-strapped administration, Grey supported the existing network of mission schools through the Education Ordinance 1847, based on four principles:

  • religious instruction
  • industrial training
  • instruction in the English language
  • government inspection.

Native Schools Act 1858

The Native Schools Act 1858 built on this system, providing for an annual sum of £7,000 for the schools, and added the stipulation that Māori students at the schools must live away from their kāinga in a boarding situation. By 1851 between 700 and 800 Māori attended the government-supported schools, considerably fewer than the numbers attending mission schools in the 1830s. Progress was limited with regard to the teaching of English and the government struggled to find the finances to resource the schools appropriately. Many schools continued to teach in Māori. Most of the mission schools were closed by the wars of the 1860s.

    • J. M. Barrington and T. H. Beaglehole, Maori schools in a changing society: an historical review. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1974, p. 9. Back

The native schools system, 1867 to 1969

Native schools

Following the New Zealand wars, the Native Schools Act 1867 established a national system of village primary schools under the control of the Native Department. Māori were required to donate the land for the schools, and contribute to the costs of a building and teacher’s salary, although the latter two requirements were removed in 1871. In 1879 the 57 native schools were transferred to the Department of Education, which had been established in 1877.

The 1880 Native School Code standardised conditions for the establishment of a school, the curriculum, hours of instruction, governance and other matters. Schooling became compulsory for Māori in 1894. There was considerable demand for the schools, initially from areas where Māori had been neutral or ‘friendly’ during the wars.

Manual education

School inspector Henry Taylor, writing in 1862, said, ‘I do not advocate for the Natives under present circumstances a refined education or high mental culture: it would be inconsistent, if we take into account the position they are likely to hold for many years to come in the social scale, and inappropriate, if we remember that they are better calculated by nature to get their living by manual rather than by mental labour.’1 The belief in the suitability of Māori for working-class occupations was to persist in official circles well into the 20th century.

English language and manual instruction

From the outset the priority of the schools was the teaching of English. The plan was to phase out the native schools once English had taken hold in a community. Initially, the Māori language was allowed to facilitate English instruction, but as time went on official attitudes hardened against any use of Māori language. In later years many Māori children were punished for speaking their first language at school. For many years the insistence on English was generally accepted by Māori communities, who were secure in their Māoritanga and wished their children to be prepared for success in the Pākehā world. Beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, the curriculum was heavily skewed towards instruction in manual and domestic skills.

Problems with schools

The schools suffered from delays inherent in a centralised system run from Wellington. It could take years to establish a school, many had inadequate facilities and decisions relied on the annual visit of an inspector on horseback. Pupils often had to travel long distances and were at the mercy of bad weather. Families moving for seasonal work also disrupted attendance. Teachers were of variable quality and initially most were untrained. Initially most were Pākehā, although some schools had Māori junior assistants. Local mixed-race and Pākehā children, including the children of teachers, also attended native schools.

As a result of the Māori cultural renaissance initiated by Apirana Ngata in the 1920s, and influenced by a British policy in Africa of cultural adaptation, Māori arts and crafts were introduced into the native schools in the 1930s, with mixed success. This innovation was significant in signalling the end of the hard-line assimilation policy.

Māori literature

Director of Education T. B. Strong wrote in 1930 that ‘The Maori language has no literature and … the natural abandonment of the native tongue inflicts no loss on the Maori.’2 When a request was made for the Māori language to be accepted into universities around the same time, the response was ‘Where is the literature?’ Those arguing against such attitudes were able to use George Grey’s collection of traditional Māori stories Nga mahi a nga tupuna and Nga moteatea, a book of traditional song poetry compiled by Apirana Ngata, to illustrate the existence of Māori literature.

Secondary education

Although secondary education became free in the 1930s, Māori had very limited access to secondary schooling, as high schools were in urban centres and Māori were still very much a rural people. In the late 1930s fewer than 1,000 Māori children attended secondary school – most of them at Māori boarding schools. Native district high schools were established from 1941 by adding secondary departments to existing schools; by 1956 there were 13. At first these were poorly resourced and heavily biased towards manual instruction, until the introduction of School Certificate, a national exam, in 1945.

The post-war period

After 1945 the Māori population grew rapidly and became increasingly urban. The number of Māori in mainstream schools began to far exceed those in Māori schools (as they became known from 1947). In 1955 Māori school numbers reached their peak of 166, but by this time department officials were planning the transfer of the schools to regional education boards. Māori communities, which regarded Māori schools as their schools, resisted the change. Advocates of Māori schools pointed to the fact that they catered more successfully to Māori needs than mainstream schools. However, the 1961 Hunn Report identified the extent of Māori disadvantage in the education system and advocated integration, which relied on Māori and Pākehā attending the same schools. In 1969 the remaining Māori schools were transferred to the control of the regional education boards.

    • Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1862, A-51, p. 38. Back
    • Quoted in John Barrington, Separate but equal?: Māori schools and the Crown, 1867–1969. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2008, pp. 191–192. Back

Māori church boarding schools

Network of schools

A network of church-run boarding schools provided the main post-primary education option for Māori until the 1940s. The oldest of the church-run boarding schools started as mission schools, including St Stephen’s School, Auckland (Anglican, founded in 1844), Wesley College, Auckland (Methodist, 1844) and Te Aute College, Hawke’s Bay (Anglican, 1854). Hukarere Maori Girls’ School, Napier (Anglican, 1875) and Queen Victoria School, Auckland (Anglican, 1901) were opened as sister schools to Te Aute and St Stephen’s.

Other Māori church boarding schools included:

  • Waerenga-a-Hika College, Poverty Bay (Anglican, 1856)
  • St Joseph’s Maori Girls’ School, Napier (Catholic, 1867)
  • Hikurangi College, Clareville, Wairarapa (Anglican, 1903)
  • Turakina Maori Girls’ College, Marton (Presbyterian, 1905)
  • Otaki Maori College (Anglican, 1908)
  • Te Waipounamu Maori Girls’ College, Christchurch (Anglican, 1909)
  • Hato Petera College, Auckland (Catholic, 1928)
  • Hato Paora College, Feilding (Catholic, 1948).

Cooking and cleaning

Not only Pākehā government officials advocated manual instruction in the church boarding schools. In 1903, after a small matriculation class (which was preparing its students for university) had been started at Hukarere Maori Girls’ College, Māui Pōmare, who had been a beneficiary of the academic focus of Te Aute, criticised the church schools for becoming too academic: ‘Educate the mothers to recognize the efficacy of the bathtub, cleanly warm clothes, plain and wholesome food, and you will regenerate the Maori quicker than by teaching the youths and maidens embroidery, Latin, and Euclid.’1

The government scholarship scheme

From the 1880s to the 1920s the government provided limited assistance to the more able Māori students from the native schools to attend the church boarding schools. Support was in the form of a scholarship, tenable for two years. The two-year limit was indicative of the official view that generally Māori were more suited to manual occupations, and in particular to agriculture. As most native schools offered standards 1–4 (equivalent to years 3–6), the two further years were technically still at primary level (years 7–8, or intermediate level).

Academic versus manual instruction

Te Aute College, under the leadership of John Thornton, led the way in providing an academic secondary education for Māori students. Under Thornton’s leadership Te Aute produced the first group of Māori university graduates from the 1890s, including Āpirana Ngata, Te Rangihīroa (Peter Buck), Māui Pōmare and Tūtere Wī Repa. The Manual and Technical Instruction Act 1900 further encouraged officials to advocate for increased manual and technical training in the church schools, stipulating that government scholarship holders take practical and agricultural courses. Māori parents, however, could not see the point of sending their children away to school to learn how to be farm labourers.

Agricultural education

In 1906 a royal commission investigated Te Aute, recommending that it add agricultural courses and scale back its academic stream. This was strongly opposed by headmaster Thornton. While Te Aute did introduce an agricultural stream, it was never particularly popular. However, other schools embraced agricultural education. The Maori Agricultural College was established at Hastings (Mormon, 1912), and both Wesley College (1922) and St Stephen’s (1931) moved to rural sites south of Auckland in order to provide practical farm education. In the 1920s continuation scholarships, which allowed a third year of study, were introduced.

Troubled times – the 1930s and later

In the 1930s the church schools were beset by tough economic times and other misfortunes. Both the Maori Agricultural College and Te Aute suffered major damage in the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931, closing the agricultural college permanently. Fires caused Hikurangi (1932) and Waerenga-a-Hika (1937) colleges to close, and Otaki Maori College was forced to close for financial reasons in 1938.

The introduction of School Certificate (a national exam) to the native district high schools in 1945 affected enrolments at Te Aute and Hukarere, and urbanisation saw Māori increasingly attending their local state secondary school. Hukarere was forced to close between 1969 and 1992, though the hostel remained open and boarders attended classes at Napier Girls’ High. Similarly, Te Waipounamu Maori Girls’ College had become a hostel only by the early 1980s and closed altogether in 1990. The remaining church schools integrated into the state system in the 1970s and 1980s, but declining rolls and other problems forced the closure of St Stephen’s (2000) and Queen Victoria (2001).

  1. Quoted in J. M. Barrington and T. H. Beaglehole, Maori schools in a changing society: an historical review. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1974, pp. 172–173. Back

Kaupapa Māori education

The most significant development in Māori education since the later 20th century has been the explosive growth in Māori-driven initiatives. Kōhanga reo (preschool language ‘nests’) led the way in the 1980s, followed by kura kaupapa Māori (Māori-language immersion schools).

Kōhanga reo establishment

The kōhanga reo movement was a response to the dire state of te reo Māori (the Māori language). In 1913 over 90% of Māori schoolchildren could speak the language; by 1975 this figure had fallen to less than 5%. The kōhanga reo movement was driven by Māori, with an emphasis on a total Māori-language immersion setting and involvement by whānau. The first kōhanga reo opened at Wainuiomata in 1982, and in the following year 100 new kōhanga were established.

Growth of kōhanga

Although there was little financial assistance from government until 1990, growth continued through the 1980s, peaking in 1993, when there were more kōhanga reo (819) than kindergartens or playcentres. With over 14,000 enrolments, kōhanga reo were responsible for close to half of all Māori enrolments in early childhood services at this time. By 2009 kōhanga reo numbers had dropped to 464. The decline has been attributed to increased compliance requirements and economic circumstances. However, having now produced 60,000 ‘graduates’, kōhanga have played, and continue to play, a crucial role in the revival of te reo Māori.

Kura kaupapa Māori

Kura kaupapa Māori are state schools that operate within a whānau-based Māori philosophy and deliver the curriculum in te reo Māori. The first kura kaupapa Māori, Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Hoani Waititi, was established in West Auckland in 1985. As with kōhanga, in the early stages parents were forced to fundraise to run kura until they received government recognition and funding. Kura kaupapa Māori gained recognition in the Education Act 1989 and from 1990 the Ministry of Education supported the establishment of new kura.

Kura growth

Kura numbers grew rapidly through the 1990s, and more slowly in the 2000s. In 2009 there were 73 kura kaupapa Māori with just over 6,000 students. Many kura are composite schools (years 1–13), having started as full primary schools and then adding wharekura (secondary departments) in order to retain students within a Māori-medium environment. In 2001 the Ministry of Education recognised kura teina status as a stepping stone for schools that have applied to become a full stand-alone primary school. Kura teina are mentored by an established kura, designated the kura tuakana (older sibling).


Wānanga are Māori tertiary institutions developed by Māori to revitalise te reo Māori and mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), and to raise the achievement of Māori in tertiary education. The majority of the wānanga student body are ‘second chance’ learners, rather than students going straight from high school.

The first wānanga

Te Wānanga o Raukawa in Ōtaki was established in 1981 by Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Toarangatira. The wānanga grew out of the Whakatupuranga Rua Mano (Generation 2000) tribal plan that had been devised by the three iwi in 1975 in response to the decline of te reo Māori within their rohe (tribal areas).

Subsequent wānanga

Te Wānanga o Aotearoa started as the Waipā Kōkiri Arts Centre, established in Te Awamutu in 1984, and now has a presence throughout the country. In 2009 it had 21,000 full-time equivalent students, making it the second-largest tertiary education provider in New Zealand.

Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi opened in Whakatāne in 1992. In 2004 it was accredited to teach courses to PhD level, a world first for an indigenous tertiary education institution.

Te Wānanga o Raukawa and Te Wānanga o Aotearoa were recognised by the government in 1993 and Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in 1997. Following a 1998 claim to the Waitangi Tribunal, the three wānanga were compensated by the government to address the lack of funding in the early stages of their development.

Other developments, 1970s onwards

Government policy in the 1970s and 1980s

The 1970s saw the introduction of in-service training courses in Māoritanga for teachers and teacher-training schemes for native speakers of Māori. Positions for resource teachers of Māori were established in 1975 to provide specialist advice to primary schools on te reo and tikanga Māori (Māori language and customs), and Māori advisers for secondary schools were introduced.

Kōhanga and kura developments

With the rapid growth of kōhanga reo (preschool language learning nests) and kura kaupapa (Māori-language schools), there have been shortages of suitable resources and trained teachers fluent in te reo Māori. There has been ongoing criticism of the quality of the Māori language of some teachers who are second-language learners themselves. Since 1986 kaiārahi i te reo – fluent Māori speakers who are not trained teachers – have been appointed to support students graduating from kōhanga reo to kura. In 1992 the Ministry of Education launched Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, a curriculum for Māori-medium education based on Māori philosophies.

Bilingual pre-school and special-character schools

At early-childhood level, while kōhanga reo enrolments declined, there was a huge growth in bilingual early-childhood provision through the 2000s. In 2011 in addition to kura kaupapa Māori there were a further 15 special-character schools established under section 156 of the Education Act offering a total-immersion environment. Although many bilingual units had also opened in mainstream schools, access to quality Māori immersion education was still an issue in some areas. Education provision was increasingly based on iwi identity rather than generic Māori identity.

Māori achievement

Numerous reports have highlighted Māori underachievement in the education system since the early 1900s. The Waitangi Tribunal’s 1986 Te Reo Māori Report found that Māori children were not being adequately educated owing to prolonged systemic failure and that ‘the education system is being operated in breach of the treaty’.1 In 1998 the Ministry of Māori Development, Te Puni Kōkiri, reported that compared to non-Māori, Māori were less likely to:

  • participate in early-childhood education
  • remain at secondary school to senior levels
  • leave secondary school with a formal qualification
  • attend formal tertiary education, particularly university. Māori in tertiary education were more often in second-chance programmes.

Success of Māori medium

In 2009 only 22.6% of Māori school leavers were eligible to enter university, compared with 51.7% of Pākehā. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of Māori university students increased by 19%. Māori made up 12% of local students in 2018, despite comprising 16.5% of the population. Around 5% of academic staff were Māori. 

Indications were that students in Māori-medium settings were outperforming Māori students in English-medium settings. However, in 2010 just 14.6% of the Māori school population were involved in Māori-medium education at some level.

    • Quoted in Richard Benton, Fairness in Māori education: a review of research and information. Wellington: Royal Commission on Social Policy, 1987, p. 2. Back

Māori education policy

Early education policy

Education before the arrival of Europeans was characterised by control through the whānau, hapū and iwi. Before governmental intervention, missionaries set up schools to educate Māori students.

Governor George Grey was the first to promulgate policy which supported these schools, in the later 1840s. This introduced government inspection, but also introduced principles on which the education should be based – religious instruction, industrial training and use of the English language. The latter two ideas pervaded educational policy as late as the mid-20th century.

Despite the official policy of amalgamation (bringing together the best aspects of European and Māori culture), in practice the policy was assimilation (bringing Māori into European ways of doing things). This was largely the policy until the 1930s.

Native-school system policy

From 1867 the native-school system was developed, establishing a national system of primary schools. It was initially run by the Native Department. In 1879 control of the native schools was transferred to the Department of Education. This continued the policy of English-language and manual instruction. There was limited access to secondary schooling for Māori, which was largely provided by Māori church boarding schools. Native district high schools were eventually added in 1941 by extending primary schools through to secondary. The focus continued to be on manual education, but changed with the introduction of the School Certificate examination in 1945. From 1945 onwards Māori became increasingly urbanised and increasingly were taught in mainstream schools.

Flax-roots push

From the 1970s flax-roots development, coupled with support from the Department of Māori Affairs, saw development of kōhanga reo, Māori-language preschools. As children progressed, parents wanted them to continue being educated in Māori, leading to the development of kura kaupapa (Māori-medium schools) from 1985. In 1989 kura kaupapa were recognised in the Education Act, and from 1990 the Ministry of Education suported the establishment of new kura.

Tertiary education on a kaupapa Māori basis was also developing. In 1981 Te Wānanga o Raukawa was established. It took some time for this and the other two wānanga to be fully recognised and resourced. As with other community-driven Māori-language education initiatives, government policy largely caught up later.

21st century

In the 21st century the Ministry of Education developed Ka hikitia: managing for success: the Māori education strategy, 2008–2012, a strategy which recognised the eclectic nature of learning styles for Māori in education. It focused on successful outcomes for Māori students in Māori, bilingual and English-language education. The strategy encompassed students from preschool up to tertiary level. It had four broad outcomes:

  • Māori learners working with others to determine successful learning and education pathways
  • Māori learners excelling and successfully realising their cultural distinctiveness and potential
  • Māori learners successfully participating in and contributing to te ao Māori (the Māori world)
  • Māori learners gaining the universal skills and knowledge needed to successfully participate in and contribute to New Zealand and the world.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ross Calman, 'Māori education – mātauranga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 September 2021)

Story by Ross Calman, published 20 Jun 2012