Church boarding schools were among New Zealand’s earliest private schools. The first were set up in the early 19th century. By the later 19th century the schools were nurturing leaders who operated effectively in both Māori and Pākehā societies.
The ‘strong antipathy to education … [which] existed among the elder Maoris’ was noted early in a report of an elaborate school fete held by St Stephen’s day school near Woodend.1 Enthusiasm for schooling had been evident among Māori in the early 19th century, but this had waned, perhaps because cultural alienation was not appealing.
The schools became warmly regarded and valued by Māori communities. In the later 20th century many of the schools were known for their integration of Māori culture, the academic results of their students and their association with Māori leaders. In the 2000s there were six Māori church schools, all state-integrated. They formed the Tutahi Association in 2009 to work together towards a sustainable future.
Until the late 20th century Māori church school students had notably better academic results than Māori attending state schools. This pattern began in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the first Māori doctors, nurses, lawyers and academics appeared. The schools’ academic focus was reduced in the early 20th century by the Department of Education. Its determination to see the Māori church schools teach a manual and technical rather than academic curriculum was backed up by selective withdrawal and provision of funding.
From 1889 a group of high-achieving Te Aute old boys came to be known as the Young Māori Party. Members included Sir Apirana Ngata, cabinet minister and briefly acting prime minister; Sir Māui Pōmare, one of the first Māori doctors, a leader of the Māori health movement and a cabinet minister; and Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), a doctor, anthropologist, and later director of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Hawaii.
Although this held back the rate of academic success, in the 1960s the majority of Māori university graduates had attended a church school. Perhaps more importantly for most students, exam pass rates matched those of Pākehā students.
These results were being achieved with a mixed group of students. At the time, ‘at risk’ children referred by the Social Welfare Department (and later the Child, Youth and Family section of the Ministry of Social Development) were admitted to Māori church schools. This continued in the 1980s and 1990s.
The schools suffered from an ongoing lack of money. Buildings, resources, and staff conditions were limited. Some were endowed when set up – for example, Ngāti Kahungunu gave 700 hectares to support Te Aute and its sister school, Hukarere Maori Girls’ College. The churches to which the schools belonged gave some support, as did the government via scholarships.
In 1973 and 1974 St Stephens and Te Aute both became state schools, although their boarding hostels continued to be privately run, and existing staff remained in place. Other Māori boarding schools became state-integrated from 1976.
A number of these schools were not exclusively Māori – for example, St Stephen’s and Wesley College had a mix of Māori, Pacific Island, and Pākehā students. Both schools were accepted and valued by Māori communities as Māori schools. In contrast, the Mormon Church College (1958–2009) was not always so regarded, despite having a high proportion of Māori students and at times a high proportion of Māori staff. The school did not support Māori culture, following Pākehā traditions instead.