Teaching the New Zealand Wars
The New Zealand Wars (1845-72) were foundational events in our nation’s history. Yet Pākehā have not always cared to remember them. The response to the 2015 petition organised by students from Ōtorohanga College, leading to a national day of commemoration (Rā Maumahara), seemed to signal a greater willingness to engage with this history. But the students – profoundly moved by site visits to nearby Ōrākau and Rangiaowhia – also sought to ensure this history was firmly embedded in the school curriculum. Successive governments have proven more reluctant to accede to this call.
In a submission to the Māori Affairs Select Committee on the petition, the Ministry of Education voiced strong and uncompromising opposition to introducing the New Zealand Wars as a mandatory part of the curriculum, suggesting that such a move could damage the entire schooling sector. Such a move would, the ministry argued, “be a significant and unnecessary intervention likely to result in significant, negative systemic consequences for the New Zealand schooling sector.”
No requirement or expectation to teach NZ history
While there are broad achievement objectives in each subject, schools are not required to teach specific topics. The earliest achievement objective that potentially addresses New Zealand’s difficult past, albeit tangentially, is in the year 10 social sciences curriculum which requires students to “Understand how the Treaty of Waitangi is responded to differently by people in different times and places”. Anecdotally, we know that some teachers use this as a basis for teaching about the New Zealand Wars but there is no requirement or expectation to do so.
History is offered as an elective subject in NCEA from year 11 onwards, although only just over 20% of students take the subject at that level. Those students who opt for the subject and have motivated history teachers may learn about the New Zealand Wars at this point but many others leave school without ever hearing about these conflicts. No data is collected on how many schools offer this topic so the level of uptake is unknown. However, many schools do not teach New Zealand history, let alone the history of the New Zealand Wars, at NCEA level.
Controversial or boring?
There are various reasons that some teachers are reluctant to teach this history. According to Mark Sheehan, schools instinctively shy away from matters seen to be contentious or controversial. Conversely, proponents of teaching more New Zealand history in schools face an uphill battle against those convinced that the topic is ‘boring’.
In other cases, teachers may lack the confidence or resources to begin teaching this history or may feel they lack the appropriate connections and contacts with local iwi. These practical constraints can be overcome with the required support. That might involve professional learning and development courses or workshops tailored to teaching the New Zealand Wars, funding for a range of written, audio-visual or web-based teaching and learning resources, and facilitation of site visits and dialogue with tribal historians and kaumātua.
Debate unlikely to disappear anytime soon
Although there has been much debate around the issue of compulsion, ensuring young people leave school with at least some understanding of this history is essential. But so long as there is a requirement to teach about the New Zealand Wars, schools should be left to determine how they go about doing so. That would allow for place-based learning around the history of these conflicts.
A simple way of ensuring such an outcome might be to tweak the Treaty achievement objective in year 10 so that it is made explicit that the history of the New Zealand Wars should form part of this teaching. That would ensure all children left school with at least some exposure to the topic. A more ambitious approach would embed it throughout the school years. Some primary schools already teach about the New Zealand Wars and that should be further encouraged, along with additional resources for promoting it as an NCEA option at years 11 to 13.
We also need systems in place to capture data about the numbers of students who are learning this history so that future progress can be monitored. The Ministry of Education may be happy with the status quo, but many others are not and the debate is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.