Placing tangata whenua where they should be in our story

New Zealand History Teachers' Association chair Graeme Ball talks about his passion for Aotearoa New Zealand history and his role in draft curriculum set to be taught in all schools.

It is vitally important we understand as New Zealanders how the things we might take for granted today came to be, New Zealand History Teachers' Association chair Graeme Ball says.

"When we know where we've come from, what our connections to place are, and we see our stories acknowledged, then we all feel part of this collective that is Aotearoa New Zealand," he said.

Graeme helped spearhead a petition on behalf of New Zealand historians for New Zealand history to be made compulsory and was part of the writing group for the draft curriculum set to be taught in all schools.

The draft curriculum is available for public feedback and the Ministry of Education is seeking feedback from as many people as possible. An online survey is available at education.govt.nz and is open until May 31, 2021.

Hooked on history

Graeme Ball

Graeme Ball

Graeme grew up on a farm in Matakohe, on the Arapaoa river, a branch of the Kaipara Harbour. "Te Uri o Hau are the tangata whenua hapu, but I never learned this in my schooling, or much else about the history of Aotearoa New Zealand," he said.

After 12 years as an apprentice aircraft engineer, Graeme felt it wasn't his life calling and went to university as an adult student. He stumbled into some history papers and became hooked. One of those papers was Māori anthropology. "This was a whole new world to me that I just had to know more about," he said.

With a BA and an MA under his belt he "rather naively" stated at a job interview at Northcote College in 1998, that he would not teach the (then) form 7 Tudor-Stuart course of his predecessor, but would switch to 19th century New Zealand, and would need resources to do that. "Fortunately, the principal and deputy principal were supportive of this aim and the kaupapa behind it and I got the job," he said.

Petitions and politics

In 2019 Graeme set up a petition on behalf of the New Zealand History Teachers' Association (NZHTA), calling for the teaching of New Zealand history to be made compulsory in schools. "This was more radical than it might sound," he said.

"The 'high autonomy curriculum' of 1989's Tomorrow's Schools was sacrosanct at the Ministry of Education," he said. "The difficulties became abundantly clear when, later in 2019, the ministry made a submission to the select committee opposing any compulsion in history programmes."

In terms of when to launch the petition, timing was everything, so Graeme waited until Waitangi Day 2019. "This had the desired effect and there was considerable media interest in the idea, almost entirely supportive," he said.

Getting the opposition on board

Graeme needed an MP to table the petition in parliament and, serendipitously, the opposition education spokesperson Nikki Kay was holding a public meeting, on an unrelated issue, just up the road from his school. "I went along and at the end, after explaining the petition, asked if she would table it. She didn't miss a beat and agreed, saying that it was a 'no-brainer'." Graeme believes this support from National made it much easier for prime minister Jacinda Ardern to make her announcement in September 2019 that all tamariki in New Zealand would study their own history from years 1 through to 10.

"This was extraordinary and far more than we had been seeking, not wanting to spook the horses," he said.

Glossing over the past is not the answer

The past can be painful, but suppressing, ignoring or glossing over it is not the answer, Graeme says. "Challenging the status quo, and the assumptions that underlie it, are part of what living in a healthy democracy is, and it is also fundamental to the discipline of history. This new draft curriculum is a bold step in that direction as it places tangata whenua where they should be in our story, up front and alongside those of us who are here, one way or another, because of Te Tiriti o Waitangi."

Graeme thinks the draft curriculum is a powerful document and is looking forward to hearing what people in various communities think of it. "So far the media coverage has been very positive, but I'm sure there'll also be thoughtful critiques coming in. I urge all New Zealanders to read the document, seek clarification about any uncertainties, then submit a response," he said. 

Graeme says the Ministry of Education is committed to a programme of support for the new curriculum, including resources, teacher PLD, and making connections with local iwi/hapu and organisations. "The rohe/local histories will form a fundamental part of the curriculum alongside the nationally prescribed contexts. This will be a powerful part of the learning, taking things that otherwise might seem quite abstract and bringing them down to local people, landmarks, memorials and street names," he said.

Image: "The Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi", Ōriwa Haddon. Archives New Zealand CC BY 2.0.

Last modified on Wednesday, 7 April 2021 14:49