‘What is colonisation? What is assimilation? How has that impacted on me?’ 

Aotearoa New Zealand’s education system was created as a ‘deliberate, intentional tool of colonisation, and after colonisation assimilation’. In 1847 the Education Ordinance Act was introduced to ensure schools forcefully assimilate Māori (the indigenous population) into White European culture. Children were beaten for speaking their own language and Western European culture and knowledge was presented as ‘civilised’ and superior to the cultures and knowledge of the Māori. As a result multiple generations were conditioned to internalise an imposed cultural and racial hierarchy that still persists today.

The modern education system in Aotearoa New Zealand is considered to be one of the best in the world, and it even leads much of the world in the way it has begun to partially acknowledge Māori culture, language and identity as part of the curriculum. However it is often seen as an add on or extension of a curriculum still dominated by European knowledge and pedagogies. And despite a renewed effort to recognise and celebrate Māori culture within schools, a critical examination of the history that tried to erase Māori identity in the first place is often left unexplored. As such many Māori children have the opportunity to explore cultural expression as an additional part of their education, but have few opportunities to be able to understand their present reality in its true historical context.

The denial of the opportunity to contextualise the income, health, justice, education inequities that affect their lives often leads to an internalised sense of inferiority amongst Māori and Pasifika (originating from the Pacific Islands) children, and this is reinforced by the false narratives, prejudices and stereotypes still prevalent in the dominant Pakeha (Citizen’s of European heritage) culture, and that may also have been internalised by their own families and peers. It is also reinforced by low expectations amongst educators and the exclusion of Māori and Pasifika cultures and knowledge from the majority of the academic space – sending a message that your experience and identity is only of little value within your education, and so you are of little value.

‘Your identity is formed by the way other people see you, and if thats low expectations, and it’s teachers giving you the impression that what you know and understand is of little value – then you have that picture of yourself. You believe that you almost deserve to not be equal. You tolerate and accept inequity’ Ann Milne – Kia Aroha Principal 1994-2016 

Kia Aroha College is a public secondary school serving 300 students, most of them are Māori or from the Pacific Islands. The school has taken a radically different approach to education, developing a special character with it’s community (in Otara, South Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand) that focuses on bilingual, critically conscious, culturally responsive, social justice education.

Kia Aroha explicitly focuses it’s curriculum around a critical analysis of the historical and present realities that affect their students lives. Empowering them with the skills and knowledge to be able to explore their experiences, contextualise them and examine how these have shaped their own sense of self. This is done through a critically conscious, culturally responsive pedagogy designed to ensure that the learning is relevant to the identity and experience of the child. It also focuses on ensuring the learning is based on a foundation of self knowledge and pride, ensuring that Māori and Pasifika identity, knowledge and way’s of knowing are at the centre of the academic space. Allowing students to be affirmed in their identity, and extend their cultural knowledge – be confident in who they are.

The concept of Kia Aroha (through authentic love and care), underpins the schools approach to learning as a whanau (family). Drawing from traditional Māori and Pasifika ways of learning, the school intentionally designs the learning space to fit the child so that they don’t have to ‘constantly adjust to fit in’. Everything from the physical space, to relationships, to pedagogy, to curriculum is designed to create an environment that recognises, affirms and extends the identity of the child.

This combination of critical consciousness, cultural competence and self knowledge and esteem is designed to empower children to understand and successfully navigate the present society from a deep foundation of pride in who they are, but it’s also designed to prepare students with the knowledge and skills to envision a different reality, and take actions towards making a change within the society should they choose.

‘We have to develop that critical authentic hope in young people, that tells them that you can make change, and we’re all in this together. And so our curriculum is built around that idea, understanding how society works, how do you play that game and change that game. And what skills do you need in order to do that?’ Ann Milne – Kia Aroha Principal 1994-2016 

Learn more: ‘The greatness that already exists’ – Esther Rakete shares her personal experiences navigating a colonial system as both a student, an educator and as a Māori.

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