A visit to a kura kaupapa (Maori language school) will prod a variety of reactions from many New Zealanders; from bemusement to anger. But mostly they want to know why you're bothering: Maori children learning in Maori, they feel, is little more than a fashionable sop to increasing Maori demands that their children should not have always to aspire to pakeha (European) standards.
"Maori people must recognise that pakeha standards are the standards of the whole world, so there is no escaping them," scribbled a Sunday paper columnist, referring to the "fashionable laying of blame on a supposedly malevolent major culture setting performance standards that Maori people are racially incapable of reaching. The influential group holding this view beavers away at getting the unsuitable European standards abolished so that Maori people will no longer be failures."
But New Zealand's pakeha-dominated education structure has failed the Maori. More leave school early with no qualifications; more are then unemployed and stay out of work. Kura kaupapa may be a salve, but at the school I visited in a small provincial town with up to 80 per cent unemployment, there was a tacit determination among the young staff and their Maori principal. The pupils at Raukaumanga would succeed.
The first thing that strikes you about the school is its paint work. Mauve buildings trimmed with red, black and white kowhaiwhai (Maori rafter patterns) and one wall covered by a parent's interpretation of the school motto: Te Aroha (love) Te Whakapano (truth) and Te Ture (principles). And then there are the sounds from the classrooms. For the first time in 40 years I couldn't understand the language spoken in a New Zealand school. "Don't worry about it," said senior teacher Ned Koopu as I lurched around Maori vowels. "It's not your fault; it's the way you were brought up." (When I was at small city primary, Maori culture meant stick games, dances and legends about how Maui fished New Zealand out of the sea. Maori language was not part of the school day.) Twenty-three kura have opened since 1989 and a further five are expected this year - all as the result of communities making their own decisions about the type of schooling they want for their children. Pure parent power, as Ned Koopu says. They follow on from kohanga reo (Maori language early childhood centres) in which 13,000 pre-schoolers are now enrolled.
Raukaumanga's head, John Heremia, says his school - which opened "unofficially" as an early kura in 1979 - has been based around several models including language immersion schools in Wales, Quebec and the Shetland Islands. The 240-pupil school in Huntly, a town of 10,000, has gone one step further; it includes seven 13 and 14-year-olds at the beginning of their secondary education (there are no secondary Maori language schools). They do well: at 12 they sit School Certificate Maori (equivalent to 0-levels). In 1993, 93 per cent got grade 1 in their oral and written papers, success which gleams beside statistics showing Maori achievement in national exams as below average.
Its classrooms look like many New Zealand primaries - open plan rooms for new entrants, more formal classrooms for the older pupils. But the syllabus is interpreted from a Maori perspective - for instance, a module on space will include legend on how early Maori used stars for navigation, as well as new technology. "The children learn that science isn't just a European thing; that it belongs to them as Maori; that it's part of their culture too," said one teacher.
The teacher:pupil ratio is 1:25 and most new entrants start at five; nearly always from a kohanga. Most are Maori - there's one blonde head at Raukaumanga - but have English as their first language. The school follows the mainstream national curriculum, but all teaching, except in the English transition class, is in Maori. "Parents want their kids to be doing the same subjects as in mainstream; if they would be doing their two-times-table anywhere else, they want them doing it here," says Ned Koopu.
There are 16 teaching staff, most of them in their early 20s, two in the office and three teacher-aides. Resources have been scarce; publishers have been slow to produce readers, books, tapes and videos in Maori, although they are beginning to trickle in. Most staff make their own: Raukaumanga's "homemade" library is choked by English texts with Maori translations pasted over the originals.
Karen Koopu's classroom is the only one where English is spoken. She teaches English transition - about five hours a fortnight - starting when pupils reach standard 2 (eight and nine-year-olds). It's not compulsory to speak English in her classroom - pupils can choose - but it is mandatory to learn to read, write and spell in English. Do they find it difficult? "About a quarter have taught themselves to read in English by the time they start . . . They've already learnt the strat-egies of how to read; they basically transfer them over into learning another language." But although pupils "click on to it very easily", learning to spell in English can be difficult. "Maori is a phonetic language and therefore much easier. In English the letters don't always sound anything like they write; the children can get confused."
Not all parents choose the kura option; most Maori are still taught - and will continue to be taught - in mainstream schools, sometimes with some form of Maori medium education. But the parents of 1,400 primary-aged Maori have turned to immersion teaching, deciding that mainstream schools are failing their children. They could be right: 37 per cent of Maori students leave school without any qualifications compared with about 12 per cent of other students; more than 40 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds are unemployed compared with about 25 per cent of non-Maori in the same age group.
John Heremia says his young staff, who all work "extremely long hours", are determined their pupils will succeed; they will, he says, have "a meaningful life after school".