Historians critical of education ‘double standard’

Pressure is growing on the Government to make te reo and New Zealand history compulsory topics in schools, with advocates pointing to a double standard, Marc Daalder reports.

Through years of petitions and rallies, the Ministry of Education's response to people arguing for compulsory te reo or New Zealand history teaching in schools has remained the same: We don't tell teachers what to teach.

But that isn't strictly true, says Graeme Ball, the chair of the New Zealand History Teachers' Association and a strong advocate for mandating the teaching of the New Zealand Wars. On maths and science, the Ministry is more than happy to issue specific orders on what topics to teach, he points out.

A double standard

Ball sees a double standard in the talk of a compulsion to teach students about the New Zealand colonisation and wars "possibly setting some kind of unwanted precedent". 

"The science and maths curricula are bursting with prescribed content and rightly so," he told Parliament's Education and Workforce Select Committee on Wednesday.

Ensuring that students know the fundamentals of maths or science before progressing to the next level is "a desirable outcome. Students knowing their own past is an equally desirable outcome," he said.

A quick comparison between the Ministry of Education's achievement objects in history on the one hand and maths or sciences on the other shows a world of difference.

Level six history consists of just two goals: Ensuring students "understand how the causes and consequences of past events that are of significance to New Zealanders shape the lives of people and society" and "how people’s perspectives on past events that are of significance to New Zealanders differ".

By contrast, the level six maths and sciences curricula spell out what specific topics should be covered - and how. Students should learn to "extend powers to include integers and fractions," be able to "calculate volumes, including prisms, pyramids, cones, and spheres, using formulae" and "distinguish between atoms, molecules, and ions (includes covalent and ionic bonding)".

In total, there are 20 specific goals in maths and 23 in science, compared to the two broad objectives in history, which is categorized under social sciences. As an entire subject, level six social sciences only contains eight goals.

Humanities undervalued

Jim McAloon, a professor of history at Victoria University of Wellington and the president of the New Zealand Historical Association, says he thinks the double standard exists because the Ministry thinks STEM subjects are more important than the humanities.

"I think it's about what is regarded as important. What is privileged. And that comes down to issues of knowledge and power and what is valued and what is not," he said.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins contested the idea that the Ministry doesn't want to tell teachers what to teach. 

"I think what they're saying is that we've got a very enabling curriculum framework at the moment, which does include New Zealand history. The question is whether the requirements in the curriculum ... are specific enough to New Zealand history."

"That's something that the Government is looking at," Hipkins said.

But the achievement objective documents don't mention New Zealand history, instead only specifying that "past events that are of significance to New Zealanders" must be taught.

The Ministry's own website states that "the New Zealand curriculum doesn't require schools to teach particular historical topics". The Ministry did not clarify this inconsistency.

"This is our last shot"

Now that the select committee has received Ball's petition, it has the power to make recommendations to the Government, which will then have to respond within 60 days.

Whether anything will change is uncertain. The Ministry of Education is wedded to the choice-based model it currently operates for the humanities, which gives teachers considerable leeway in choosing what topics to teach as long as they satisfy extremely broad objectives.

But this model isn't a legislated requirement. "The high-autonomy model with its hands-off approach did not descend from a mountaintop on stone tablets. It is a policy that, under legislation, can be changed," Ball said.

The Education Act 1989 allows Hipkins to make unilateral decisions on the curriculum. If he wanted to, he could make teaching te reo or New Zealand's colonial history a mandatory topic tomorrow, according to Ball.

Hipkins said that the Government was still looking at the issue.

The petition is the culmination of years of work on the subject, Ball said. "This is our last shot. We've exhausted every other alternative."

The New Zealand Wars spanned three decades, from 1845 to 1872. Thousands of Māori and Pākehā lost their lives in the fighting, which took place across the country, including some parts of the South Island.

More than 12 million acres of Māori land was confiscated or sold during this period.

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