It is relatively easy to critique the New Zealand education system and show how inequalities in the treatment of Māori students have gone on for generations, to the extent that Māori justifiably perceive the system as being inherently biased against them. It is far more difficult to explain why Māori, despite their warrior heritage, persist in seeking out compromise positions with a dominant mainstream, or how they can do this without allowing a kind of refining or ‘thinning out’ of what it means to be Māori. The slogan popularised in the mid-1900s, following Sir Āpirana Ngata’s familiar aphorism, ‘E tipu e rea’ – reinterpreted as ‘we want the best of both worlds’ – has not diminished in salience, and indeed may even have taken on a more strident note in the contemporary form ‘we demand the best of all worlds’.
This is a story about what it feels like to be a Māori in an education system where, for more than a century, equality, social justice and fairness for all New Zealanders has been promised but not adequately provided. It was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that ordinary Māori in a few key communities throughout the country courageously stepped outside the Pākehā system and created an alternative Māori system in order to whakamana (enhance) their own interpretations of what it means to achieve equality, social justice and fairness through education.
The question now is, what has the dominant mainstream education system learned about itself from the creative backlash of the Māori ‘struggle for a meaningful context’, and what is it going to do to address the equally important question of ‘what is an education for all New Zealanders?’.