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Home arrow Education arrow Early Childhood Education in Aotearoa New Zealand: History, Pedagogy, and Liberation

Chance to be equal

Perhaps as a reaction to the upsurge in civil rights movements, the 1970s saw increasing international emphasis on theories of cultural deprivation, positioning “minorities” in “deficit.” In 1972, a New Zealand Department of Education publication, “Maori Children and the Teacher,” stated that Maori children’s “vocabulary is particularly inadequate when they want to express ideas” (1972, p. 42). Deficit discourses were part of a “race pathology” circulated through the colonization project internationally via Social Darwinist and Eugenicist race ideologies manifest in mechanisms such as IQ tests and the prejudices and low expectations of teachers (Harris, 2008; Simon, 1996).

The idea that ECCE might provide Maori children with an opportunity to “equalize” their educational achievement was picked up by another ECCE research project, based at the Centre for Maori Studies and Research at the

University of Waikato and led by my mother, now Emeritus Professor Jane Ritchie. Influenced by the USA Headstart model, the project ran from 1974 to 1976, and involved 36 families who lived in the urban setting of Hamilton, in the North Island. Of these families, only six parents spoke Maori, and none spoke Maori regularly to their children. Some grandparents also spoke Maori, but English was the first language for all but one of the children who attended the early childhood center, which had been named Te Kohanga by Tainui tribal leader Sir Robert Mahuta. Although English was the dominant language in the homes, “Maori cultural values and attitudes prevailed in the preschool families” (Jane Ritchie, 1978, p. 22). This was reflected in their regular enjoyment of traditional foods such as hangi (feast cooked in an earth oven), frequent attendance at tangihanga (funerals), and trips to the coast to gather kaimoana (seafood). Ritchie pointed out the working-class positionality of these Maori families, who whilst located away from their home marae (village, meeting place), maintained these links despite lack of car ownership. They were not engaged in kindergartens and were unavailable to do the obligatory “mother-help” days at Playcentres.

Despite its recognition and support for Maori cultural identity and values, the project was couched in the deficit language of the day. Jane Ritchie wrote that, “A child who has never been to a beach,1 or to a farm, is in fact deprived of developing language around these experiences, and it these contexts that children’s books frequently utilise” (1978, p. 23). The project had a strong focus on providing a regular format of educational, particularly language-oriented activities and had been criticized for this teacher-directed “structure” by proponents of “free play.” In introductory comments in the book by both W. L. Renwick, then Director-General of Education, and prominent progressive educationalist Jack Shallcrass, both were quick to defend the project’s deliberate focus of providing about one-third of each pre-school session in teacher-directed activities, whilst the other two-thirds were free play. Jane Ritchie, a psychologist whose doctoral work had been on Maori childrearing, and Nancy Gerrand, an experienced new entrant primary school teacher, collaborated in developing the program for the pre-school. It featured a heavy emphasis on reading picture books to and with children. The three features of their book program were frequent repetition of favorite stories in the opening session of the morning program and discussion thereof; a daily small group story reading session; and the daily “home-book” program where each child chose a book to take home to be shared with her or his family overnight. Despite his critique of “compensatory education” in general,

Shallcrass recognized the dedicated, individualized focus of the educational program provided by Te Kohanga:

No child was lost or left behind: each was cherished and every little step in learning was nurtured. We need more such defined and specific attempts to probe and develop individual possibilities. As each child moved ahead on his or her own track that progression was celebrated, acknowledged, recorded and enhanced. Thus as disadvantage was overcome, by and with each child, the record showed it. Everyone knew it: everyone could be prouder for it and rejoice in it. (Shallcrass, 1978, p. xvi)

Despite the socioeconomic marginalization of the Maori families who were involved in this project, their commitment to the program and to their children’s education was evident in the full attendance, “loyalty, support and enthusiasm” demonstrated by both tamariki (children) and whanau (families) (Jane Ritchie, 1978, p. 133).

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