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Bi-lingual, bi-cultural education is a key to improving educational outcomes for Māori secondary school students, according to a specialist in Māori education.

Associate Professor in Māori Teacher Education, Paul Whitinui (College of Education), is researching kaupapa Māori approaches to addressing the ongoing under-achievement of Māori students in mainstream secondary schools – Kaupapa Māori approaches are those that express Māori aspirations, ideals, values and perspectives. He is also interested in researching alternative and culturally relevant learning environments where Māori students are achieving success as Māori.

"We know that Māori students in our mainstream education systems are not achieving at the same level as non-Māori. Since the introduction of all the programmes eliciting ways to improve educational achievement for Māori students, over the last 15 years there has only been a 10 per cent improvement. You might have pockets where it has improved more than others but, across the board, it's only 10 per cent."

At the same time, there has been a greater improvement for non-Māori students and the gap between Māori and non-Māori achievement continues to widen.

Whitinui sees the Ministry of Education's Māori education strategy, Ka Hikitia 2013-2017, as a continuation of the same kinds of programmes for the same small gains.

"Mainstream schools as they currently exist – and where 95 per cent of all Māori students attend – are not the best providers of Māori education. I am talking about creating alternative learning environments that are based on language and culture, where the curriculum underpins and supports the development of the language and culture of Māori learners." He says such alternative learning environments should be bi-lingual, bi-cultural and inclusive of all students who choose them, whether Māori or non-Māori.

"I think there is going to be a major shift towards different kinds of learning environments that will be much more about iwi- and community-based learning than simply schooling Māori students for schoolings' sake."

Whitinui is particularly interested in iwi-based educational strategies, such as those being developed by his own iwi, Ngāti Kurī and Ngā Puhi, that are concerned with what education should look like over the next 25 years.

"I think there is going to be a major shift towards different kinds of learning environments that will be much more about iwi- and community-based learning than simply schooling Māori students for schoolings' sake."

He says all schools, whether mainstream or alternative, should be "healthy" for Māori learners. "Healthy and safe in a holistic sense, in that Māori students feel happy about going to school and that they feel they can engage in a curriculum that supports their language, culture and identity. I don't necessarily see schools doing that at the moment."

Whitinui adds that he believes part of the solution to Māori under-achievement lies beyond the schools themselves, in changes in the wider society. He itemises these as: mandating the Treaty of Waitangi in education; iwi/Māori taking their rightful place in national decision-making about education as a whole; reducing the negative and stereotypical public consciousness about iwi/Māori; increasing the resourcing and funding around implementing strategies for Māori success; and greater visibility for the aspirations of iwi/Māori and their children in education.

Whitinui says there is also an international aspect to solving the problem. "Getting any traction on Māori under-achievement in our schools today by ourselves is not enough. We need international indigenous collaborations and ideas that support the changes we need to see in our schools."

This has led Whitinui to become involved in an international indigenous development research network collaborating with five overseas universities: Queen's; Saskatchewan and Victoria in Canada; Hawai'i in the United States; and Griffith in Australia.

"We are formalising an international indigenous peoples' educational knowledge network that will promote and enhance ways to improve participation levels and educational outcomes of indigenous learners and, in particular, our own Māori learners."