12 Dec 2023

Parents shocked after Whakatāne schools scraps bilingual unit

From Checkpoint, 6:11 pm on 12 December 2023
Maori classroom.

File image. Te reo Māori teaching in a classroom. Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

Parents say they are shocked and angry with a Whakatāne primary school after it decided to scrap a bilingual teaching unit without consultation.

Te Whānau o Awatope at Apanui Primary School immerses 45 students with up to 50 percent of the lessons taught in te reo Māori.

Two weeks since the abrupt announcement, frustrated parents are meeting for the second time with the board of trustees in a final plea to keep the 14-year-old unit alive.

But the board said it had been unable to fill the vacant teacher role for 18 months.

Meanwhile, Whakatāne parents and children have been hurting, as they prepared to say goodbye to a vital part of their community.

For mother Vanessa Marjoribanks, it had been a difficult fact to come to terms with.

"I was absolutely blindsided and I kind of was confused about how they'd possibly got there," she said, "we've had no issues about any information beforehand".

She said the kids were taking it especially hard, having lost more than just a classroom, but a safe space where they could build confidence in themselves.

"So, it's just pulled out the rug from under [my daughter]. She goes from being easily upset to crying, other kids in the class are having angry outbursts, I know my other friend's daughter has been crying herself to sleep."

The school's board of trustees proposed, in its place, to put the kids in mainstream classrooms and teach te reo Māori to all students in the school for at least three hours a week.

Meanwhile, a particular 25 students will get extra immersion in the afternoons and on Friday.

But another Year 5 student's mother Hannah Simmonds said it would not be enough.

"I don't think it meets the needs for our kids, and it's a step backwards in terms of access to language education."

Instead, whānau were making a plea to keep the unit held together by teachers and contractors until it could become tenable again.

Simmonds said they were hoping the meeting with the board of trustees would change the outcome.

"Our hope is that our kids get to stay together. Our hope is that te reo Māori me ona tikanga are still a strong theme within our kids' experiences next year.

"The last thing we want is for 47 tamariki to be split up across the 18 classrooms."

Te reo teachers leaving for kura kuapapa

Apanui Primary School board of trustees spokesperson Alexandra Pickles acknowledged the school did not communicate the changes as well as it should have.

"We have taken some wrong steps along the way and we have learnt that the way that we engage going forward is going to be really important - needs to be tamariki and whānau led."

She said Apanui Primary, like every other school in the country, is the victim of a serious shortage of qualified teachers.

"There has been a vacancy for about 18 months that we've been unable to fill.

"One of the teachers remaining has resigned at the end of term 3 to teach in a kura kuapapa. Continuing in the way we were wasn't feasible."

She said applications for roles had dropped by over two-thirds compared with a few years prior, and the majority of applicants were from overseas

Meanwhile, in Hawke's Bay, Flaxmere Primary School principal Robyn Isaacson said her school was also experiencing recruitment issued.

The school offered three language immersion programmes to its students.

Isaacson said she needed to take on people without full teaching qualifications to take the place of departing te reo teaching staff.

"It's quite a challenging space to fill to be honest. I can think of one situation where we're employing a LAT, a Limited Authority to Teach, and working over the next couple of years to train her.

"She has the reo, but its having that teaching qualification to go with it," Isaacson said.

She said, like Apanui Primary, her teachers were leaving to go to kura kaupapa Māori, schools where the whole cohort was immersed in te reo Māori.

The Ministry of Education and Education Minister Erica Stanford have been approached for comment.