28 Aug 2019

MPs urged to make teaching New Zealand history in schools compulsory

6:30 pm on 28 August 2019

MPs are being urged to make the teaching of New Zealand history compulsory because there's no requirement to teach it in our schools.

The flagstaff marks the spot where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed on 6 February 1840.

The flagstaff marking the spot where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed on 6 February 1840. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The History Teachers Association says, currently, whether children get to study history is down to luck.

The association has appeared before a select committee today to speak in support of a petition demanding that schools offer what it calls a coherent programme to teach young people about our shared past.

The association's chair, Graeme Ball, said there was no requirement to teach New Zealand history in our classrooms.

"There's certainly encouragement. But even in the New Zealand curriculum and the achievement objectives for social studies, where you might expect to find it, there is one that asks schools to look at the Treaty of Waitangi.

"Elsewhere in the document, it says that schools will choose which achievement objectives they teach. So in the end, I mean, it is quite conceivable that someone could go through their schooling without much in the way of an exposure to New Zealand history.

"But the other side of that coin is, even as students are being exposed to some element of New Zealand history, there is no coherent framework. So it's just ad hoc."

"Why until now, hasn't it had its place in the curriculum... so that all young New Zealanders will be exposed to that?"

The association's petition requested that: "the House of Representatives pass legislation that would make compulsory the coherent teaching of our own past across appropriate year levels in our schools, with professional development and resources to do so provided".

Mr Ball said as far back as 1938, New Zealand's first pre-eminent historian, James Callan, was asking why the country wasn't teaching its own history.

"We've got a particular history, which, you know, had its contested moments. And I think for us to really move forward as a nation, then it's important that people understand that.

"Ihumātao at the moment is a classic example, really, of concerns about not understanding what lies behind that stand off there."

He thought as a New Zealander it was important to "know your place in the world".

"That seems to underlie a lot of other reasons why other countries do it, but I think also that the skills, critical thinking skills of which history needs to be taught as well, like they come as part of the package. And so those are what I've often called the soft skills, they are transferable to anywhere in any career. So it's not just like some sort of nice to know stuff. There is actually good, pragmatic reasons behind studying history.

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Graeme Ball. Photo: RNZ / Leigh-Marama McLachlan

He said history's great strength was that it was debatable.

"The History Teachers Association and anyone else who has an interest in this would be horrified by the thought that there would be some sort of nationally mandated story about our past.

"But I think on the other hand, there is probably some events - the most obvious one is the Treaty (of Waitangi) and then there are others I'm sure we could get agreement on, which would provide a loose framework, and at least those things would be taught and then we could look at the contested nature of those events. That's an incredibly important part of what history is about.

"I don't think there'd be a problem with coming to some sort of agreement on those major points that should be covered and then provide flexibility within that program for local histories and other such things to be taught. It's doable."

The History Teachers' Association petition was presented to the Education and Workforce Select Committee.

National's education spokesperson Nikki Kaye, who is on the select committee, said New Zealand could do much better in this area but the specifics were more complicated.

"This petition, I hope, is a catalyst for change. It's interesting timing because the government is expected to make some announcements about civics education but I think that detail on how you would deliver it - either through civic or through social studies - the age it's delivered, and how you get the resources through to the teachers is all up to debate," she said.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins acknowledged history education in schools was not equal.

"Some schools do an amazing job of teaching New Zealand [history], the teachers really get into it, they really contextualise it locally, if you're in Northland you'll learn about the Treaty Grounds, if you're in Taranaki you'll learn about Parihaka.

"That's going really well in some places, but others have got a way to go."

The minister was tight-lipped on what that could mean for bolstering New Zealand history education in schools, however.

"We will have more to say on New Zealand history in schools soon, just not right now," he said.

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