Biculturalism in education

The term "biculturalism" suggests inclusiveness and equality. In practice, "biculturalism" leads to exclusiveness and separatism; it encourages different treatment and different consideration on grounds of ethnicity and it steers our society down the road once travelled by South Africa.

The concept of "biculturalism" both contributes to and arises from the notion being promoted currently that the Treaty of Waitangi created a "partnership" between the British Crown and Maori for the purpose of governing New Zealand.    

Acceptance of this notion would require you to believe that Great Britain, the greatest power on earth in 1840, would have agreed to share sovereignty over New Zealand with a number of iwi leaders who had spent the previous 30 years sanctioning inter-tribal warfare, slavery and cannibalism.

Subscribing to the idea of a "bicultural" New Zealand would require a belief that only two ethnicities and two cultures are present in New Zealand; so, if Maori is one, which is the other?

The promotion of "biculturalism" in our schools has a political purpose.

If young minds can be led to accept the concept of "treaty-based partnership", they will be open to acceptance of special entitlements for all people who can claim Maori ancestry and, in particular, iwi leadership;  they will be less likely to question the role of un-elected iwi nominees in management of the nation's resources, and they may even acquiesce in the current raft of iwi claims before the High Court seeking wahi tapu status for some hundreds of stretches of the New Zealand coastline, with one claim in the name of Maanu Paul seeking wahi tapu status for the entire coast, no doubt in case his many fellow claimants have missed a bit.

For more than two decades, teachers have experienced pressure to accept and implement the concept of "biculturalism" in our schools.

In the early 1990s, secondary school subject heads of department  found themselves expected to demonstrate a "Maori dimension" in every curriculum field, be it mathematics, physics, computing or a foreign language.

Teachers have, in general, responded to such demands with token compliance and then got on with the job of providing for the students in their care.

Such a dismissive response will no longer be possible, however, after the Education Council's proposed Code of Professional Responsibility and Standards for the Teaching Profession comes into effect on July 1 this year.

The code reveals its purpose in the introduction, entitled Our Values: "We recognise that we have an obligation to assist Aotearoa New Zealand as bicultural nation . . . by paying particular attention to the rights and aspirations of Maori. Our Code, our Standards reflects this obligation."

Section 1, "Commitment to the Teaching Profession", requires teachers to "maintain public trust and confidence in the teaching profession by . . . demonstrating a commitment to tangata whanuatanga and bicultural partnership". (Para 1.4)

Section 2, "Commitment to Learners"  requires teachers to "work in  the best interests of learners by . . . affirming Maori learners as tangata whenua." (Para 2.4)

Para. 2.3 requires teachers to respect the diversity of students' heritage, language, identity and culture, but the intention to regard and treat children of Maori ancestry as a separate and different group is underscored by repeating this requirement in Para 2.4 with special reference to Maori.

In Section 4, "Commitment to Society",  each teacher is to "respect my trusted role in society and the influence I have in shaping futures by . . . . demonstrating a commitment to a bicultural Aotearoa New Zealand." (Para 4.3)

The code makes it clear that, as from 1 July, a teacher employed to teach in such fields as computing, chemistry or Mandarin, could face sanctions for "refusing . . . to engage in professional development opportunities to build Maori cultural competency." and would be on very shaky ground making any sort of critical comment about te ao Maori (Maori world views).

The wording of Section 4 suggests that a teacher could face trouble even for challenging the agenda of "biculturalism" and "co-governance" in a private capacity, and it will, in future, be a very brave history teacher who explains that the Treaty of Waitangi had the effect of placing New Zealand under the authority of the Governor of New South Wales and that our actual founding document was Queen Victoria's Charter issued later in 1840 with not one reference to separate entitlement for anyone on grounds of ethnicity.

Only once in the entire code is there any acknowledgement that New Zealand society is now multi-cultural;  in Standards Para 4f, there is a mention of "bicultural and multi-cultural Aotearoa/New Zealand."

What might this mean? Clearly, of all the ethnicities that now make up our society, one is to be singled out at school for special consideration  and special treatment, creating an expectation of ongoing special entitlements later in life.    

If parents and the wider community have concerns over the likely effect of these requirements, they should not blame principals or teachers;  as from 1 July, compliance with this Code and Standards will be a requirement of their employment whether as a permanent, part-time or even a relieving teacher at all levels of the school system. 

John Bell is a former teacher and Aoraki chair of the Post Primary Teachers Association.