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Te Kōhanga Reo

1982 –

This essay written by Tania Rei and Carra Hamon was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

Whānau ana te tamaiti, me rarau atu
whakamau ki te ū, hei reira ka tīmata te kōrero Māori [1]

For many years leading up to the 1980s, there had been growing concern among Māori that their language was endangered, in particular because too few young people were fluent speakers. In 1977, Kara Puketapu became head of Māori Affairs, and introduced the philosophy of Tū Tangata (Stand Tall). As Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi recalled, he:

began to call iwi representatives to Wellington: tribal leaders, old and young, men and women, from each of the ten districts of Māoridom … We got into what I call organic policies—policies that actually came up from the people … Out of all that dynamic was born Te Kōhanga Reo. [2]

Te Kōhanga Reo focused on total immersion in Māori language and values for preschool children. Like the other programmes established under Tū Tangata, Te Kōhanga Reo was based on the principles of a whānau style of working, seeding grant funding only (with the ultimate goal being self-sufficiency), and a limited support role for the Department of Māori Affairs.

The government agreed to provide $45,000 in the first year for five pilot schemes, four in Wellington and one in Auckland. Māori came from all over the country to see the first, which opened at Pukeatua, Wainuiomata, in April 1982. The essence of Te Kōhanga Reo was to bring the elders who were fluent speakers together with their mokopuna, the preschool generation, and the parents, following the Māori model of whānau development.

In 1982–83 the National Te Kōhanga Reo Trust was set up, with a small secretariat paid for by Māori Affairs, to encourage whānau groups to establish and operate kōhanga reo. Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi was asked 'to take responsibility to move [kōhanga reo] throughout the country and work with the trustees' (of whom she was one). She describes the policies of the trust as:

very simple. First of all, total immersion or korero Māori for the whole of the time that the children are there; two, whānau responsibility … And [third] accountability, (a) for the kaupapa and (b) for any funds. [4]

All those associated with each kohanga reo were identified as its whānau, though they might not all be related.

For eight months, trust members Frances Williams and Iri Tāwhiwhirangi, a young parent and others took the message from marae to marae, inspiring their hearers with the confidence to begin.

Nanny Frances... is typical of thousands of elders and parents who are out there with a light in their eye because they are starting to do it their way, to understand how language was acquired, to start from where they are at. They have now got into the stage of developing books and equipment … but they are developing them in the light of understanding … using the language and wrapping the whole operation around it. [4]

The small team working for the trust aimed at establishing 300 kōhanga reo within three years. In January 1984, Te Kōhanga Reo held its first national hui at Ngaruawāhia. The establishment of the trust and its goals were approved, and those present reaffirmed their commitment to the kaupapa. By May 1984, 80 kōhanga reo had met the childcare regulations standard and had been licensed by the Department of Social Welfare. This made them eligible to receive capitation grants and fee subsidies. However, many unregistered kōhanga reo continued to operate and to form. Additional funding from Māori Affairs and the Māori Education Foundation enabled each to receive $5000 as a seeding grant, to use as they saw fit, raising the rest of the large sums needed themselves. 

Kohanga reo class

Pupils of the Waiwhetū kōhanga reo in Lower Hutt pose for the camera in this 1984 photo, together with their kaiako (teachers) – from left, Makere Ratu, Wikitoria Ratu and Parekowhai Reriti. Set up in 1982, the Waiwhetū kōhanga was one of the first in the country. Archives New Zealand - Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga  Reference: AAMK W3495 Box 31 31G.

Enabling the adults involved to extend their language and cultural learning, and develop other needed skills such as administration and management, was a major aspect of the movement. In 1984, trust training branches were set up at district level. By June 1985 there were 53 training branches and 1022 trainees. Over time they extended their courses to cover video, catering, administration, te reo Māori, carving and weaving. From 1983 to 1985, Department of Labour work schemes were of great benefit, enabling many mature women to train; but when the schemes altered, this form of support became unavailable.

The Labour government voted $9 million in 1986, $11 million in 1987 and the same in 1988. This enabled each kōhanga to receive $18,000, but they still had to find at least $32,000 annually, depending on their size. Again, the trust members insisted that the money should not be tagged, but that each kōhanga should be able to make its own decisions, providing audited accounts. Many chose to use it for buildings, carrying all the running costs themselves.

From the first year, a mass of data on kōhanga reo – for example on the children, their families and tribal affiliations, length of attendance, and funding – was entered on the mainframe computer at the University of Auckland by a trained secretariat member. From 1986 on, the development of computer training enabled many Māori mothers to learn skills to which they would otherwise not have had access. The computers installed in each training branch were used to record administrative and statistical information, and to document, preserve and develop Māori teaching skills. Bilingual computers were explored as an aid for teaching the language, especially to parents, along with video. In 1988–89, support systems were extended through district taurima teams and the Whānau-Learning Training Unit.

By 1991 there were 630 kōhanga reo operating, with a total enrolment of 10,451 children and about 4000 staff and other adults (many part-time), including over 2000 kaumatua. As the 1988 Government Review of Te Kōhanga Reo pointed out, 'The great majority of people working in the kōhanga reo movement are women … this should be a matter of concern for Māori people, when the kōhanga reo kaupapa stresses the importance of whānau – men and women, young and old.' [5] Despite Māori women being the poorest group in our society, 90 percent of the adults involved were working as volunteers.

The major concern by 1993, apart from the ongoing problems of funding, was the inability of schools in general (with some outstanding exceptions) 'to provide for the continuation of the kaupapa of Te Kōhanga Reo, or to accord value to Māori language and culture'. [6] Many children were losing the language within their first term at school. As a result, some kura kaupapa Māori – total immersion Māori language schools – were set up.

Tania Rei and Carra Hamon

1994 – 2018

After the transfer of Te Kōhanga Reo from the disestablished Department of Māori Affairs to the new Ministry of Education in 1990, the movement was inundated with government policies and practices which caused much cultural struggle. [7] Led by Iritana Tawhiwhirangi, [8] as Chief Executive Officer, followed by Titoki Black and from 2015 by Kararaina Calcott-Cribb, Te Kōhanga Reo maintained its indigeneity.  It achieved this by being true to its kaupapa [9] and by providing a quality total immersion Māori language environment where whānau could learn and develop alongside their tamariki (children).

The survival of te reo Māori was entrusted to the whānau participating in Te Kōhanga Reo as a movement.  Kōhanga whānau were actively involved in learning te reo Māori alongside their tamariki in an environment focused on ‘living as Māori’ ([10] and ‘being Māori’ (2004). [11].  This involved the socio-cultural development (te reo, tikanga, and āhuatanga Māori (Māori forms of interaction),) as well as the economic, spiritual, health, and educational development of the entire whānau.  The movement, predominantly led by Māori women and unique to Aotearoa/ New Zealand, was recognised by UNESCO (2010) for the contribution made to empowering whānau to take responsibility for their future. [12] 

Māori women, from the elders to the youth, were contributing to the movement by strengthening the language through the transformation of whānau, an empowering pathway for Māori women. The intergenerational commitment to the survival of te reo Māori passed from grandmother to mother to daughter.

Toddler Tumaia Nehua on his first day at the Te Reo Tohu Aroha kōhanga, in West Auckland, 2015. Te Karere TVNZ

In 2018 there were 450 kōhanga reo in Aotearoa, attended by approximately 17 percent of Māori children enrolled in early childhood education services. [13] Te Kohanga Reo was the largest employer of Māori women in the early learning sector, employing approximately 2250 women and training 750 women each year.  These women were enrolled in one of the four training programmes approved by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA). The learning journey for many began with completing an NZQA Level 2 Te Kōhanga Reo course, and rose to the movement’s Level 7, three-year kaiako programme.  Some of these kaiako later undertook university or wānanga Masters’ degrees and doctorates. 

Alongside these women were the young women who had begun their lives in kōhanga reo, and by 2018 were graduating with Bachelors’ and Masters’ degrees and doctoral qualifications. Comforted by the intergenerational transmission of cultural values, they were shaping the lives of this country, strong in their Māori language, their identity and their vision for Aotearoa New Zealand. 

In October 2010, the ECE Taskforce was set up to enquire into all areas of ECE, including Kōhanga Reo. The final report, released on 1 July 2011, [14] made 65 wide-ranging recommendations, a number of which indirectly or directly impacted negatively on the Trust and the Kōhanga Reo movement.  The problem was that the Kaitiaki of Kōhanga Reo, the National Trust Board, were not consulted in regard to this report, despite the movement’s contribution to early childhood care, te reo Māori and whānau development.

On 25 July 2011 kuia and kōhanga whānau, led by their patron, Kingi Tūheitia, walked up The Terrace to the office of the Waitangi Tribunal and delivered the Te Kōhanga Reo Claim, requesting an urgent hearing.  A brief of evidence and accompanying appendices were filed the same day by Sir Tīmoti Karetū, Tina Olsen-Ratana and Dame Iritana Tāwhiwhirangi. The Tribunal agreed there was indeed a case to be heard in urgency, and for three weeks from 12 March 2012, at Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Head Office in Wellington, the Waitangi Tribunal heard thousands of Kaumātua and Kōhanga Reo whānau relive the grievances of 30 years.

In October 2012, Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board received the report Matua Rautia. [15] This report vindicated the claims of Te Kōhanga Reo and its decision to take an urgent claim to the Tribunal on behalf of Kōhanga whānau. It acknowledged that Te Reo Māori was in a perilous state, and that Kōhanga Reo was inextricably linked to the preservation of te reo as a living language. 

Never before had a Tribunal report recommended that an interim independent advisor, to be appointed by and report directly to the Prime Minister, oversee and implement the Tribunal’s recommendations. This demonstrated the significance of this historic report.

The Tribunal said that the Treaty of Waitangi protects the right of Maori to choose their cultural path. Kōhanga Reo is a result of Maori choice, the preferred vehicle to transmit Te Reo Maori. The Treaty required Kohanga Reo to be funded equitably with the western model of teacher led ECE. Otherwise, the Tribunal said, there was a ‘looming disaster in the ability of kōhanga reo to function’ and ‘the very real prospect that effectively a third of the kōhanga reo operations will have to cease’. [16]

The Tribunal found that the government’s policy did not adequately provide for the unique role and contribution of Te Kōhanga Reo. Yet the movement had led the way globally, with many indigenous cultures adopting its model of validating who they were through their language and culture, and empowering the entire whānau.

Looking back, all those associated with Te Kohanga Reo lovingly remembered the leadership of the late Māori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, their patron, and the wisdom and strength of their kaumātua in the genesis of Te Kōhanga Reo:

Mā te reo e taea ai e ngā mokopuna te taumata o te Ao Māori, o te Ao Whānui hoki. [17]

Arapera Royal-Tangaere


[1] 'When the child is born, take it, put it to the breast and begin speaking Māori to it at that point'. Government Review Team, 1988, p. 18.

[2] Tāwhiwhirangi, 1991, p. 3. This account of Te Kōhanga Reo focuses on the involvement of women. For a detailed account of structural development, institutional relationships and funding, see Government Review Team, 1988.

[3] Tāwhiwhirangi, 1991, p. 5.

[4] Tāwhiwhirangi, 1991, p. 9.

[5] Government Review Team, p. 47.

[6] Government Review Team, p. 8.

[7] See Waitangi Tribunal, 2012.

[8] Iritana Tawhiwhirangi became a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori education in 2009.

[9] Kaupapa – philosophical base of Te Kōhanga Reo, encompassing the Māori language and values; whānau development; accountability; and health and wellbeing.

[10] Mason Durie coined the phrase ‘to live as Māori’ according to his framework presented at Hui Taumata Matauranga Tuarua 2001, and his paper presented at Hui Taumata Matauranga II, 2003. See:

[11] Mason Durie used the phrase ‘being Māori’ in Durie, M., ‘Māori Achievement: Anticipating the Learning Environment’, paper presented at Hui Taumata IV, Massey University, 4 September 2004. Available from:

[12] UNESCO, Reaching the Marginalised: EFA global monitoring report. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 2010. 

[13[ Among Māori preschool children in 2017, 17 percent attended a kōhanga reo, 58 percent an education and care service, 15 percent a kindergarten and 7 percent a home based service.

 [14] ECE Taskforce, An Agenda for Amazing Children – Final Report of the ECE Taskforce (the ECE Taskforce Report), Ministry of Education, Wellington, June 2011.

[15] See Waitangi Tribunal, 2012.

[16] Waitangi Tribunal, 2012.

[17] Quotation by Te Araikinui, Dame Te Atairangi Kaahu, Patron of Te Kōhanga Reo. Translation by Sir Tīmoti Karetū: ‘The command of the [Māori] language by [our] young children will scale the heights of their own Māori world as well as the world at large.’ 

Unpublished sources

Tāwhiwhirangi, Iritana, 'The Origins of Te Kōhanga Reo', Lecture, Victoria University of Wellington, September 1991

Published sources

Government Review Team, Te Whakamātau a te Kāwana i Te Kōhanga Reo: Ko Te Reo Te Mauri O Te Mana Māori/Government Review of Te Kōhanga Reo: Language is the Life Force of the People, Department of Education, Wellington, 1988

Irwin, Kathie, 'The Politics of Te Kōhanga Reo', in Sue Middleton et al. (eds), New Zealand Education Policy Today, Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1990

Keepa, Sandy, 'Standing Tall With Te Kōhanga Reo', Broadsheet, No. 184, January/February 1991, pp. 17–20

Rosier, Pat, 'Kōhanga Reo: My Passion and My Agony', Broadsheet No. 183, November/December 1990, pp. 20–23

Waitangi Tribunal, ‘Matua Rautia: The Report on the Kōhanga Reo Claim – Pre-publication’ [released on the internet], 2012; print publication, 15 May 2013