Sir Toby Curtis: ‘Pākeha schools are hopeless and cannot educate our kids’

By Jessica Tyson

Sir Toby Curtis’ devotion to education has taken him from being a primary school teacher to a principal to a vice-chancellor and now a knight.

Throughout his career, his focus has always been to elevate the voice of Māori but says growing up in a Pākeha education system deprived him of reaching his full potential.

Curtis, of Ngāti Rongomai and Ngāti Pikiao, has six tertiary qualifications and about five fellowships. Despite that, he says he was shortchanged in education by 75 per cent.

“I simply mean that only 75 per cent of me was educated. Let me explain. The English language is a wonderful language, it is a beautiful language, one of the best languages in the world, but it is not my mother tongue," he says.

“Can you imagine China, Russia, France, allowing another language to teach their children? Now, why won’t they allow another language to teach their children? But here, in this country, we are forced to be taught in a language that’s not ours and that’s got to stop, not because it’s racist but because it is not our mother tongue.”

Nothing for wairua

He says learning English did help develop his cognitive intelligence but not his emotional intelligence.

“The English language did nothing for my wairua, for my spiritual intelligence. The English language did nothing for my ahuatanga, my cultural intelligence. Only te reo can do this. So when we’re teaching our kids in English and not in their mother tongue, three parts of them are not being educated.”

Curtis says there is political motivation behind why Māori children are not taught in their mother tongue.

“After 180 years, we have been failed by 70 per cent and everybody is keeping quiet about it. There is no research done on why Pākeha schools are useless and hopeless and cannot educate our kids …There’s been no research on why our kids are so successful when they do kohanga reo, kura kaupapa and kura ngā iwi.”

By Māori

He says if Māori children are educated in their mother tongue they develop an attitude that will help them determine their own future.

“And by determining our own future, the Pākeha will have to move aside and we will run ourselves and our own country. It is politically motivated as to why our kids are not taught in their mother tongue. We’ve got to start telling the Pākeha that they’ve got to stop mistreating us, and not teaching us in our tongue. They are afraid that we might kick them out.”

Curtis was knighted in 2013 for services to Māori and education and he’s still coming to terms with being a Sir.

“For me, I couldn’t have come from a more humble background and to be considered to become a knight was something that never crossed one’s mind in the past. It was something that wasn’t part of my thinking," he says.

Throughout his academic career, Curtis has received many accolades, including a Fullbright scholarship to the US. A highlight was also becoming the principal of his own former secondary school, Hato Petera College.

 He says te reo Māori had a huge impact on the students.

Mother tongue

“When you are taught in te reo, you’re teaching them in their mother tongue, and the mother tongue has a kind of relationship with the owners of that language, the blood owners of that language. It's like a mother has a relationship with her children… If they’re not brought up by their birth mother, they will not turn out as would be expected. The language has that kind of impact on people. When taught in their mother tongue it has that kind of relationship.”

During his time as principal, he increased the school’s examination pass rates. One way to do so was to improve written English amongst the students through a programme titled Sustained Silent Reading.

As well as that, every course had to be taught in Māori and English.

“We did that and after just under three years we got back to 75 per cent  pass rates….We believed that it was probably the Māori language that got them up there. We insisted that questions that had to do with the subject had to be done in te reo and not in English. We did that.”

Sir Toby Curtis appeared on Te Ngākau Tapatahi, a show profiling Māori dames and knights. The new series from the Māori Television newsroom is running this week on Māori Television at 12pm. Find the first five episodes on Māori+ now and the full series from Sunday, January 23.