< May 2022 newsletter

The 'decolonisation' of civics and citizenship education

“The definition of ‘civics’ must also be broader than simply liberal democratic notions premised on the idea of indivisible sovereignty. The definition must look beyond the existing constitutional arrangements and carefully incorporate Indigenous constitutionalisms and aspirations”  - NZPSA Civics Citizenship and Political Literacy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Public Discussion Paper

Pre 2019

In 2008 New Zealand participated in an International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS). The report “What do our students think about New Zealand, democracy and freedom?” was released in 2011. It captured the views of Year 9 students on New Zealand and its institutions, and on issues of democracy, freedom, equal rights, and religion within the context of civic and citizenship education.

The results show that a large majority of Year 9 students viewed New Zealand and its key institutions and symbols positively, including having pride in and respect for New Zealand, its political system, and its flag.

Almost all students agreed or strongly agreed with rights of freedom of expression, respect for social and political rights, free elections, being allowed to protest about laws believed to be unfair, and that political protest should not be violent. 

A large majority of students expressed support for equal rights for men and women, and the Year 9 students strongly supported equal rights for different ethnic groups. 

This included access to good education, equal opportunities to get good jobs, that schools should teach students to respect members of all ethnic groups, and that members of all ethnic groups should have the same rights and responsibilities. Similar proportions of Pākehā/ European and Pasifika students supported equal ethnic group rights. A slightly larger proportion of Asian students than their Pākehā/European and Pasifika peers supported equal ethnic group rights. However, a smaller proportion of Māori students supported equal ethnic group rights. 

Post 2019

When the Labour Government was elected in 2017, it promised to introduce civics education into high schools. This created the impression that it is not already being taught – which it is, although not compulsory. It appears what was meant by the government was that a different version of civics education would be introduced, one based on the ‘decolonisation’ programme now permeating the New Zealand education system.

Three years later the Ministry of Education released a new teaching guide called Civics and Citizenship Education Teaching and Learning Guide as part of a new School Leavers’ Toolkit. The introduction notes: 

“New Zealand is one of the world’s oldest democracies and was the first country to give women the vote. By global standards, we have a robust democracy. However, the resilience of our democracy can’t be taken for granted. Around the world, democracies are grappling with things such as growing inequality, environmental degradation, eroding trust in the media and in political processes, and ongoing issues of social, political, and ethnic conflict and discrimination.”

It goes on to say: 

“While New Zealand teachers feel confident teaching topics that relate to cultural identity, equality, human rights, and the environment, they feel less confident teaching those linked with legal, political, and constitutional issues. As a result, there is considerable variability in the extent to which learning experiences at school promote active citizenship and support students to develop a robust understanding of political institutions, processes, and systems. This includes the rights and responsibilities of Treaty partnership and the ongoing legacy of colonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand.(Emphasis added).

While including some worthwhile concepts, notably missing in this new teaching guide are lessons about equality of citizenship, rule of law, universal human rights. On the other hand, it does call for teachers and students to “critically examine whose knowledge is being taught and valued in order to balance and enhance power-sharing,” and to be wary of “cultural dominance.” 

While there is no discussion of political equality, ‘inequality’ is mentioned several times. Likewise, there is very little promotion of the values of a democratic system of governance, its origins, and its fundamental principle of universal human rights. Instead, teachers are directed to Māori sovereignty propaganda, for example this video by Margaret Mutu. The introduction says: “In this 10-minute video, Margaret Mutu speaks about the need for constitutional transformation as a way to restore the balance between mana Māori motuhake (Māori ‘sovereignty’) and British kawanatanga (governance over British and other immigrants).”

The Teacher and Learning Guide appears to be largely informed by a 2018 New Zealand Political Studies Association paper: “Our Civic Future: Civics, Citizenship and Political Literacy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Public Discussion Paper”, authored by contributors such as academic Maria Bargh and Otago University lecturer and columnist Morgan Godfery. This paper was submitted to the Government under the guise of “strengthening democracy.”

Media coverage

Stuff: Civics and citizenship education being left to chance, expert says, 26 May 2021

Spinoff: Civics education experts ‘dumbstruck’ by lack of consultation on new curriculum, 27 May 2021 

Go back to the May 2022 newsletter


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