How Apirana Ngata pioneered contemporary "creativity in schools"

“Creativity” is a twenty-first century buzzword, and it’s been refreshing in recent years to see thinkers like Ken Robinson apply it in tackling the problems with our Western education system. “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status” Robinson says. “I believe this passionately: we don’t grow into creativity… we get educated out of it.”

If you haven’t seen his critical talks, like Changing Educational Paradigms, and Do Schools Kill Creativity? – do. Robinson traces the roots of standardised, conformist, “production-line” classroom teaching to British industrialism.

The arts are the victims of this mentality… the arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you’re present in the current moment, when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing that you’re experiencing – when you’re fully alive. An anaesthetic is when you shut your senses off, and deaden yourself to what’s happening.

The idea of creative experience belonging at the heart of education is an exciting one. While it’s being pitched as fresh, though, let’s remember how Aotearoa actually pioneered the institutionalisation of this notion at government level, before the Thatcher era took hold – and that was thanks to a Māori struggle. Throughout the period of European land theft, ‘anaesthetic’ schooling and cultural genocide, Māori fought for the survival of tikanga Māori, and for the place of arts in learning. This work saw internationally pioneering successes.

As researchers like Linda Tuhiwai-Smith remind us, Maori have always known the importance of arts to education. Waiata, karakia and whakapapa have always been understood as central to the learning process, which seeks “to prepare the child for all aspects of living” and “to ensure that each child will ultimately have the opportunity to take an active, participatory role within Māori society.”

Tuhiwai-Smith says that in the settler period, Māori were quick learners of literacy: “by the late 1850s, about half of all adult Māori could read in the Māori language and about a third of them could write it.” Māori increasingly came to the view that “complementing traditional culture and knowledge with that of the Pākehā was necessary for effective survival within a Pākehā-dominated society”, Tuhiwai-Smith says. Prominent Māori petitioned parliament for decent English-language teaching all the way back in the 1870s; for a school he donated land for, Te Rauparaha requested that there be a “really good English master to take charge of the school”.

Smith states:

On the surface the intentions of Māori in regards to schooling appear to be similar to those of the state yet they are essentially different. Whereas Māori wanted to extend their existing body of knowledge, the state, through its assimilation policy, intended to replace Māori culture with that of the European. Māori were embracing schooling as a means to maintaining sovereignty and enhancing their life chances. The state, on the other hand was supporting schooling as a means to securing control over Māori and their resources.

The British seemed barely to be learning: while schooling became compulsory for Māori from 1894, the settlers built schools in Aotearoa as though it were a British province.

School buildings with their galleries, nine-foot desks, and provision of little more than a square yard of floor-space for each child, were copied directly from Britain. On occasion they were actually built facing south, and one may see in the Auckland province the high-pitched roofs originally designed to cast the British snow.

Some Pākehā grasped the importance of arts, culture and context to learning: James Pope, inspector of Māori Schools at the turn of the century, at least “insisted that one of the most effective means of teaching the Māori pupils the English language was to relate the reading material used in the school as closely as possible to their everyday experiences.”

Yet Pope retired in 1903, and from the early 1900s especially, Māori language was officially prohibited and violently suppressed. Emphasis in the Native Schools was on manual labour and technical instruction in agriculture, while the girls were taught “all kinds of domestic work, including cooking, washing, and ironing, and to make and mend their own clothes.”

There was a proficiency examination to select students for entry to secondary school, with few entries granted to Māori pupils. In 1906, 29 proficiency certificates were awarded to pupils in the Native Schools out of a total roll of 4,174. Out of 3,952 children of Māori or mixed race attending board schools in the same year, 13 gained proficiency certificates. In 1910, the only senior scholarships available for Māori girls were five nursing scholarships.

Not all schools, though, were conforming. Linda Tuhiwai-Smith writes:

One well-documented example of a school not conforming to the policy of the Department of Education is that of Te Aute College, an Anglican school for Māori boys. Here, in the 1880s, the principal, John Thornton, adopted a policy of selecting his most promising pupils each year and coaching them rigorously for the matriculation examination of the University of New Zealand.

This produced, in the 1890s, the first wave of Māori university graduates, beginning with Apirana Ngata and including Maui Pomare, Peter Buck, Tutere Wirepa, Reweti Kohere, and others.

In an apparent effort to stem this flow, the Department, in 1906, set up a commission of enquiry into Te Aute. Departmental officials endeavoured to persuade Thornton to abandon his academic curriculum and replace it with one based on agriculture instead. Thornton, however, resisted this pressure and, because the school was controlled by the church, the Department was unable to force the issue. It did, however, cut off the scholarships to the school. A few years later, Thornton’s successor capitulated to the Department’s demands and the school adopted an agriculturally based curriculum.

These students however, made huge changes in New Zealand. By 1927, Apirana Ngata set up the School of Māori Arts and Crafts at Rotorua. He was concerned about the lack of Māori carvers, especially in the East Coast among Ngati Porou, and said in 1940:

The realisation that so large a part of the Māori people had lost, or were about to lose, its expert artists was the chief reason behind the representations made to the Government of the day which resulted in the School of Māori Arts and Crafts at Rotorua. Fundamentally the motive here was the same as that lying behind other phases of Māoritanga. The setting up of the school at Rotorua in 1927 represented one of the most important measures taken towards the rehabilitation of the Māori.

Apirana Ngata. Source: Turnbull Library

By 1931, a few schools had begun to introduce into their programmes crafts such as weaving, taniko work and carving, while poi dances, songs and games were included in physical drill. In order to teach these sincerely and effectively, teachers were encouraged to study “the social life, the music, recreations, and arts and crafts of the Māori people”. Assistance from Māori parents was sought – but little progress made by 1935.

There were districts in which old skills had been forgotten. One example is at Ngataki in the Far North, “a then totally undeveloped wasteland of scrub”, where about twelve families had been shifted from Te Hapua. The area had been pillaged for kauri gum by settlers, then abandoned when it ran out. The school principal said that “Local Māori had lost touch with their cultural roots, had no housing except huts in the scrub, no real income, little defence against disease.”

D.G. Ball later acknowledged that the arts practices had been implemented “in a rather limited and superficial manner”, because the policies overlooked the deeper cultural drives of Māoritanga.

Then, in February 1936, Ngata, alongside Dr Wi Repa and Dr I. L. G. Sutherland, ran a course in three centres – Kaikohe, Rotorua and Tikitiki, on the East Coast. Pine Taiapa, who had studied at Ngata’s Rotorua school, gave instructions in Māori carving.

The course included addresses on Māori education, the principles of the new curriculum, health, art, physical drill, the teaching of English, and the teaching of numberwork to infants. The lecturers… gave addresses on Māori history and, with a large group of assistants, gave practical instruction in flax plaiting, tukutuku and taniko work, and poi dancing. Pine Taiapa, a leading Ngati Porou carver, demonstrated Māori carving. The courses were highly successful and cyclostyled notes of most of the lectures were distributed for the use of the teachers.

In the same year, D.G. Ball, Drs Peter Buck, F.M. Keesing and Ernest Beaglehole, represented New Zealand at a Conference on Native Education in Pacific Countries, held in Honolulu. Ball returned convinced of the necessity for ‘administrators and teachers concerned with Maori education to study and understand the culture of the people’. But progress remained slow, teachers lacked experience, and the depression restricted the supply of materials… Some effort was made to establish carving, and, in 1937, 30 sets of carving tools were distributed, one set to a school… Ngata complained of the difficulty of getting even 100 pounds for materials for the schools…

In February 1939, another important refresher course for Native school teachers was held, which was attended by the Minister of Education (Peter Fraser), the Director of Education (N.T Lambourne) and the Assistant Director (C.E. Beeby). Ball… had the following to say: ‘The Māori crafts – taniko, tukutuku, carving and plaiting – have been introduced. Taniko weaving soon became the favourite… In a lesser degree, carving has been accepted, although 60 sets of carving tools have now been distributed. In not more than a dozen schools has the craft been carried on in a worthwhile manner… Tukutuku work almost died at birth… In the few schools where plaiting has been attempted it remains a simple operation.’ Māori pattern work was popular, but ‘there has yet been little application of Māori design to the various forms of handwork and art’. Those aspects of Māori life which became immediately popular ‘and well entrenched in the Native Schools were the Māori song and dance… I have frequently been amazed’, he continued, ‘at the immediate transformation in the children when I have suggested that they sing a Māori song or perform a Māori haka or poi.’

There was a long way to go. But momentum started to build when finally, the Pakeha government began to wake up because of changes in the intellectual climate in Europe and Britain. The first Labour government began making substantial efforts to support arts-based learning in New Zealand classrooms.

The turn of the twentieth century saw an emergence of thinkers in Europe and Britain who applied new child psychology and social democratic ideas – inspired by Marx, Freud and Jung – to educational thinking. They saw that an education system that was built to foster and sustain a democracy needed to be child-centred, creative, and based on the arts. Vibrant, experimental schools began to spring up, like Arthur Lismer’s in Canada and Franz Cizek’s in Vienna.

John Dewey was the leading light of this era of educational thinking. He developed what a younger contemporary, Herbert Read, called the first “theory of education fully integrated with a democratic conception of society” since Plato, whose influence came from the Egyptian mystery schools of Africa. He wrote about the links between education, arts, experience and aesthetics that Ken Robinson points to, and helped found an organisation called the New Educational Fellowship (NEF).

The British hub for these experimental schools was Manchester, where a follower of Dewey’s, J.J. Findlay, was Professor of Education. A student of his, James Shelley, emigrated to New Zealand, and became our first education professor, as well as Director of Broadcasting, and founder of the National Orchestra and Workers Education Association summer schools. Shelley was a professor to Clarence Beeby, who admired Shelley’s famed brilliant, theatrical oratory, and his knack for stimulating interest in the arts.

In 1937, Beeby was assistant director in the Education Department, and he helped to host an international NEF conference in Christchurch. It included presentations from Arthur Lismer, and nearly six thousand teachers enrolled. Primary schools closed for the event. After Beeby was given Education Department directorship, and having worked with Ngata, he set up an Arts and Crafts branch within the Department in 1944. Gordon Tovey, previously head of art at Dunedin Technical College, became its national supervisor.

An art specialist training course was also established at Dunedin Teachers’ College, to build a team who could provide in-service training and support to teachers. The roll over the years became a who’s who of New Zealand visual arts: Cliff Whiting, Para Matchitt, Ralph Hotere, Marilyn Webb, Sandy Adsett, John Bevan Ford all received training in that system.

Tovey embarked on “The Northern Māori Project”, from 1954-9. He selected a network of Native School principals and teachers to shield from the inspectorate, to allow them to implement principles of arts-based education, listen to the children’s needs and responses, and develop their own methods and teaching styles. It was hugely successful – inspiring records have been left from the work carried out in Ngataki.

Still from Patterns of Growth
Ngataki School – film still from Patterns of Growth


Tovey had originally sought to work on the East Coast, but Ngata was wary, already having a programme working there. The Department’s interest in working there rekindled after Ngata passed in 1950, and by 1960 a group of art specialists went there with the intent of enlisting Ngati Porou assistance to bring Māori arts into the mainstream school curriculum. Ngata’s work came a full circle. The group was invited by his ex-student, Ngati Porou master carver Pine Taiapa. Clive Arlidge remembers:

That was interesting in itself, because at that first meeting when they powhiri’d us on, they really didn’t want us there, at all, and they were suspicious about what we were going to do if we were given the information, what was going to happen to it. Because they thought, Oh, here’s all these young people, they’re going to commercialise it and do extremely well for themselves, and we won’t get anything out of it.

Tovey and Taiapa though, seem to have got along famously and Taiapa took the students under his wing. They worked, learned and discussed – one important topic was the differences distinctions between conservative traditionalism, appropriation, and creative interpretation in arts. Finally, as Whiting remembers,

they’d been working on the curriculum and they had managed to get Māori Arts into the curriculum, and that was 1960. So we had a great celebration, because Brian Pinder came up to visit Ngati Porou and us, and to tell everybody that that had happened. So we had a nice, big march down the middle of the Ruatoria streets – remember that? In the middle of the night! Celebrating. With Pinder leading the entourage!

I think that most people nowadays just take it for granted, and don’t realise how important that period of time was.

Pine Taiapa teaching at Tikitiki, 1968. Cliff Whiting also pictured. Source: Cliff Whiting.


This period had produced the book The Arts of the Maori, and a series of related handbooks for teachers on a raft of tikanga Māori. Ex-arts advisor David Aitken recalls:

The Arts of the Maori was a seminal publication. There was no doubt about that, it was a superb piece of work, and given who contributed to it, it was clear… the extension was that ran courses on Māori Arts and Crafts. So we were trained to be able to go and teach that to schools. We had superb courses, where people like Cliff would come in… and teach us haka for instance… some of those people were an eye-opener… the man who might be the driver of the rubbish truck actually turns out to be a well-revered kamatua of haka… We went out and taught them in schools.

Cliff talks about some of the impact of all this mahi:

I think that had a huge effect in terms of starting to change that ‘slot’ to do with just ‘art’. Because once the Māori art thing got going in schools of course, it dealt with music, haka, carving, painting, stories – here’s a whole range of different things. Teachers went to in-service training courses to work with us to develop some of these so that they could be applied in the classroom at different levels. I think that was when there was a huge change, in terms of it’s not just “an hour of art”.

By the late twentieth century though, cutbacks began to be made. From 1984 “Rogernomics” saw Treasury play a greater role in policymaking: education was to prepare individuals for a competitive, global free market. It has become, again, increasingly standardised. So the wind changed and characteristically, the Western world – having finally awakened to Pacific wisdom – quickly forgot what it just learned. Student teachers now gain minimal preparation for bringing arts into the classroom, let alone basing a teaching practice on it – so we find ourselves looking to Britain to learn the same lessons again.

Yet Tangata Pasifika have always practised the wisdom of arts-based education, and in New Zealand, even climbed mountains to ensure its internationally pioneering institutionalisation by the state. Let’s honour and remember that mahi.

Apirana Ngata. Source: Turnbull Library




Clarence Beeby, The Birth of an Idea

Carol Henderson, Blaze of Colour

Damian Skinner, The Carver and the Artist

J.M. Barrington and T.H. Beaglehole, Maori Schools in a Changing Society

Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Nga Kura Maori

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