The Government has been found to have breached the Treaty of Waitangi by failing to support Maori-language early childhood centres.
The Waitangi Tribunal finds that the kohanga reo movement - established in the 1980s to help save the language - suffered because of government policy and funding decisions.
In a ruling published today, the tribunal says the Government should apologise to the Kohanga Reo Trust, promote attendance among Maori families, and create a policy and funding regime specifically for kohanga reo.
An interim independent hadviser should be appointed to oversee the recommendations.
Government actions in the early childhood education sector between 2000 and 2011 had significantly damaged the kohanga movement, Deputy Chief Judge Caren Fox said.
"The result is that the relationship between the trust, the Ministry of Education, and Te Puni Kokiri has deteriorated to a point where the trust has lost trust and confidence in the ability and willingness of these agencies to understand and provide for kohanga reo."
The trust was particularly frustrated that it was not consulted about the Early Childhood Education Taskforce appointed in 2010.
During a two-week urgent hearing in March, representatives for the trustees said their whanau-based approach did not fit within normal Education Ministry guide lines and they should be governed by separate legislation.
The tribunal stopped short of agreeing to that but has called for the introduction of a separate policy framework, funding stream and assessment of kohanga reo.
Trust lawyer Mai Chen said she was pleased the findings recognised the unique role kohanga reo played and that early childhood education was not "one size fits all".
"[They wanted to] fit kohanga reo into a model that doesn't allow it to do what it's supposed to do, and that's language preservation.
"What they want to achieve is language preservation and kohanga reo are really successful with that.
"The tribunal recognises the Crown shouldn't mess with that."
While educational success was important, so too was retaining te reo, and the kohanga reo model showed you could have both, she said.
She believed the tribunal's recommendations could be easily adopted and did not require extra funding.
"What the Crown has to achieve is to make sure there are enough mokopuna leaving the system bilingual and biliterate."
Kohanga Reo National Trust board co-chairwoman Tina Olsen-Ratana said the recommendations "go a long way to addressing what issues we had".
Attending Maori-language schools for six to eight years was necessary to achieve bilingualism and the optimal age for attendance was the first 10 years of a child's life, the tribunal said.
More than 9000 children were now enrolled in kohanga reo and they provided the best feeding ground for Maori-language primary schools, the tribunal said.
At the peak in 1993, there were about 14,000 kohanga reo students.
Education Minister Hekia Parata said the Government would consider the report and assess it alongside other work being done on her ministry's Maori-language plan.
More than $1 billion had been directed toward the movement over the past 20 years, she said.
The tribunal has recommended: An interim independent adviser to oversee the implementation of the recommendations.
The completion of an urgent work programme that includes a policy framework, targets for increasing participation, identify measures for maintaining and improving quality, a funding regime, a licensing framework, and funding to ensure existing kohanga reo meet required standards for relicensing by the end of 2014.
Commission research on the effects and impacts of the kohanga reo model in language transmission and Maori educational success.
Inform Maori of the benefits in attending kohanga reo, with respect to education outcomes, as well as the survival of te reo.
Formally acknowledge and apologise to the Kohanga Reo Trust and kohanga reo for the failure of early childhood education policies, and agree to meet the legal expenses of the trust in bringing the claim.
- The Dominion Post
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