Teaching about the Treaty of Waitangi – what are schools doing?

The Treaty of Waitangi (the Treaty) forms part of New Zealand’s constitution, the Education Act and The New Zealand Curriculum (The NZC). The recently passed Education and Training Act, 2020 (which replaces the 1989 Act) aims to give greater prominence and effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi at both a national and individual school level. Under the new Act, School Boards from the beginning of 2021 have new objectives relating to Te Tiriti o Waitangi including emphasising the importance of local history and practices through the curriculum; improving the teaching of te reo and tikanga Māori and contributing to the Crown’s duty to actively protect tino rangatiratanga rights.

The social sciences learning area of The NZC is about how societies work and how people can participate as critical, active, informed and responsible citizens. Students explore the bicultural nature of New Zealand society embodied in the Treaty of Waitangi. Students learn about people, places, cultures, histories and the economic world within and beyond New Zealand. They also learn about how the diverse cultures and identities of people affect their participation within their communities. This learning provides opportunities to compare and contrast the role of the Treaty in shaping our bicultural context with other contexts beyond New Zealand.

The Treaty is also an achievement objective at curriculum Level 5 of the social sciences learning area in the NZC: “Students will gain knowledge, skills and experience to understand how the Treaty of Waitangi is responded to differently by people in different times and places”. In other levels of the social sciences learning area, there are opportunities for teachers to incorporate learning about the Treaty. For example, at curriculum Level 1 “Students will gain knowledge, skills and experience to understand how the past is important to people”.

How many schools are teaching about the Treaty?

In 2012, ERO reported increased evidence of the Treaty in the school and classroom curriculum. In Term 4, 2019, information about how the Treaty was being taught from a sample of 20 secondary schools via a questionnaire and from 94 primary and intermediate schools during their regular educational review.

More than 80 percent of the schools reported they included some aspects about the Treaty in their curriculum across year levels. However, for the majority of these schools these aspects were limited to teaching about the Treaty principles (partnership, protection and participation) rather than teaching explicitly about the history, content and implications of the Treaty.

Approximately half of the schools we talked to clearly linked their teaching about the Treaty to curriculum achievement objectives. A quarter of these schools reported against a learning outcome related to students’ understanding of the concept and importance of a treaty. We found it was rare for schools to review their approach to teaching about the Treaty.

What did teaching about the Treaty of Waitangi look like in primary and intermediate levels?

The following table shows what was typically taught in the primary and intermediate schools which reported teaching detail about the Treaty as students progressed through their schools.

Typical content taught across year levels Teaching about the Treaty 
Years 1-2: The value of a shared understanding of the values and culture and the process of developing a classroom treaty

Students did not learn specifically about the Treaty but were learning about the importance of developing an agreement about treating each other with respect, setting expectations, reaching consensus, and appreciating different opinions. Karakia, pepeha, waiata, haka and te reo Māori were increasingly used in class.

Years 3-4: History of the Treaty

Students began to learn about the Treaty’s history: why it was created, who signed it, when and why it was signed. Some schools focused on the three principles (partnership, protection and participation) and what these mean for individuals, their peers and their class culture.

Years 5-6: The importance and implications of the Treaty to develop a deeper understanding

Students further unpacked the Treaty: why it is important, what it means to different people (tangata whenua and pākehā), including their rights and responsibilities. Some schools made connections with their Māori whānau or local community and invited them to share their knowledge of the local context.

Years 7–8: Māori concepts and other aspects of the Treaty such as biculturalism

In some schools, students worked on inquiry topics about the Treaty such as kotahitanga (unity), the connections with the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) and Rangiaowhia (Ngāti Maniapoto local history). They also learnt more about valuing language and culture, diversity and biculturalism.”


Lower decile schools and schools with 25 percent or more Māori students were more likely to teach about the Treaty. For example, lower decile schools were more likely to teach specifically about the Treaty in Years 7-8 than high decile schools. Some of these schools were also better at identifying specific learning objectives and outcomes linked to teaching about the Treaty.

In some schools, teachers worked together to develop an understanding of their obligation to the Treaty by encouraging and supporting biculturalism; for example, the whakataukī in one primary school was ‘He waka eke noa’: we are all in this waka together. Students discussed the meaning of the whakataukī and the need to work together (mahi tahi), what this means for them and how it can work in their class. Together they developed a classroom treaty about their expectations for behaviour, attitudes and actions which helped students to ground their understanding of a Treaty.

What did teaching about the Treaty of Waitangi look like in secondary schools?

In secondary schools, learning about the Treaty was mainly through the social sciences curriculum. In Years 9 and 10, these studies focused on creating contextual knowledge about the history and place of the Treaty in the school’s local community. This generally included the exploration of interactions between tangata whenua and pākehā, how they adapted to living together, including developing an appreciation of their different world views.

Most secondary schools developed their Years 11-13 social sciences curriculum to deliberately give students choice about the context for their learning. For example, one Year 12 history task1 requires students to carry out an inquiry of a historical event or place that is of significance for New Zealanders. Students can choose any New Zealand event from about 30 selected contexts, of which the Treaty of Waitangi is one.

The New Zealand History Teachers’ Association is committed to including more Māori history in the curriculum. In 2018, they developed a unit for Year 12 history students focused on the Bastion Point protests and understanding the significance of signing the Treaty of Waitangi in modern day challenges. In late 2019, a few schools had used this unit as the basis for their Year 12 history assessments.
Some schools reported they were teaching aspects of the Treaty in other learning areas. For example, a few schools integrated Māori concepts like rangatiratanga, pūtake and kaitiakitanga in Business Studies and Science to support students’ understanding of Māori worldviews of leadership, entrepreneurship and stewardship, respectively.

Learning about the history and place of the Treaty in the local community was at the core of programmes offered by schools teaching te reo Māori. Some of these schools also developed partnerships with the local iwi/marae and included kaupapa/kōrero about the students’ tribal affiliations in their programme.

What resources can support schools’ teaching about the Treaty?

Generally, schools used resources they felt were appropriate from the Ministry of Education and Manatū Taonga | Ministry for Culture and Heritage to inform their teaching programmes. Primary and intermediate schools used a variety of resources, such as The Tree Hut Treaty. However, very few of them used the Ministry of Education’s resource Te Takanga o te Wā: Māori History Guidelines for Year 1-8. The Ministry of Education has recently collated resources in Social Sciences Online and these include a featured resource about Hītori Māori | Māori history. Secondary schools were more likely than others to use online and other resources, including making links to iwi education plans.

Where in-school knowledge was weak, some schools engaged with external experts to provide advice and guidance. Some of these schools accessed resources produced by their local community like Kā Huru Manu or resources from New Zealand History and Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Other schools used resources from the Tuia Mātauranga national education programme and Bridget Williams Books collection.

The majority of schools reported having no or limited links with their local iwi or marae. However, most schools said they were open to building those relationships. Such connections could help them develop the local content of their curriculum and complement any local iwi education plan.

About 30 percent of schools wanted professional learning and development (PLD) specific to the Treaty. Ideally, they sought support to build and apply context knowledge and wanted to work with other practitioners to devise, test and review teaching programmes and assessments about the Treaty.

About 40 percent of primary and intermediate schools that wanted more resources asked for more child-friendly and accessible content, particularly focused on teaching about the Treaty.

Teaching about the Treaty of Waitangi is richer when it is more than just about the contents of an agreement

From this study we observed that by making teaching and learning about the Treaty more than just about an agreement, some schools brought the Treaty to life and students learnt about:

  • the history prior to the signing of the Treaty such as the New Zealand’s 19th century wars
  • the first signing and later signings of the Treaty
  • the difference between Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the Treaty of Waitangi
  • the Treaty as a founding document and part of New Zealand’s constitution, and the three broad principles of partnership, protection and participation
  • the significance and implications of the Treaty in the current discourse about Parihaka, Bastion Point protests, Ihumātao land conflict and related local events
  • other aspects of the Treaty such as biculturalism, te ao Māori including te reo Māori
  • Māori concepts such as rangatiratanga to help them understand Māori world views of such ideas.

ERO found good examples of how some schools brought the Treaty to life in their programmes. For example, geography students in an Auckland school were required to complete an assessment that explained aspects of a contemporary geographic issue. Teachers were strategic in their choice of the land conflict at Ihumātao in Mangere as the topic of inquiry. Students visited Ihumātao and talked with one of the main protestors. They were expected to examine different and contrasting perspectives of the land conflict at Ihumātao. This helped them to explore and gain an appreciation of the significance of the Treaty in today’s thinking and decision making.

Schools can build on their current programmes by teaching about the history, content, impact, and ongoing significance of the Treaty across the curriculum. From the information we gathered it indicated that understanding and appreciating the significance of the Treaty occurs best when students are learning about it in contemporary contexts. This can be approached through familiar social issues, land rights, or environmental issues, where the Treaty plays a pivotal role.

Current practice for history assessment AS91229 as outlined in the NZQA website.