It's 30 years since the preschool Maori immersion movement opened its first centre but a big question mark hangs over its future. Yvonne Tahana explains why

Trying to talk to Kingi Kiriona is like waiting for an old man at a pa - he's one of those characters everyone knows and loves.

You've got to catch him quick to say hello, or someone else will sneak in and take their turn and you're the fish left gaping.

He's a busy man. Today, the 29-year-old is doing the rounds at Hamilton's Wintec, asking students if they're heading to waiata practice. But his tone is more of a gentle nudge towards the activity rather than cursory inquiry.


Kiriona, who has beautiful reo, is a renaissance man at the spearhead of a younger breed of kapa haka leaders and a nationally recognised composer.

A former language consultant for Maori current affairs program Marae while working at daily news show Te Karere, he now works as a Maori achievement manager at the polytechnic and is at the coalface of revitalisation - helping second language learners.

He's one of the brightest products of the kohanga reo movement and one of the first babies to go through the immersion nests when the first wave opened 30 years ago in 1982.

"I am what I am because of kohanga," he says.

In 1993, just under half of all Maori attending an early childhood education centre were at kohanga. A preliminary version of a 2010 Waitangi Tribunal report on intellectual property rights, Wai 262, singled out the birth of the movement - when the language was on the brink of disaster - as the most important development in revitalisation efforts of the past three decades.

But it also asked the question, had the momentum gone because of complacency over its early, spectacular successes?

Numbers of kohanga and enrolments have been declining since 1994. According to Ministry of Education figures there are 464 kohanga reo, with 9631 tamariki (children). But in 2010 less than a quarter of Maori students in early childhood education attended kohanga.

The tribunal, then led by Justice Joe Williams, wondered if the the decline had hit rock bottom or whether there was worse to come.

It looks like there was. On Monday the tribunal will hear the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board's claim against the Crown. The relationship has soured so badly that the trust will argue it must make a clean break from the Ministry of Education and run itself.

Meanwhile, an independent report to the Government argues the trust is standing in the way of reform and it is time to hand control over to iwi.

It's a far cry from the heady days of the early-1980s when Kiriona's parents, Violet and Noho, sent the then 18-month old of Ngati Kahungunu, Ngati Ruanui and Ngati Apa descent to Dannevirke's Taniwaka Kohanga, one of the first wave of immersion language nests to open.

His mother was bought up by a Tuhoe kuia in Wairoa and te reo was the only language she knew until she was 5. She left the town for the bright lights of Wellington and let things slide. Years later realised she'd lost the ability to converse fluently in her first language. His father, from Patea, had a similar story.

"Fear didn't even come into it. Kohanga presented Mum and Dad with an opportunity to redevelop their knowledge of te reo and tikanga and ultimately that's what kohanga was founded on - the hunger of that generation to re-engage," Kiriona says.

The warm, organic learning style wasn't framed by an early education curriculum. Instead it was run by two nannies, he says.

"Nanny Hinewai and Nanny Ross, they were the two heads of the kohanga. There was no teaching strategy for the language. As they saw it, being kaumatua was enough.

"I think it was just consistent korero. It wasn't an actual lesson, it was just learn by seeing and listening, hence the term, titiro whakarongo, I suppose. For us, it was the traditional "moko, this is what you should be doing, moko, this is what you shouldn't be doing".

Kiriona stayed until 1986. During that time, virtually on the smell of an oily rag, Taniwaka hummed along on the energy of eager parents. Cordial and biscuits were common for kai, as were batons-up fundraising evenings and sponsored bicycle rides to raise money.

The kohanga shifted four times. First the dozen or so children were housed in an old building down the road from a marae, before moving to a place in town, then it was a truckie-cafe style digs before Dannevirke's "love and support" through the community's financial contributions enabled the current building to go up.

More than anything, he says, kohanga gave him the keys to the whole Maori world.

"I never knew what a hotel was until I moved out of Dannevirke, it just wasn't in my vocabulary. If Mum and Dad were going to a tangi, it was 'well, we're going to stay at the marae'.

"But, the kohanga quite often did a number of those things: going to tangi, going to hui Maori. On a regular basis they used to walk the kids down to the marae.

"There were haerenga [trips] at the end of each year. The kids were taken down to some place out of town to introduce them to a new group of people, new kawa, a new tikanga, a new dialect. There were all those sorts of things going on.

"The point I'm trying to make is it encouraged a lifestyle."

During that period Kiriona might have been taken to Pukeatua, for a visit to the country's first kohanga, which turns 30 in April. Tina Olsen-Ratana, was a young mum with a daughter finding her feet there at the same time.

Now the co-chair for the national trust, Olsen-Ratana started out doing the paperwork for Pukeatua. Alongside language doyenne Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi and Dr Timoti Karetu, she is a named claimant on the legal papers for Wai 2336, the kohanga claim.

It alleges a number of treaty breaches, which the trust says stem from the now historic move to shift the responsibility of kohanga from the old Department of Maori Affairs to the Ministry of Education in 1989.

It was an unwanted seismic shift which bought the kohanga movement within the ambit of early childhood education, Olsen-Ratana says.

"That's the point of this. We were never set up to be providers of early childcare. We were set up for the purpose of revitalising the language. It was about empowering whanau, it was about learning for life and restoring those cultural values that go with it."

Since then the trust alleges a multitude of cuts to the working relationship, including dismissing kohanga advice on matters of reform, ignoring its perspective and the trust's reason for being, and failing to follow through on tripartite relationship agreements between the trust, Crown and Government agencies.

Possibly the most damaging effect, says Olsen-Ratana is how the kaumatua and kuia who were once central in children's lives have been pushed aside, due to arrangements which link funding to qualifications.

"Let's be real about what qualifications mean. They're about a person going off doing three years' training, coming back with all the mohio [answers] as opposed to someone who's learned in life.

"We still have kaumatua and kuia in kohanga but we need a lot more. They need to know that they're valued. They need to know that they're not restricted by a job description when they walk in the door.

"The language isn't taught, it's caught."

Justice Williams' tribunal in the Wai 262 report was critical about what it saw as a lack of "true partnership" between Maori and the Crown in regards to its te reo policies.

It praises kohanga reo for its early efforts.

"There was a true revival of te reo in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s. It was spurred on by the realisation of how few speakers were left, and by the relative abundance of older fluent speakers ... The revival was a Maori movement, it was achieved through education, and it was incredibly successful at a grass-roots level."

But the report also outlined challenges faced by kohanga. By the mid-1990s parents were leaving for a number of reasons. More Maori were in paid work, which meant they were opting for all-day care where they were expected not to play such a significant role.

There were a range of well-documented problems in media reports, ranging from poor Education Review Office reviews in the 1990s to financial mismanagement and child safety. Plus a dwindling number of older speakers had led a shortage of early childhood teachers skilled in te reo, a dilemma acknowledged by the trust, the report says.

Olsen-Ratana argues that kohanga problems are rooted in the fact that it's been asked to fit itself into the Ministry of Education.

"When you get an influx of a different cultural framework ... that tells you you have to do it, and you have to take account of all these things, sooner or later something's going to give."

The independent Early Childhood Education Taskforce Report took a different view, saying scrutiny of kohanga reo was difficult because the trust viewed any such move as a threat on its autonomy. It wondered aloud whether the trust was a barrier or contributor to the movement's original aspirations and didn't mince its words. "It appears that the te kohanga reo movement has, for some time, been viewed as too hot a political issue to touch," the report told former Education Minister Anne Tolley last year. "Political sensitivities in any guise should never trump the safety and well-being of children."

It suggested the trust should gradually hand over responsibility for kohanga reo to iwi within five years.

Current Education Minister Hekia Parata wasn't available for comment this week. But Kingi Kiriona believes the tensions between what the state requires of kohanga and what it wants to be aren't going to be easily solved. He's not sure how he feels about the claim, or the push for independence. What he does want in any future arrangements is some recognition by the Crown, but also more importantly by Maori, that what made the movement special in the 1980s was its uncomplicated nature.

The nanny approach - Nanny Hinewai was his favourite - connected Maori to each other and reopened eyes to a world almost lost.

Complacency is a word that scares him when it's attached to the movement. Maori can't treat it like a kindergarten or preschool.

"That's not what it was. It was a salvation for parents who were in the same boat as my parents. It was a new beacon of hope for the revitalisation of te reo and tikanga. It's the same old story, when you've had something for so long, you have a tendency to forget that this is a bastion for Maori."

In a heartbeat he'd send his own children to kohanga reo. "I want them to have the best - like I had."