A musician who now leads the Maori Language Commission wants to make Maori language compulsory in primary schools.

Ngahiwi Apanui, a founder of the Maori-speaking band Aotearoa back in 1984, will launch his first Maori Language Week since becoming commission chief executive with a parade through Wellington today.

"Our job will be to engage the whole country," he says. "I don't think you can revitalise the Maori language without everybody in the country being involved."

On his LinkedIn page, he declares: "The endgame is to assist Aotearoa New Zealand to be a Maori-speaking nation."


It's a bold new approach aimed at reversing a long-term decline in Maori speakers, except for a brief flowering in the 1980s with the birth of Te Kohanga Reo preschools and Kura Kaupapa Maori schools.

Kohanga rolls have dwindled from half of all Maori preschoolers at their 1993 peak to only one in six (18.5 per cent) in 2014.

Maori school students spending at least half their learning time in te reo have dropped from 11 per cent of all Maori school students in 2004 to 9.5 per cent.

And Maori who can hold a conversation about everyday things in te reo have shrunk from 25.2 per cent of all Maori in 2001 to 21.3 per cent in 2013, with the biggest declines in the 50-plus age group.

"When I was a kid in the 1970s, I was told on a weekly basis by different people, 'You won't get a job if you speak Maori,'" says Mr Apanui, who was born 53 years ago in the Maori community of Te Araroa near East Cape.

Even recently, most Maori parents have been turning away from kohanga and kura, despite the Maori Language Commission's efforts since it was founded in 1987.

"Friends of mine put their children in a kura when it started in the mid-90s when they were aged 5, 6, 7 or 8. Their parents pulled them out because they couldn't read and write in English," Mr Apanui says. "I said, 'What did you expect? It's a Maori-language environment.'"

But Rotorua principal Cathy Dewes, who heads the national body of 67 Maori-speaking kura, says 75 per cent of students from the 32 secondary-level kura left with at least NCEA level 2 in 2014, compared with 59 per cent of all Maori school-leavers.


Mr Apanui says the commission needs to widen its sights.

"For 29 years we have been focused on Maori communities. It hasn't made a difference to the numbers of speakers -- in fact the speakers have declined," he says. "So something had to be done to change the game."

Under a new Maori Language Act, fostering te reo among Maori communities will pass to a new body, Te Matawai, to be elected later this year by iwi and Maori educational and community groups. The commission's role will be broader.

"We have two headline indicators: enhanced attitudes towards the Maori language, and [increasing] the number of speakers," Mr Apanui says.

He wants te reo to be "a core subject in early childhood education and primary schools. Within two years as a core subject you could have 200,000 new speakers," he says.

"Young people are the future for us ... the whole thing for us is bringing the very young and the young into the language and making it cool to korero."