Pacific-language preschools say they have been set back 30 years by tough new English language tests that have forced the closure of all dedicated Pacific preschool teaching courses.
The last students in AUT University's Bachelor of Education (Pasifika Early Childhood Teaching) graduated last month, and entry to Auckland University's Bachelor of Education (Teaching) Pasifika early childhood pathway has been suspended this year.
Other Pacific courses run by polytechnics, teachers' colleges and the NZ Childcare Association, and a course for teachers in a'oga amata (Samoan language nests) dating back to 1987, have all closed since the entry requirement for all teacher training was raised to level 7 on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in 2011.
The head of AUT's education school, Lyn Lewis, said the level 7 hurdle "has decimated the number of students who were eligible for teacher education".
A'oga Amata national president Pafitimai Salā Dr Fa'asaulala Tagoilelagi-Leota said the course closures left her "gutted".
"We are back to square one when the training started in 1987," she said.
Ironically, the Pacific courses have closed just as the new Labour Government has promised to declare Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island Māori, Niuean and Tokelauan as "official community languages" and to "enhance" their use in the education system.
About a quarter of the 15,000 Pasifika children in NZ preschools learn in Pacific languages at least half the time in 106 childcare centres, including 61 in Samoan, 31 in Tongan, seven in Cook Islands Māori, four in Niuean and one each in Tokelauan, Fijian and Pukapukan.
But the new English language requirement has blocked most mature Pasifika people, who have the strongest Pasifika language skills and cultural knowledge, from teaching preschoolers.
Tagoilelagi-Leota, a former head of the Pasifika programme at AUT, said she used to get more than 300 applicants a year, but the numbers being admitted dropped to 20 to 25 a year after 2011.
"We have lots of trained teachers from Samoa who came through the Samoan [immigration] quota. They have high-quality Samoan, which is what our Samoan early childhood centres want, but they have to sit the IELTS even if they are qualified," she said.
The Associate Dean Pasifika in Auckland University's education faculty, Dr Rae Si'ilata, said her faculty turned away more than 30 applicants for its Pasifika early childhood pathway in 2016 because they failed the IELTS test.
Professor Graeme Aitken, who was then dean of the faculty, announced the suspension of the pathway last October because there were then only eight applicants for this year's course.
But Si'ilata said she and other Pasifika staff would lobby to reinstate the course next year, especially in view of Labour's changes.
She said research showed that children who learned to speak, read and write in their heritage languages as well as in English, did better academically than those who learned only in a second language, and were likely to have better life choices.
Residents of the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau were also NZ citizens and there were more than four times as many Cook Islanders, Niueans and Tokelauans in New Zealand than on their home islands.
"New Zealand has a constitutional responsibility to the users of those languages," Si'ilata said.
However, Education Council deputy chief executive Lesley Hoskin said all teachers had to have good English and/or Māori, New Zealand's official languages, because teacher registration allowed them to teach anywhere, not just in Pacific-language centres.
All Australian states require teachers to have level 8 in listening and speaking and level 7 in reading and writing.
"It is possible that we could consider raising the attainment level in the future, but we would not consider lowering it," Hoskin said.
But she added: "If the status of the three official languages change, then clearly the council would consider what changes to its requirements would be needed."
National education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye said her proposal for a national languages policy would ensure long-term planning to recruit and train language teachers.