The teaching of te reo Maori in mainstream schools is being hampered by a shortage of fluent teachers, who are being snapped up by total immersion schools, according to a Rotorua principal.

The rate of fluent Maori speakers in New Zealand is declining, once again prompting discussion whether learning Maori should be compulsory in schools.

The latest calls have come from the Green Party this week as part of Te Wiki o te Reo Maori (Maori Language Week). Only 3.7 per cent of New Zealanders speak Maori and, of that, only 0.63 are non-Maori.

The proportion of Maori able to hold an everyday conversation in the Maori language has decreased 3.7 per cent between 1996 and the last Census in 2013 from 25 per cent to 21.3 per cent.

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The figures are better for those in the Bay of Plenty with 28 per cent of Maori in our district able to speak the language.

Westbrook School principal Colin Watkins said kohanga reo were doing a great job producing fluent Maori speaking children, but they often hit a stumbling block when they got to primary school because most teachers were unable to teach the language to a fluent standard.

 Westbrook School Principal Colin Watkins.
Westbrook School Principal Colin Watkins.

He said those who could teach it were employed by bilingual units and kura kaupapa schools.

If the Government ever decided all schools had to teach Maori there would be a shortage of teachers, he said.

"Most work in kura kaupapa Maori or schools that have bilingual units and rightly so.

"We have about 30 teachers (at Westbrook) and I have one teacher near fluent. It makes it really hard."

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Mr Watkins, who is Pakeha, said he personally studied the language and was able to transfer his knowledge into everyday learning which was what a lot of teachers did, not because it was a requirement but because they wanted to.

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Owhata School principal Bob Stiles.
Owhata School principal Bob Stiles.

"I believe most teachers have the will and desire but we are limited by our own lack of knowledge of the language. Until something changes there isn't going to be a massive change," Mr Watkins said.

Owhata Primary School principal Bob Stiles said it should be compulsory to learn te reo in primary school because it was one of the three official languages of New Zealand (the third being sign language).

"At our school 95 per cent of tamariki (children) are Maori and we teach it here and proudly."

Mr Stiles said he felt it was particularly important in Rotorua schools.

"We live in the Maori capital of the world and it is something to celebrate."
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Prime Minister John Key was reported as saying this week he personally didn't think the Government should make te reo compulsory in schools, even if the language continued to decline. However, he said the Government could look at what it could do to encourage more people to speak it.