Wãnanga Embedded Literacy

Country Profile: New Zealand


4.21 million

Official Languages

English, Maori and Sign Language

Total Expenditure on Education as % of GDP (2006)


Access to Primary Education – Total Net Intake Rate (NIR)

99.9% (2005)

Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over, 2005–2010)

Total 99%
Women: 99 %
Men: 99%

Statistical Sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleWãnanga Embedded Literacy
Implementing OrganizationTe Tauihu o Ngā Wānanga (the national association of Wānanga)
Language of Instruction2009 (Wãnanga were established long before the literacy programme began)
Programme PartnersNew Zealand Government, Tertiary Education Commission

Background and Context

New Zealand is considered to be a very developed country across many sectors, including education. In fact, the UNDP’s latest Human Development Report states that the country has very high human development, ranking 5th worldwide in the Human Development Index, an index that combines various indicators of health, education and personal wealth. New Zealand’s adult and youth literacy rates are both reported to be over 99 per cent. However, this basic measurement falls short of a significant and contextual statistic, in a society where basic literacy skills alone are not sufficient for everyday life. Research undertaken in 2006 found that as many as 43 per cent of New Zealanders have insufficient literacy skills to fully participate in a knowledge society, and 51 per cent did not have the numeracy skills required for the demands of everyday work and life.

Indeed, it is recognised across New Zealand’s business and industrial sectors that improvements in Literacy, Language and Numeracy (LLN) across the population might go some way to improve New Zealand’s poor levels of productivity. According to the OECD, New Zealand’s labour productivity is such that for each hour worked, the economic gain is only 60 per cent of that of the United States of America, and 80 per cent of that of Australia. It is hoped that a more educated population will continue to build a high-skill, high-wage economy, and an inclusive society where everyone can participate.

With this in mind, in 2008 the government’s Tertiary Education Committee (TEC) launched the LLN Action Plan 2008-2012. The plan was developed in cooperation with New Zealand’s public and business sectors, and provided an additional $163m for the development and implementation of new initiatives for LLN.

One significant area of the population which has been identified for investment in LLN programmes is the indigenous population; a recent survey identified 14.6 per cent of the population as Māori, with a further 6.9 per cent from other Polynesian ethnicities. In 1998, the Ministry of Māori Development published a report titled Progress towards Closing Social and Economic Gaps between Māori and non-Māori, which reported significant disparities in the educational opportunities and attainments of Māori and non-Māori people. It is also significant that Māori rank highly in the negative statistics of social indicators from education to health. For example, the Māori unemployment rate is three times higher than that of non-Māori.

Māori society has historically embraced the acquisition of knowledge, as a part of their mana, the concept of an impersonal force or quality that resides in people. For generations, the Whare Wānanga, where knowledge from the elders is passed down to a selected few of the next generation, has been a key institution in Māori society. The Wānanga continue today across all of Aotearoa New Zealand, providing skills development in a culturally relevant context.

In 2009, the strategic document He Whakapahuhu Kahukura was published, identifying holistic literacy as an important aspect of conscious wellbeing, and setting guidelines for the embedding of LLN in Wānanga programmes. The plans were drawn with assistance from the TEC, in line with their LLN Action Plan.

The Wānanga

The Wānanga is a very established institution in Māori tradition, with a strong learning culture. As they have always been, Wānanga are established, directed and controlled by the iwi (Māori society), in order to diffuse knowledge and meet the developmental needs of the iwi. Matauranga Māori, defined by the National Library of New Zealand as the complete body of knowledge or everything that is known or understood in the universe, is central to the activities and programmes of the Wānanga. The Wānanga is designed to encourage active participation from all sectors of the iwi, and provides programmes for all levels, from basic certificates to degree programmes; since 1989, three Wānanga are officially recognized and accredited Tertiary Education Institutions (TEI), and they are represented by the collective national association Te Tauihu o Ngā Wānanga.

The Wānanga recognise the importance of TEC’s plans for Literacy, Language and Numeracy (LLN), which they label a ‘functional literacy’ that prepares people to function successfully at work and in the community. However, the Wānanga has a responsibility to ensure that all of its activities are underpinned by tikanga and āhuatanga Māori (Māori tradition), and the He Whakapahuhu Kahukura, published in 1999, helps to establish a framework for this. The document identifies three pillars of literacy – cultural literacy, critical literacy and functional literacy – the latter of which incorporates the concept of LLN. The document explains that these three pillars of literacy contribute to achieving cultural, social, economic and intellectual transformations, and to the identity and wellbeing of Aotearoa. An understanding of this framework is essential, since if the functional literacy is separated from its other two pillars, then it does not support the advancement of Mātauranga Māori, to which the Wānanga is essentially dedicated. To demonstrate the importance of this to participants, some tutors commented in focus group sessions that functional literacy (LLN) had to be taught subconsciously through Wānanga’s traditional programmes.

At the time of research, the embedding of LLN into the Wānanga was in a pilot phase, with only 35 tutors currently using the new framework. This pilot testing phase is considered a means of testing effective methods of embedding LLN before it is rolled out across more than 80 Wānanga in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Aims and Objectives

Three basic objectives of Wānanga are:

The introduction of LLN in Wānanga activities can be seen as a response to the third objective, which looks to the present and future needs of Māori society. Through embedding LLN into Wānanga activities, Te Tauihu o Ngā Wānanga hopes to eliminate barriers that have previously prevented people from participating in tertiary education, including economic, geographical and social barriers. The programme aims to break the intergenerational cycle of non-participation in tertiary education by:

This process is known as a whanau transformation through education; whanau refers to a construction based on a mix of both descent and cause.

rogramme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

Organisational Arrangements

The embedding of LLN into the Wānanga has been conceived as both a ‘top-down’ and a ‘bottom-up’ approach. The strategic initiative is ‘top-down’ as the TEC has worked with the collective national association of Wānanga (Te Tauihu o Ngā Wānanga) to create a rough framework for how LLN fits into the Wānanga principles. However, the direct implementation has been left to the pilot programme, the tutors of which will be able to make a direct assessment of effective implementation strategies that will form the substance of any future national implementation strategies, therefore representing a ‘bottom-up’ approach. Detailed information about processes is therefore emerging, rather than final.

The Te Tauihu o Ngā Wānanga represents the three major Wānanga which have state accreditation. The association meets three times a year to devise and coordinate strategies that will benefit and develop each of the Wānanga, and it is responsible for the coordination of nationwide and universal Wānanga initiatives. The association also represents the interests of the Wānanga at various other meetings and on other boards that deal with issues concerning the Wānanga. For its internal organizational structure, each Wānanga follows a similar organisational structure:

This structure is based on a top-down approach, but as previously mentioned, the approach in the pilot phase is much more flexible, with tutors being given great freedom to develop their own strategies and report their relative successes to senior staff.

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

More than 1.350 staff members are employed by Wānanga in more than 80 centres across the country. These staff members often come directly from the communities where the organisation operates. This gives more potential for the voice of the local population to reach the internal organisational and decision making structure of the Wānanga.

The professional development of Wānanga tutors is taken seriously. The final framework for training tutors in the implementation of literacy embedding is not yet confirmed, but one probable strategy that has been identified is to bring learning support staff, such as students, to be literacy specialists. This group of staff would then be responsible for assisting tutors with training sessions as well as training tutors in literacy techniques. Additionally, the Wānanga has invested in training its staff with professional accreditations; since 2007, large groups of staff have participated in the National Certificate in Adult Literacy. A further potential plan is to continue to provide formal training to tutors over a three year period, developing “distinctive and powerful Wānanga educators” (focus group participant) that may be officially accredited and receive monetary recognition.

The TEC have also provided two culturally sensitive progression trainers, to assist Wānanga tutors in the transition. As with the learners, a delicate approach is required to demonstrate the relevance of LLN to the tutors, in the context of matauranga Maori; this represents a substantial part of the staff training process. Some tutors that champion the introduction of the LLN programme are given temporary roles as national advocates, and work with the TEC progression trainers to train other tutors at local level.

Training-Learning Methods and Approaches

Wānanga offer very unique learning environments. All learning is centred on Māori tradition and culture, as it has been for as long as the concept of the Wānanga has existed. Through this learning environment, the Wānanga teach students about themselves and their heritage, so that they become at ease with themselves and their learning environment, and are then better equipped to learn.

Wānanga tutors strongly uphold the traditional moral values of the institution. Tutors are therefore entirely dedicated to their students; in a focus group situation one tutor commented that the Wānanga is about “having programmes, making decisions and having directions that are about what the students need, not what is required from the funders or anyone else.” Many tutors therefore feel uneasy about how LLN fits into their programmes, since the majority of participants are coming to the Wānanga to learn a specific vocational skill, or to learn more about their heritage, and many are not interested in the development of their LLN skills. As one tutor commented, “we have to be really careful that our literacy programme does not take them in a direction they did not to go…and then they pull out…because for many of them this is the only chance that they will get to re-engage with education, and if we do not get it right then the stakes are high.”

Therefore, the approach that is most popular amongst the tutors is to embed LLN skills into other programmes, in a seemingly natural way. One tutor said that “separating subject knowledge and literacy and numeracy can be quite isolating for some of our students. So if we embed literacy, it becomes a natural part of the learning.” Essentially, the tutor identifies the skill that the learner wants or the interest that they have, and they make the LLN a part of that learning programme in a way which will not discourage the learner.

The Wānanga offers extremely flexible training to its learners; fees are kept to a minimum and learning hours are made as flexible as possible, in order to minimise participation barriers. Teaching styles are customised according to the students’ preferred learning style, and group dynamics also vary according to the needs of the group.

Programme Impact and Challenges

Monitoring and Evaluation

As they are accredited Tertiary Education Institutions, the Wānanga are regularly monitored and assessed by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. Several criteria must be met for programme and degree accreditation, including having appropriate facilities, financial resources, qualified teaching staff, support staff, a commitment to research, transparent regulations and no barriers to entry.

In addition to this external monitoring, the Wānanga are constantly evaluated by their own internal organizational structure, with the strategic advisor collected information from project coordinators and teaching staff to feed back to the steering committee, on a continuous basis.


The Wānanga experienced phenomenal growth in the early part of the last decade, with the largest Wānanga (Te Wānanga o Aotearoa) growing from 3,127 students in 2000 to 66,756 students in 2004.

In 2010, one year from the official introduction of LLN, 38 per cent of enrolling students had no academic qualifications and 30 per cent were unemployed. The programme is too recent for any significant evaluation of impact, but initial indicators of student satisfaction are high, with 91 per cent of students being ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with their tutor, and 90 per cent ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with their learning environment. Students also recorded high levels of satisfaction with the quality of their programmes, learning resources and facilities.

In 2010, the Wãnanga achieved a course completion rate of 78 per cent and a student retention rate of 81 per cent.


The most significant challenge for the Wãnanga, is in reaching a consensus about the approach which should be taken on the introduction of LLN. Many managers and tutors still admit that they are struggling with the concept, or feel uneasy with its introduction in programmes. In focus groups, some tutors were outspoken that they did not think literacy should play a part in Wãnanga programmes, whilst some others thought that it was a very valuable part of the learning experience, but only as long as the student wants it. One tutor reported that if the students have literacy issues then she sends them to Literacy Aotearoa or another organisation, as she does not feel that the Wãnanga is able to offer such training. These are considered teething problems that are inevitable after the introduction of a new concept in such an established institution. It is hoped that through the ‘bottom-up’ approach of the pilot programme, tutors might use the opportunity of experimenting with their approaches to learn more themselves about the value of LLN. Those tutors who are clear about the ways in which embedded functional literacy works, and who support it, are working with other tutors to help them in the transition period. Nevertheless, this represents a significant challenge in making a smooth transition and a lasting effect.

A further challenge, which is closely related to this problem, is the misalignment of the ideologies of the Tertiary Education Commission and the Wãnanga. A number of tutors felt that the TEC was uncomfortable with the Wãnanga’s focus on ‘cultural literacy’, which sits outside of the policy direction identified in the LLN Action Plan. If the Wãnanga are not left to develop and operate their own strategies for implementing LLN in a way in which they are comfortable, the programme’s success is likely to be compromised. One tutor said: “if we do not own the strategy, then how likely are we to honour it?”

Another challenge lies in the resourcing of the Wãnanga. Part of its commitment to participation involves the minimisation of fees for students, but as an accredited TEI the Wãnanga is required to make a 3-5 per cent profit each year. Therefore, it is difficult to keep up with the demand; moving into 2011, the Wãnanga reduced its student headcount by around 10 per cent due to budgetary constraints.



National Centre of Literacy and Numeracy for Adults
University of Waikato
Private Bag 3105
Hamilton 3240
Tel: +64 7 838 4466 ext 4062
mobile: +64 274379730