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A new report says schools are trying hard with te reo but their successes are "fragile" - often depending on a single Maori teacher and liable to collapse if that person leaves.
The report by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research calls for a much stronger commitment to the language, including making it part of the core curriculum, more Maori-language schools and a plan to train more Maori-language teachers.
"Overall, the findings indicate that successes were fragile," it says.
"In some schools, one strong individual drove the reo Maori focus, and the school became vulnerable if that person left."
It also found that government support for the language was "inconsistent".
Efforts such as scholarships for Maori-language teacher trainees have not been matched by giving te reo the same status as other core subjects such as English and mathematics.
Lead author Maraea Hunia said the council proposed the report to the Ministry of Education, which funded it, to look at how to stop the numbers learning in te reo declining as pupils got older.
"In 2014, of those who attended Maori-medium early childhood education, only 49% started school in a Maori-medium setting," the report says.
"Of akonga [pupils] who were in Maori-medium settings in year 6, only 41% of akonga were still there in year 11."
A 2011 Waitangi Tribunal report found that the numbers of Maori pupils learning for at least three hours a week in te reo peaked at 27,127, or 16.9% of all Maori schoolchildren, in 2004, falling to 25,349 (15.2%) in 2009.
Those numbers have grown again to 29,012 last year (15.1% of all Maori schoolchildren), including a jump in kura kaupapa Maori and kura-a-iwi [tribal schools] from 4.4% in 2009 to 5.7% of all Maori schoolchildren.
Dr Hunia said there were still not enough Maori-language kura [schools] for all families to access them.
"Parents told us in the study that they found it very difficult to access te reo Maori for their students," she said.
"Their responses varied from driving more than an hour every morning to get their children to reo Maori schooling, to another parent who didn't have the resources to be able to move their kids physically but worked really hard within the local school to develop a Maori programme."
The report found that successful schools established Maori-speaking "domains" such as school marae, Maori-speaking teachers and activities such as kapa haka where speaking Maori was accepted.
One English-language school put kapa haka as well as te reo into its core curriculum.
"They just sort of figured, `actually kapa haka is a vehicle'," a staff member is quoted as saying.
"The principal "pulled it from after school and lunchtime and put it smack bang in the curriculum."
The report says a national move to make te reo part of the core curriculum "would send an important message to all schools about teaching te reo".
Dr Hunia said that could not happen overnight because of a desperate shortage of reo Maori teachers.
"The language is endangered, and we need to put a stake in the ground at some stage and find the resources and the pathway to develop the teachers over a period of time.
"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence in the media that is showing that the tide has turned and the time is right, for people's interest in te reo Maori is much bigger than it was even 12 months ago."
Ministry of Education chief adviser for Te Ao Maori Wayne Ngata welcomed the report's findings.
"We are committed to improving the provision of te reo Maori in and across all education provision and to increasing the supply of te reo Maori teachers," he said.
Dr Ngata said this year's Budget included $1.1million this year and $11.4million over the next three years for Te Ahu o te reo Maori, a package of initiatives to lift capability for delivering quality te reo education.
The ministry was holding regional wananga for the public "to help shape the future of Maori education"