Heather Te Huia – I demand that children are given a better world

b. 1958
Life member 1999
President 1992-1999

From an unconfident young mother, Heather Te Huia grew into a leader with a passion for quality early childhood education, helping children and women, and equity. 

Childhood was a mixed bag for Heather. Although protected and nurtured by her older sister, her whānau was troubled by violence. Heather left school as soon as she could, going from low-level job to job. The turning point was a good relationship and children of her own. 

Heather began working as a teacher aide in the mid 1980s, at the preschool her children attended. Full of self-doubt, Heather began training with the Association (now Te Rito Maioha).

“The tutors put a lot of emphasis on quality education, and I learnt what made a quality centre. I naively thought that if you learnt it, you would put it into practice. People would say to me “Heather, you’re an idealist, it isn’t actually the reality.” That devastated me because if it was good quality for children, why were so many centres not putting it into practice?”

About 18 months after completing her training, Heather was approached to set up a new centre. Ko Aroha Tuatahi was established in 1989 with a grant and a lot of community effort. Heather recalls: “That centre was about putting the ideals of my [Association] training into practice… from the grassroots.”

Heather also joined the Wellington Branch of the Association: “Meeting the women in NZCA was a turning point. I was listening and hearing about women’s issues and issues in childcare… [It] made me question things happening in society and things happening in practice in centres.”

Heather was developing confidence to speak up. Despite feeling ‘terrified’, she spoke at the 1989 Association conference in favour of  the move towards biculturalism. She was elected  a member of the Executive.

In 1991, the new National Government cut early childhood funding. Many centres had to cut staffing ratios and raise fees: “I was staunch and thought I would make the government see the issue, but that didn’t happen! Parents eventually had to pay higher fees and a lot of parents removed their children… we nearly went bankrupt and I had to lay off five staff.”

In 1992, Heather became President of the Association. Her convictions fuelled its political voice during the 1990s. In 1995 she stated: “I demand that children are given a better world. That means society has to change…, Government has to change and take responsibility to ensure that what’s happening in centres is quality.”

Heather led the Association from 1992 to 1999, as it developed its centre-based Diploma of Teaching qualification and grappled to become a bicultural organisation. As a member of a Māori family, Heather was aware of racist attitudes and discriminatory behaviours, and was committed to change.

In 1995, Heather received a Queen’s Service Medal in 1995 for services to early childhood education. She was made life member in 1999. Heather continues her mahi in early childhood education; as of 2023, she was head teacher at St Mary’s early childhood centre.

This article is an abridged version from Te Rito Maioha’s book on its life members and their work. You can read Heather's full story and those of other ECE champions:

Life Stories on the Frontline: Growing a childcare movement in Aotearoa
Ngā kohinga kōrero a te aumangea: Kia mana te ara kōhungahunga ki Aotearoa