Connection and resilience in close-knit Kaikōura community

Issue: Volume 100, Number 9

Posted: 21 July 2021
Reference #: 1HANMM

Located between sea and mountains, Kaikōura is susceptible to the vagaries of nature, most recently with the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake, and in 1993 a flood that caused catastrophic damage. But adversity has built resilience and connection between mana whenua and longtime locals in this close-knit community.

Senior student leaders at Kaikōura High School: Māori head boy Rex Allen (Ngāi Tahu), head boy Ruslan Ataria-Ivannikov (Ngāti Rongomaiwahine) , deputy head boy Blake Timms (Ngāi Tahu), head girl Summer Fissenden, deputy head girl Samantha Irvine.

Senior student leaders at Kaikōura High School: Māori head boy Rex Allen (Ngāi Tahu), head boy Ruslan Ataria-Ivannikov (Ngāti Rongomaiwahine) , deputy head boy Blake Timms (Ngāi Tahu), head girl Summer Fissenden, deputy head girl Samantha Irvine.

Two minutes after midnight on 14 November 2016, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked Kaikōura – the devastation was massive. John Tait, principal of Kaikōura High School, was unable to get into town for several days, by which time Ministry of Education engineers were on site to assess the damage.

“We got an emergency management team together and made a plan for what the reopening of the school would look like. The earthquake happened just as seniors were about to go into examinations,” he remembers.

The school’s fields were used by military helicopters to land supplies from naval ships, which also flew tourists and some locals, whose homes had been destroyed, out of town.

Fortunately, the school wasn’t badly damaged. While it was able to be occupied within a short time, repair work continued into 2021.

“Importantly, what the earthquake did for us as a school was to make it absolutely clear that the important goal was people’s wellbeing. I think it’s changed an aspect of our thinking about young people and education. It’s made us very clear that wellbeing is essential to successful learning,” he says.

With a diverse background in educational leadership, John (Ngāti Apa) took up the principal’s role at the end of 2015 with a goal of maintaining and fostering ties with the community.

The Ministry of Education had appointed a limited statutory manager to support the Board of Trustees earlier that year. By 2017, the Education Review Office report highlighted the school’s strong leadership and its efforts in engaging Māori students, whānau and iwi.

Restoring mana

Kaikōura High School currently has a 50/50 split of Māori and Pākehā students. 

Up at the Takahanga Marae, sisters Riria Allen and Hariata Kahu (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ati Awa, Tūwharetoa) recall that when John became principal he went out to meet the school’s Māori whānau.

“There had always been a gap between whānau and education at Kaikōura High School,” says Hariata, who is chair of Te Rūnanga o Kaikōura.

Senior student leaders at Kaikōura High School wear a korowai handcrafted by parent Jaqueline Wadsworth.

Senior student leaders at Kaikōura High School wear a korowai handcrafted by parent Jaqueline Wadsworth.

“We had a series of whānau hui and all this mamae (pain and hurt) came out because it needed to. No one pulled any punches and it was the best thing in the world that we did hear it. Out of that came some changes which have turned out to be really good,” says John, who is a fluent speaker of te reo Māori.

“I think our Māori students are finding the school a bit more comfortable than they did before. The whānau class has been awesome, because it means that at the start of the day, our Māori students can come and feel their own identity; non-Māori students as well. They learn karakia, waiata and talk about their education goals and aspirations.

“Things Māori are interwoven in the school and I think that when you have nearly half of the students with Māori whakapapa, they don’t see themselves as a minority – and neither do the other kids,” he adds.

Embracing change

Hariata and Riria both attended Kaikōura High School in the 1990s and early 2000s and say there was a culture of institutionalised racism at the time.

The two sisters are passionate advocates for tamariki and rangatahi in the town. They say there’s been a huge shift for Māori nationwide and now is the time to embrace it. Riria remembers that when she was at school, many Māori students dropped out. This year, five out of six of the school’s student leaders are Māori.

“Māori achievement isn’t just about NCEA levels. A huge achievement for Māori is the fact that we never had our young people go to Year 13. Now we’ve got huge numbers who go to Year 13 – it’s nearly 50/50. To have Māori in Year 12 who are engaged and wanting to be at school is a massive achievement for us,” says Riria.

Giving back

Casey Davis (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu) was head girl at Kaikōura High School in 2012 and is now Year 10-12 dean. She teaches te reo Māori at the school. 

“The school went through a big change when I got into senior school and really started to connect and engage with the rūnanga and started to build more relationships,” she says.

After graduating from the University of Canterbury, Casey found herself back at her old school.

“I came back as a teacher of te reo Māori. I was fresh out of uni, full of beans and really excited.

“It’s been really cool seeing the journey of my first group of Year 9 students that I started with. They’re like an extension of my family. Three of those students ended up in leadership roles in the school this year,” she says proudly.

As a dean, Casey believes she has an advantage dealing with the five per cent of students who are struggling at school.

“I had taught a lot of them and already had that good relationship with them. If they don’t trust you, they’re not going to sit down and have an open conversation with you, whereas if they know I’ve already got their back, it makes it a lot easier to do my job,” she says.

Head boy Ruslan and Māori head boy Rex were two of the first ākonga for kaiako and former head girl Casey Davis at Kaikōura High School.

Head boy Ruslan and Māori head boy Rex were two of the first ākonga for kaiako and former head girl Casey Davis at Kaikōura High School.

Then and now

When science teacher David Mallinder arrived in Kaikōura with his family from the industrial north of England, they decided “we would go for two years no matter what”. Forty years later, David is still a teacher at Kaikōura High School where he continues to teach physics, chemistry and science part-time “for as long as they’ll have me”.

The school, which now has 220 students, was larger when David joined the staff, with a roll of 350 students. At the time major employers in the town were the New Zealand Railways, Fisheries and the Ministry of Works and about 70 per cent of students were Pākehā.

“When I started teaching, students were like empty vessels and your job was to fill them up. It’s not the same as it used to be – and quite rightly,” he says.

While David says science has always offered more hands-on learning opportunities, he welcomes the more culturally responsive two-way learning methods in practice today.

“There’s far more emphasis on students working together to solve problems rather than just being told what the answer is.

“The big difference now is more about teaching what is relevant to the students and lifting them from where they are to where they need to be in a particular subject. Now it’s more about how engaged and interested the student is,” he says.

After 40 years teaching in the school, David says he’s forever bumping into former students and he’s always pleased to feel he played a small part in moulding them, no matter what they do with their lives.

Long-time science teacher David Mallinder enjoys a laugh with some of his senior students.

Long-time science teacher David Mallinder enjoys a laugh with some of his senior students.

Small town advantage

Deputy principal Jo Fissenden married into a long-time Kaikōura family. She says she can’t make it around the supermarket without at least one conversation about the school.

“This community certainly appreciates face to face stuff and that’s a very Māori-centred way of doing things – let’s talk to each other rather than mass emails. But it works for everyone!

Deputy principal Jo Fissenden.

Deputy principal Jo Fissenden.

“Our community is pretty good at letting you know how they feel about things, but often in a way that is low key. I like that because it often brings things up before they are a big problem – it’s a heads-up that allows you to get to SLT (senior leadership team) level and flag that this is a potential issue,” she says.

“One of the advantages of a small community is we know our students and their families pretty well. And we’re able to see our students in different contexts,” adds John.

“A lot of our students are related to each other, to teachers as well. The pastoral side of our work is probably more informed in a small rural community than it would presumably be in a large city.” 

Professional connections

When Education Gazette was in town, John, Casey and a group of rangatahi Māori visited the bilingual Hāpuku School north of Kaikōura to share some Matariki activities.

There’s been a long history of collaboration and co-operation between the six schools in the area and the Kaikōura kāhui ako has added to this with a strong programme of professional learning and development for teachers across the primary and secondary continuum.

“It’s been good to look at things that increase our understanding of the learning pathway of the child from Year 1 right through to Year 13,” explains John.

A smaller school can provide a wide range of opportunities, but professional isolation can be a challenge, says Jo.

“Isolation is a big issue for us because to go anywhere is a day trip. It’s not just an afternoon PLD, but a whole day away. It’s a day out of class for the teacher, finding a reliever, the cost of them being away. That can be a battle at times,” she says.

Connected and nurturing

John says the close-knit community grows multi-faceted young people.

“That inter-connectedness allows our kids to take a whole lot of skills into the outside world that they don’t even realise they’ve got. It’s all about EQ – and that’s what makes a difference between people who are employable and people who just have a qualification,” he says.

“For a little school, our kids really punch above their weight. They go away and they achieve really really well – in sport, academically. And they’re really well rounded: whatever they’re doing academically, most will have a sport and they will be working part-time, so they’ve got that understanding of time and self-management and what the real world is like,” adds Jo.


Tumuaki John Tait with head boy Ruslan visited Hāpuku School to take part in Matariki activities. Ihaia-James is the centre of attention, while his mum and school tumuaki (with pepe), Ripeka Tamepo, proudly looks on.

Tumuaki John Tait with head boy Ruslan visited Hāpuku School to take part in Matariki activities. Ihaia-James is the centre of attention, while his mum and school tumuaki (with pepe), Ripeka Tamepo, proudly looks on.

It takes a village 

Media coverage of the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake showed a community in crisis, but also an incredible amount of resilience and care. Who can forget scenes such as crayfish donated by local fishermen being served up at the Takahanga Marae, which fed thousands of quake-weary people in the days following the earthquake. 

It’s that sense of community which kept David and his family in the town. 

“When we arrived, the biggest thing we found was the welcoming nature of the people. Parents of students would invite us for a meal; we were welcome wherever we went and we were never short of someone who would offer some form of support. That was the big difference between where I used to live and where I now live,” he says. 

Community hub 

As the only secondary school in the town, principal John Tait says the Year 7-13 school is a hub for the community. 

“We’re probably the largest gathering of people on a daily basis in the town and one of the biggest employers, which has an economic impact. Lots of community activities happen at the school site- we have the only gymnasium in town so any indoor sport at club level plays here. 

“Our job is to cater for every student. The whole range of learning pathways needs to be available. We’re part of the E.learning Network, we have a thriving Gateway programme which allows students to follow paths of specific interest. 

“A large number of our students work after school in various businesses around the town. Our connection with the whole community is very important. And the ways we keep dialogue going between us and the community is critical – particularly during tough times,” he explains. 

Since the 2016 earthquake, Kaikōura High School has had a fulltime guidance counsellor, a school nurse and there’s a community worker who works across all of Kaikōura‘s schools funded by Oranga Tamariki. 

Work in progress 

John says that while the school mostly still reflects a Western cultural context, efforts are made to celebrate students’ tribal and hapū identity in appropriate ways. 

“I think it’s critical for all students, not just Maori – because the fact is we’re all a mixture and acknowledging where your forebears come from is an important grounding thing for any student.” 

In te ao Māori, kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) is the most valued relationship and John says it’s not just what you do, but how you do it. 

“We need to have Māori students see Māori culture valued in real ways, not just in the context of learning but in the way in which learning puts relationships and connections high on the daily practice.  

“We’ve got a lot of practices in the school which remind us of those things. Our assemblies are run essentially by our students and now we have a whakatauki or karakia said by one of the students. Staff also say a karakia together at the beginning of morning briefing. I frequently speak in te reo Maori – enough to show that as a school we value biculturalism. We’ve got a long way to go, but it is a work in progress,” he says. 

Jo believes that students at Kaikōura High School are lucky. 

“I think the whole community side of going to a school that has got such a high percentage of Māori kids is awesome for Pākehā kids – because where else do you get that culture and exposure to what New Zealand is really about?” she says. 

Change in education system 

Riria Allen and Hariata Kahu say there has been a huge change within the education system and they are keen to support Māori kaiako and tumuaki like Casey and John – as well as Kaikōura’s tamariki and rangatahi. 

Green-eyed and fair-skinned, Hariata says she loved her schooling and was proud of her Māori and Ngāti Kuri (sub-tribe of Ngai Tahu) background, but it wasn’t easy. 

“In my day I was really involved. If there was a pōwhiri to be had at school, I was doing it. A lot of Māori kids in my days were like that and someone would stand up and do a waiata and you felt shame. Whereas now the whole school is doing a waiata. They are huge institutional and cultural changes in a school,” she says. 

Riria, who is health and services manager for the rūnanga and the rūnanga representative on Kaikōura High School Board of Trustees, left school aged 15.

“Being proud to be Māori wasn’t even an option. Our parents brought us up to be Māori – I never stopped being Māori but there was no option for us. We were in a school setting and told: ‘This is how we’re going to do science, maths etc’. It definitely did not fit.  There were huge barriers to my achievement. I feel that the education system failed me – I struggled, I hated school,” she says. 

Riria is now proud to represent the rūnanga on the Board of Trustees. 

“I definitely have a voice on that board. The interesting position I find myself in is that I’m on the board as part of a rūnanga and I’m answerable to our people. So when I sit on that board, I need to be asking the questions that whānau come to me and ask me to find out. 

“Institutionalised racism has created a barrier for many of our people. So to have that voice at a board level is giving them a voice – and mana,” she says. 

Riria Allen and Hariata Kahu are passionate supporters of Kaikōura’s young people.

Riria Allen and Hariata Kahu are passionate supporters of Kaikōura’s young people.

Little things matter 

Little things make a big difference, such as bilingual signage at the school and the school’s whare being moved from the back to the front of the school. 

John has helped to break down barriers by regularly seeing whānau at the Takahanga Marae. 

“One Sunday every month the rūnanga has their formal meeting and John and I have been invited to go up to those,” says Casey. 

“It’s a really good opportunity for the rūnanga to share things that they see as issues. In the past issues have come up and they’ve given us a wero/challenge. I feel it keeps the integrity of the relationship if they can kōrero with us about issues which they feel are important,” she says. 

Nurturing confidence and dreams 

 John says Māori academic achievement at the school is now frequently the same as non-Māori, and in some cases exceeds it. 

For Hariata, the goal is to nurture and grow tamariki and rangatahi to follow their dreams. She says Ngai Tahu is a young iwi and they want to grow leaders for future generations. 

“It’s letting our kids have those dreams and then giving them that opportunity and guiding them towards that career. I feel we have never been awarded that. Māori go through school and are then steered in trades. They are important and if you want to become a labourer, then we will steer you down that path. If you want to become a doctor, then we’ll steer you down that path,” she says. 

Positive connections 

John has been a principal and worked in different parts of the education sector and says he has not previously heard so many conversations about how to help individual students. Tama Tu Tama Ora

“I hear those conversations daily. The students' lives are all about positive connections – they are delightful students.  They spend their leisure time with older siblings, relations, parents. They are very active kids into surfing, hunting, fishing, mountain biking. And they’re known – when you feel that you are known and that people are interested in you, the value of that connection goes straight to your heart,” he says. 

“People say, ‘you can’t get away with anything in this town because someone will dob you in’ and it’s true. There's always someone watching out for your kids. And that’s a pretty nice feeling,” says Jo. 

The last word 

Head boy Ruslan Ataria- Ivannikov (Ngati Rongomaiwahine, Ngati Kahungunu,  Ngati Tuwharetoa ) came to Kaikōura High School from a kura kaupapa. He plans to study engineering at university to pursue a career in deep sea welding, before returning to Kaikōura when he is older. 

He is eager to enhance the whanaungatanga of Kaikōura High School in his role of head boy. 

“I wanted to help to improve that and to try to uplift the mana of the whole Kaikōura region as well. It’s important for me to uplift that whanaungatanga. It leads to a good school as well.  

“Let’s say you’re on a stage and you’re by yourself singing and you’ve got the whole audience staring at you, but if you’ve got a whole kapa (group), behind you – you know that the audience isn’t just looking at you and you’ve got people who are taking some of the stress off your back. I want that for the whole school and the community as well,” he says. 

A bit of history

The Year 7-13 secondary school began life in 1866 with the single room Ludstone School, situated a block away from the present school. In 1903 the school was converted to a district high school, which was destroyed by fire in 1905. A revived secondary department reopened in May 1908 with 22 students.

In September 1926, the Christchurch Star reported a meeting with the Minister of Education and the Kaikōura School Committee who asked for extra accommodation saying ‘...the school at present being overcrowded, while the high school pupils had to be housed in the condemned building known as the old public library’. By 1927, more than 300 residents signed a petition ‘praying for the erection of a building for secondary classes’.

Over the decades, the high school kept outgrowing itself, with the current purpose-built school opened in 1979.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:30 AM, 21 July 2021

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