From the eye of the storm

Issue: Volume 95, Number 4

Posted: 7 March 2016
Reference #: 1H9d0g

From the devastation of Cyclone Heta came an opportunity to begin rebuilding the educational landscape of the Pacific island of Niue.

The continued rejuvenation of Niue, the world’s smallest independent nation and one that shares a close cultural and civic bond with New Zealand, was in part realised in January this year with the opening of a brand new combined early childhood centre and primary learning centre built to withstand whatever nature may throw at it in the future.

In late December 2003, Niue’s 2,000-odd residents looked to the south with growing apprehension. Forecasts predicted that a storm, one of those threatening enough to get its own name, was intensifying and heading in their direction. Cyclone Heta smashed into our tiny Pacific neighbour in early January 2004 with the force of a Category 5 tropical cyclone. Winds of 260 kilometres per hour and violent seas devastated the capital Alofi and much of the rest of the island. To put that into perspective, a particularly windy day in our capital city would mean wind speeds in the region of 60 kilometres per hour. Once the tempest had abated, damage to the area would be calculated at some NZ$100 million (Niue has an annual GDP of approximately NZ$10 million).

Niue’s neighbours were quick to come to the assistance of the stricken island when people emerged from their shelters – mercifully only two people had lost their lives. Major contributions were made by the governments of New Zealand and Australia, with New Zealand’s donation of immediate relief aid and assistance topping $5 million (in 2004 terms).

When the sun started shining again and Niue’s residents looked around them and wondered where to begin, one thing became immediately obvious: though Alofi Primary School had for the most part withstood the cyclone – to the naked eye at least – water damage meant that, although still standing, many classrooms were unusable and couldn’t simply be patched up. Nobody was naive enough to believe that Heta’s future brothers and sisters couldn’t cause as much, if not more, chaos.

Just weeks before this story went to print, Cyclone Winston (which may prove to have been one of the most severe storms ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere), showed this to be the case. Though Niue itself narrowly avoided a direct collision with the monstrous cyclone, it still received a battering. The Fijian archipelago however was directly in Winston’s path, with catastrophic and tragic results (see side bar).

Cracks under the microscope

The examination that Cyclone Heta necessitated also highlighted unrelated problems that weren’t going anywhere, says the principal of the new Niue Primary School, Itzy Tukuitoga.

“It was obvious after Cyclone Heta that the school was no longer safe for the children."

“The old school was much closer to the sea. [During Cyclone Heta] waves went right up to the school, and several buildings were destroyed or damaged by the sea. That was one of the dangers. The other was that, because the school was built way back in the 1950s, the walls had cracked over the years. We’ve had a few earthquakes that over the years cracked the walls because they were made of concrete. Every year those cracks had gotten bigger and bigger. We worried that one day, a big earthquake would take those buildings away.”

The Niue community worked out what they needed from a completely new school, with a view to future-proofing it from the ravages of both nature and progress: clearly there was an opportunity to improve the school’s capacity to deliver technology-assisted learning in a modern setting.

Itzy says the school was allowed plenty of input into the design of the new build, and who better than the islanders themselves to ensure that the new facilities reflected and harmonised the environment that is their home.

“We had a fair bit of input into the design. For example, we wanted wider verandas. We do a lot of learning in the open air as it’s much cooler."

“We’ve got more space in classrooms, which is great, and lots of outdoor space that we can use.”

Itzy says also that the opportunity to improve the school’s level of technological interconnection was too good to pass up.

“We’re all wired now. All classrooms are connected, so in the future we will be able to put laptops in classes. At the moment, we only have one PC and one laptop per classroom, but that’s a big improvement from our old school. All the networks are in place, so we just need to get the technology to take advantage.”

A new hub

As everywhere, schools are a hub of community life in Niue – maybe more so given the small size and tight-knit nature of the Niuean community, and the typically family-centric culture of the Pacific Islands – and so the opening of a completely new centre is a very big deal on the island.

The brand new Niue Primary School and Early Childhood Education Centre was opened on 25 January to what many would consider much fanfare. Itzy, though, reports that the celebration by Niuean standards was actually a fairly sedate affair. Niue’s Premier Hon Toke Talagi and Minister of Education Hon Pokotoa Sipeli, New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner to Niue Jenna Priore, and many of the people of the island were on hand for the cutting of the traditional kapihi – a ribbon plait made of Niuean fern. Itzy says that although it was school holidays the response from the school community was fantastic.

“We invited all the parents and students. We had all the formalities in what we call the ‘big shelter’ [a semi-outdoor open air structure], which was built for us so we can have assemblies, prize givings, and that sort of thing. We had to bring in some of the students from holiday. We thought they might not be happy about that, but they all came, with their parents."

“All the parents could see how great the new school was going to be for their children and they were all really looking forward to it. Even the children were excited!

“Of course, you solve one problem and suddenly you’ve got another: some of the kids were complaining that it’s too far to go to school now! But you can’t please everyone.”

Stronger links

Of course, it’s no accident that the new primary and early learning centre has been located close to Niue’s secondary school. On the island, as anywhere in the world, transitioning from primary school to secondary school over the space of the school holidays is a time of anxiety for many primary leavers, both socially and in terms of new teaching and learning styles. And of course, creating familiarity between all schooling levels isn’t just great for the kids: it allows staff to share ideas about transitions too. Itzy says that they’re already reaping the benefits.

“There is a much stronger link between the early learning centre and primary school now, we have so much more opportunity for interaction. It’s also great that we can link to the high school – we’re very much looking forward to working with them. It’s given us a great opportunity to just be together, to consult with each other on our learning programmes and to harmonise so that our children have smooth transitions to primary and high school."

“Our children are now quite familiar with the secondary school. It’s not quite so scary when orientation comes around!"

“We’re also doing things like sharing playing fields, which gives the children more opportunities to interact with others from different age groups. We’re using their hall also – it’s been great in terms of sharing and making the most of each other’s resources. Those are just the little things that we’re starting off with, but there are lots of big plans.”

Local context important

Though Niue is an independent country, its status is more officially described as an ‘associated state’ of New Zealand ‘self-governing in free association’ with New Zealand. It is part of the Realm of New Zealand (the entire area in which the Queen of New Zealand is head of state), and uses New Zealand currency. In other words, Niue is a proudly independent nation in its own right, yet its mutual connection with New Zealand couldn’t be closer. The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC), which Niue uses as its educational framework, couldn’t be better suited to this relationship, says Itzy.

“We follow the NZC, but we use it within our own context. So if there are things in the NZC that don’t relate to our children, we will always apply a Niuean context."

“An example might be if we were looking at science and snow came up. We obviously don’t have any of that here! But we do have things like summer heat. In New Zealand you have things like high-rise buildings and cities: we’ve got small villages. Things like that, we try to make relevant to our children and our community. We follow the NZC, but we give it a Niuean flavour."

“The new curriculum is very flexible in that way, I have found. I think of it more as a guideline for our schools to design our own programmes around. We use it as a framework. We do also have a uniquely Niuean curriculum, but it serves to complement the NZC.”

This unique and mutual relationship means that there’s plenty of scope for free interaction between students, educators and schools in Niue and New Zealand. Both countries take advantage of this opportunity to share in cultural diversity. Itzy says that they’ve hosted many consultants and ancillary education staff from New Zealand, as well as many teachers, and of course it works both ways.

“We have ERO coming in March, for the first time, to do an audit of our two schools. We of course put together terms of reference for them, so they won’t quite be doing what they do in New Zealand schools: they will be examining what our government wants them to look at, to make sure that the quality of education is good. We want to know that the quality of our assessment, for example, is on par with our New Zealand colleagues. It’s good to have them here so that we know what things we can improve on.”

And with the improved internet connectivity that’s been built into the brand new school, Itzy says that there’s now more opportunity than ever for the kids themselves to share their education lives with their peers in New Zealand.

“The problem we had before was that we didn’t have a lot of computers or good internet reception. But our teachers have lots of contacts at schools in New Zealand, so now that the situation is improving, we are able to arrange lots of interactions online.”

Reconnecting with Niue

Readers can imagine that memories of Heta are still fresh in the minds of Niueans, so how must the island’s population have felt when weather and disaster management authorities told everyone to brace for the worst in February this year? After communications issues were resolved, Education Gazette was able to get in touch with Itzy after the tempest had passed, to see how the island came through. The news is thankfully much better for Niue – and the new school – than it has been for the island’s tragically unfortunate Fijian neighbours, but while that’s cause for relief, Itzy says that doesn’t mean any relaxation in forward planning vigilance.

“The eastern side of Niue was badly affected, especially the sea tracks and marine areas. Fortunately, the houses in the villages are located further inland and were spared. This does not mean that Niue should not plan ahead as we are only four months into our 6-months cyclone season, and we’ve had four tropical cyclones so far. Residents living on the eastern side of the island need to check their houses, because the four cyclones so far all seem to have hit from that direction."

“The new school is now inland and was not affected. It is also build to withstand a category 5 tropical cyclone. One of the rooms of the new school was set up as an Evacuation Centre for the families in town living on the coastal side of the island. I heard no one used it during Cyclone Winston.”

Cyclone Winston leaves a trail of destruction across the Pacific

On 20 February, Cyclone Winston – which may prove to have been one of the fiercest recorded storms ever to hit the Southern Hemisphere – slammed directly into the islands of Fiji, with peak sustained wind speeds of 285 kilometres per hour, making the storm easily a Category 5 cyclone. As this story goes to print, there have been 42 reported casualties, with damage estimated at more than NZ$750 million. Koro Island, as one example of the devastation felt by the Fijian archipelago, now appears brown in satellite images, as compared to its usual green, due to severe defoliation.

A State of Natural Disaster, initiated by the Fijian government, will remain in effect until 21 March.

The governments of New Zealand and Australia have provided assistance in the form of logistical support and aid in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Winston.

The islands of Tonga and Niue were also affected, with significant damage in Tonga and storm surges in Niue.

If you’d like to make a donation to support relief efforts, there are several options:

For more information go to: Non-Governmental Organisation Disaster Relief Forum www.ndrf.org.nz(external link)

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 2:17 PM, 7 March 2016

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