Murchison school at heart of its community
14 October 2021
In spite of its remote location, Murchison Area School has found many ways to play to its strengths and make the most of opportunities.
As one of the earliest European settlements in Aotearoa, Nelson was also at the forefront of developing a model for a free secular education system that was adopted for the whole colony in 1877.
The first school in the Nelson colony, a rush-woven cottage on the banks of the Maitai, was opened in March 1842. At the end of October 1842, it expanded into a day school and a 27-year-old foundry worker, Matthew Campbell, took on the management of the enterprise.
Nelson was the first province to initiate free public education, with the Nelson Education Act of 1856 modelled on Matthew Campbell’s school system. According to The Jubilee History of Nelson: 1842 to 1892(external link), the education system was to be based on a tax in which ‘every settler was to be called upon to pay for its support, whatever his religious opinions might be, the basis on which the scheme ought to rest must in equity be a secular one’.
The Nelson system merged into the colonial system when the Education Act 1877 was passed. The Act marked the beginning of a free, secular, compulsory state education system for all New Zealand children aged between seven and 13.
Not surprisingly, Nelson has its share of historic schools that today are ‘walking backwards into the future’ –
‘ka mua, ka muri’.
Nelson Central School is New Zealand’s oldest school still functioning on its original unitary site. The site of the present school was purchased by the Nelson Education Board in 1893 for £1,600. The school building is listed by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga as a Category 2 historic place.
“Historic schools have a real responsibility to the past, but we have to prepare our students for the future,” says tumuaki Pip Wells, reflecting on ‘ka mua, ka muri’.
Behind the school’s historic frontage, which dates back to 1930, there’s a miscellany of buildings from different eras and a path that meanders up a rise to Renwick House, which was built as a home in the 1860s.
It’s now the home of the new entrant and junior classes and a Nurture Room. Outside there’s a twisty bougainvillea vine that inspired the drawings in The Crinkum Crankum Tree written by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Robyn Belton, who was a parent at the school.
Providing a 21st century education in historic buildings can be challenging, says Pip.
“The buildings were designed to have everybody do the same thing at the same time in silence and with the teacher up the front. The design of the classrooms allows minimal space between students, with what was a blackboard and then repurposed as a whiteboard at the front of the class. It was designed for a transmissive form of education.
“Our expectation now is that students can learn at anytime, anywhere, from anyone. In other words, there is differentiated learning which requires different children to be doing different things at the same time, and to be able to utilise each other, as well as adults to support that learning,” she explains.
The school is in the process of a review of the site and developing a complete educational plan that reflects different philosophies of teaching, the school community’s cultural narrative, and how that informs the school’s pedagogy and use of space.
With Nelson City Council’s strategic plan for growth in the inner city, the Ministry of Education has decided the 450-pupil school needs capacity for 600-700 ākonga over the next 30 years.
Pip says teachers at the Decile 7 school work deliberately to build student agency and create environments that allow tamariki to work at different stages and different speeds in the course of the day. But she will quite often find small groups of children using the school corridor as breakout zones.
“It’s a bit tricky, when you’re looking at a pedagogy that involves collaboration in an environment that’s been designed for silence!” she says.
Working with Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and Nelson City Council experts, Liz says the historic frontage of the school will be preserved, but they’ll be working hard to make the internal spaces more effective for modern teaching and learning.
“We want spaces that are going to reflect our community and meet the needs of the learners, rather than the actual building. We want spaces that are going to allow kids to manipulate, collaborate, problem-solve, share and present.
“We recognise that the learning children require now needs to equip them for an uncertain future. So being able to operate with other people, both digitally and face to face, will be one of the critical skills for them.
“If kids aren’t happy and don’t get that sense of real connection and love, then nothing else is going to happen – that’s where wellbeing becomes so critical to success,” says Pip.
Nelson Central School has had a strong commitment to bilingual education since 1985, when a bilingual unit was established. In 2018 the school celebrated two milestones: the 30th anniversary of Te Pouahi, the school’s (Level 2) Māori-medium classes; and the enrolment of Te Pouahi’s 100th pupil.
“Our community is really supportive of trying to genuinely create a partnership between those Treaty partners and we really think that every child deserves to walk confidently in both te ao Māori and the English world. And we have a duty of care to provide an education for our Māori students that meets their needs.
“It’s all about equity – this school has a really strong kaupapa around equity, excellence and belonging. So, if we are wanting our children to belong in this school, then we need to be celebrating what they bring in the gates. And we also have a responsibility to right the wrongs of the past, which are well documented throughout the history of our land,” says Pip.
Erina Tuhakaraina (Ngāti Hauā, Ngāti Kahungunu) was a foundation pupil of Nelson Central School’s whānau class – Te Pouahi – where she later taught for 16 years. Now she’s carrying on the mahi as a kaiako at Nelson Intermediate and is an across-school teacher for Te Kāhui Ako ki Whakatū, helping schools build their capabilities around mauri ora (where children are flourishing in their learning).
“I was a foundation pupil in 1986. At the time, there was a strong group of parents and kaumātua who were working at the kōhanga reo. There was a group of us who were coming into primary school, so they were asking how our language was going to be nurtured.
“It was initially a bilingual unit for us babies back then, as well as our parents who were learning the language alongside us,” remembers Erina.
At different times during its 33-year history, the whānau class has been full immersion, bilingual and Māori medium, but it’s always been about keeping te reo Māori alive in a community where just over 10 percent of the population are Māori.
“The whānau class gave me a sense of belonging. Right from kōhanga reo, we children all grew up together and, for the majority of the time, we could travel the school pathways together. It was different at college – we got separated in classes – although we might come together in something like kapa haka, but to this day, we call ourselves cousins.”
Erina trained to be a teacher in English medium through the University of Canterbury in Nelson. She was a young mum living up the road from her old primary school and heard about an opportunity through the kumara vine and began working part-time at Te Pouahi.
“I came in as a beginning teacher in a full immersion class – there were a couple of strong teachers: good role models and fluent speakers. I was at Te Pouahi for 16 years – we became bilingual and grew and grew. At one stage we hit the 100-ākonga mark,” she says proudly.
At the end of 2019, wanting to continue the pathway for Māori children in Nelson schools, Erina reluctantly left Te Pouahi, and became a kaiako in Nelson Intermediate’s Māori medium class, along with fellow ākonga and teacher from Te Pouahi, Tom Alesana.
“We wanted to do our part to support the pathway of Māori medium for our children and we felt we had something to give,” she explains.
Erina is one of four teachers in the 52-ākonga, Level 2 Māori-medium class, Te Pītau Whakarei.
“We work in a collaborative way – three of us hold leadership responsibilities and we have one beginning teacher, so there are two or three of us on any one day.
“It’s awesome working in a collaborative way nurturing these children, who have mostly come from Te Pouahi and Ngā Mana Kākāno – Māori medium at Victory Primary School,” explains Erina.
Two days a week, Erina is an across-school teacher for Te Kāhui Ako ki Whakatū.
“I work with a team of six – we work with, and alongside, many stakeholders like iwi, tumuaki, kaiako, whānau and ākonga around our Nelson kura and kōhungahunga as ‘change agents’ to help build capabilities of others in the mahi we’re doing around Mauri ora, critical theory and cultural responsiveness.”
Erina is excited about a recent hui held about extending the Māori-medium pathway into Nelson city’s two secondary schools.
“I have yearned for it to head into secondary and the time has come where the conversations have started,” she says.
“I always like to think about who’s gone before, right back to kōhanga reo and some of the kaumātua who created these nests to ensure the language keeps alive amongst this community. Many of them still work in education – my mum works as an initial teacher educator at Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood. A lot of my generation are now collaborating in education settings.”
At 178 years old, Wakefield Primary School, 20 kilometres south of Nelson, is regarded as the oldest continuous school in New Zealand. It was founded in mid-1843 in the home of Mary Ann Baigent – descendants attend the 270-pupil school to this day.
“One of the things that appealed to me when I came to the school eight years ago, was that we are the village school and have been for a long time and there is a strong sense of identity and ownership,” says principal Peter Verstappen.
“You notice that at school events when the kids can hear Mum and Dad, or their grandparents talking about ‘when we came to the school...’. For many of the children there’s a strong sense that this is a place that’s been part of their family’s narrative for quite a long time,” he says.
“At another level, there’s the school’s relationship with the village and the district. For example, a local farmer left money to the school to build a building over our swimming pool built by the Ministry about 25 years ago. Out of that they formed an incorporated society. The committee consists of representatives from the school, the community and Tasman District Council and we all are responsible for managing this facility.”
The semi-rural Years 1-6 contributing school is located in the heart of Wakefield, with Faulkner’s Bush – a piece of remnant forest – on one boundary. Peter says, even though the school is quite close to Richmond and Nelson, the tamariki are country kids and spend a lot of time outdoors.
“They’re reflective of the people who live here, they are people who want to interact with the land and the environment around them. We have a lot of kids who will spend the weekend pig hunting with Dad, or pulling in snapper with grandparents, or riding the mountain bike trails that are just around the village. They have a rich environment in which to explore life,” he says.
Wakefield Primary School represents “a pretty good timeline of New Zealand school architecture from about the 1930s through to 2011”, laughs Peter.
He says there have been minimal challenges in adapting teaching and learning styles in buildings from a range of eras.
“In fact, we stripped the inside out of our oldest building and the footprint of the building lent itself beautifully to becoming a modern learning environment. We’ve been able to modify the other buildings and change around quite a number of our spaces in the years I have been here. They are well fit for purpose – as good as anything that you’ll find anywhere, I think,” he says.
Peter acknowledges that one of the downsides of a village school is that children are sheltered from some of the realities of modern life.
“In terms of preparing our kids for the world they’re going to live in, we have to try a little harder because some things don’t come as readily to hand as elsewhere.
“Biculturalism and the Treaty of Waitangi is one of those areas that has not been terrifically visible in the lives of the children, or the school itself. One of the things we have put a lot of focus on in recent times is making it visible so that if you’re a Māori student coming into the school, how do you see yourself in this place?
“At the moment we’re building a waharoa/entranceway that captures our bicultural narrative and shows very clearly that this is something we value,” says Peter.
In recent years, Wakefield Primary School has responded to the changing nature of students’ needs and shifted its focus to wellbeing.
“This year, we’re redeveloping our local curriculum very strongly around wellbeing and trying to interpret everything we do through the lens of wellbeing. It’s a huge challenge – and it’s fascinating. For example, teachers are saying, ‘When I run this reading group, how can I do it in a way that enhances wellbeing?’” says Peter.
While digital technology is now embedded and cross-curricular, Peter and his team have applied a wellbeing lens to it as well.
“We started to feel uneasy about some of the digital behaviours that our kids were modelling, or being exposed to. That has modified our approach to how we use and teach digital technologies in our school. And we’re shielding our younger children from it a little bit more than we were previously.
“In terms of the future for our kids, they need to be able to be calm, regulate their behaviour, and have good social skills so they don’t get into conflict with people. And then from that place of calm and self-confidence they can become the learners they are capable of being,” explains Peter.
Kyro Baigent is a descendant of Mary Ann Baigent. Other tamariki Education Gazette spoke to also had parents, grandparents or siblings who attend or work at the school.
“My ancestors built this school and my dad came here,” says Kyro (Year 5).
“My nana came here in the 1950s and my dad did. I can imagine my dad here – he has told me about the teachers he had,” says Hunter (Year 6).
“My mum came to this school. My grandmother was a teacher aide at this school,” says Elliot (Year 6).
“My mum is a teacher aide here, she’s training to be a teacher,” says Isla (Year 6).
Elliot can’t wait to leave school, and Wakefield, and become an animator. Hunter would like to become a Paralympian – maybe in wheelchair sprints.
“You can get there, Hunter,” says his friend Elliot.
The children all remember a large forest fire in 2019, which saw them relocated to Hope Community Church for a week.
For Lochy (Year 6), whose dad attended the school, the fire has inspired him to become a firefighter as his grandparents were on a farm that was potentially in the path of the fire.
The tamariki enjoy swimming in the solar-heated pool, which is open about five months a year, and playing in Faulkner’s Bush during the summer terms.
“The good thing is having lots of freedom – you can go wherever you like to go within the school boundaries,” says Lochy.
And Hunter loves kapa haka and te reo Māori.
“I absolutely love te reo because we get to learn more about our country’s culture and I think, overall, it’s a really great for us to kids to learn because they can help us grow and get some jobs,” he says.
BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, email@example.com
Posted: 9:35 am, 14 October 2021
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