Murchison school at heart of its community

Issue: Volume 100, Number 13

Posted: 14 October 2021
Reference #: 1HAQSU

In spite of its remote location, Murchison Area School has found many ways to play to its strengths and make the most of opportunities.

Senior leaders Brooke and Luke have attended Murchison Area School since they were five years old.

Senior leaders Brooke and Luke have attended Murchison Area School since they were five years old.

Located between Nelson and the West Coast, Murchison was at the crossroads of the traditional Māori pounamu route but historically had no Māori settlement. The discovery of gold and the search for grazing land were the initial driving forces behind the establishment of the township of Hampden, later renamed Murchison.

Developing a settlement in wild, inhospitable, isolated country was slow. In 1882 local legend (gold miner, hotelier and storekeeper) George Fairweather Moonlight offered a “commodious building for a school” and the Nelson Education Board received a request to constitute Hampden as a separate district and build a house for a teacher.

Region and roll growth

Today Murchison is growing, with people relocating from Nelson, 90 minutes away, and beyond to buy cheaper land and new enterprises moving into town and providing even more employment opportunities, says Murchison Area School principal Andy Ashworth.

The roll at the Year 1-13 school has grown from 129 to 180 students over the past five years – and it’s not only due to an increased population.

“I came here five years ago,” says Andy. “We completely revamped the senior curriculum so our students know they can stay here, go to university if they want. We also have very contextualised pathways, so every student will leave to employment or further education and we have a 100 percent record in that.”

In the past, a handful of students would typically leave the school after Year 8 to attend boarding school. But that’s changed. Students now opt to complete their secondary years at Murchison Area School, says Andy.

Some of the school’s facilities, which include a cooking block recently discovered to have been converted from a relocated old church, are dated. But about $4.5 million has been spent on upgrades in the last three years, including a new science laboratory, and work is about to begin on a new technology block.

There will also be more new classrooms to cater for the roll growth – 200 students are expected next year. There are more than 60 under-five-year-olds in the community, who will soon swell junior class numbers.

Strengths of an area school

Andy says while there are challenges in running a school for five- to 18-year-olds, there are many advantages as well. Teachers have the flexibility to teach across the school and when recruiting new staff, he looks for teachers who are multi-skilled.

“For example, two years ago, I appointed a science teacher. She’s a primary teacher by trade, but a science specialist. She now teaches science up to NCEA Level 3, but she also teaches science to our younger kids. It’s a huge strength that we can offer our students something like this.

Andy Ashworth says there are challenges and advantages at an area school.

Andy Ashworth says there are challenges and advantages at an area school.

“They have access to the facilities and specialist staff that they wouldn’t get elsewhere. It means our primary students can do activities they would not get the chance to do in a straight primary school. The teacher enjoys having that variety as well,” says Andy.

The school takes a restorative approach to any behaviour management issues, creating an emotionally safe environment so children can focus on learning. Such issues are rare, confirms Andy.

“Having whole families here – and in some cases generations of families – actually chills everything out.”

Individualised pathways

Because of small class sizes in Years 11-13, Andy says individualised specialist pathways can be developed for each student, and many students complete NCEA Level 3 by the end of year 12.

Wendy Thomason joined the staff in 1987, and was head of science and of the secondary school. She now looks after distance learning and the Gateway programme two days a week.

“Our courses are geared around what an individual student wants to learn. So, if a child decides they want to do health science, if I can find a course somewhere like the Southern Institute of Technology, I enrol them and they do it online. They can do vocational distance learning, or academic study through Te Kura Pounamu (Correspondence School).

“Now, in the senior school there may only be one or two students doing a subject, so it’s not feasible to have a teacher in front of them and they will do it in the distance room,” she explains.

Deputy head boy, Luke Allen, who has been at the school since he was five, is now in Year 12, and has completed Level 3 NCEA. He currently travels to Nelson to study trades at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) every Friday. Next year he won’t return for Year 13, but will move to Nelson to complete a pre-trade course.

Teacher recruitment

While Murchison Area School has several long-serving staff, the remote location means the school loses about two teachers per year.

“We attract really amazing teachers, sometimes straight out of uni – they might stay for a few years and develop well. Sometimes they leave with partners, although some marry locals and stay.”

With different union agreements for primary and secondary teachers, Andy and his board have come up with a solution to level the playing field for beginning teachers.

“Primary school beginning teachers get one hour release time a week, secondary teachers get five hours release time as part of their contract. I made the call that we have to make that more equitable, so all of our primary staff get four days off a term, for PLD, planning and mentoring. That costs me about 0.7 of a teacher, but we swallow that because it works. Our teachers are motivated and high quality,” he explains.

Wendy Thomason and Adrienne Cooper with two of the school’s youngest pupils.

Wendy Thomason and Adrienne Cooper with two of the school’s youngest pupils.

Long-serving staff

Long-serving primary school teacher Adrienne Cooper arrived as a second-year primary school teacher in 1968, married a local and took time out to raise a family before moving into town and returning to teaching. She’s now teaching a third generation of tamariki.

“I love seeing kids make progress, seeing the lightbulb moments, seeing the kids grow up into successful, achieving happy, well-rounded adults,” she reflects.

Wendy Thomason agrees. “As secretary of the golf club, I see the ones I taught and what they’re doing with their lives.

“I planned to stay for two years, but I’m still here! I think it’s because of the small, individualised teaching and the fact that you know every child from when they start as five-year-olds right through,” she says.

“It’s lovely to see the seniors develop that independence and motivation to learn and to further their education, or to move away from town. They seem to get the confidence from being in the one school right through, although some of them come back when they have young families of their own.”

Deputy principal Sarah Peacock has been at the school for 30 years and also enjoys having a yarn and a catch-up with former pupils who have been nurtured at the area school.

“That’s one of the beauties of area schools – there’s so much scope – there’s nowhere to hide in an area school. There’s a huge sense of responsibility from Day 1,” she says.

Teacher aide Tessa Whitnall has a long history with the school, beginning as a five-year-old in 1954. She knows what it’s like to struggle with learning.

“I’ve always learned differently – when I was at school some of the teachers used to ignore me,” she says.

Tessa Whitnall struggled as a pupil in the 1950s and now feels lucky to be working as a teacher aide at her old school.

Tessa Whitnall struggled as a pupil in the 1950s and now feels lucky to be working as a teacher aide at her old school.

Tessa feels blessed to be helping children and doesn’t plan to retire while she’s healthy and able.

“I love the kids – it’s so awesome. I work with the little ones mainly up to Year 4. I mainly help them with literacy and numeracy. I love the reading side of things. It’s nice to see the different things you can do.”


Student kōrero

Along with Luke, head girl Brooke Mason has been a student at Murchison Area School for 12 years.

“I don’t think I would want to move schools,” she says.
“I like having the structure of just staying in one school. You kind of know the school and what goes on.

“I suppose it could be limiting – we couldn’t get a teacher in to do a special subject, but we have Te Kura. We get opportunities others don’t – like Spirit of New Zealand – and being a very small high school, you don’t have to compete for positions,” she says.

The best thing about attending a small school is the relationships students have with teachers, explains Brooke.

“We have good, supportive teachers and I find the best thing about being in a small school is the relationships you build with teachers – it makes it so much easier having that kind of friendship,” she says.

“At a smaller school, you don’t really see them as teachers. You know them as a friend, but not quite. You know a lot about them – their kids might be in your classes,” adds Luke.

“It’s weird having been at this school since I was five. You show up at school when you’re five and you’re there for 12 years – it’s pretty cool. You get planted as a tree and you grow up!” he concludes. 

Roll growth will see new classrooms at Murchison Area School.

Roll growth will see new classrooms at Murchison Area School.

Supporting the community

It’s a three-hour return trip to Nelson, which means it takes any agency a day to visit a child or family in need. Andy says that it’s a constant struggle and the school often has to develop DIY solutions.

“One of our big battles is getting the Ministry and agencies to support our community, so we’ve had to adapt many things to work in context.

“We are ultra-supportive, but we find it incredibly difficult to get agencies such as Oranga Tamariki here. I am passionate that our location doesn’t matter. We have our SENCO, plus a part-time school counsellor and a Whanake Youth worker, so we’re basically self-contained. This is not out of choice, but we’ve had to be,” explains Andy.

Working with adults

When Andy accepted the job in Murchison, his wife Les had thought she might retire but keep her hand in with some learning support work.

“I thought I would do a day a week – that lasted about four weeks!” she laughs.

With a long history in special education, social work, counselling and running an alternative education facility, Les soon found there was a lot of unmet need in the community. As the school’s SENCO, she predominantly works with adults – parents, teachers, teacher aides and other professionals.

“It’s really unusual for a SENCO to work with adults, but I do that because they are the people who can make change. One of my roles is coaching parents – not how to parent, but to understand their children – I’m really clear about that.

“It’s not my role to change parenting but to enable them to understand the difference for their kids, and how they can awhi themselves, so they can work with their own kids. I haven’t really stopped being a teacher or coach; I just realised that if we can coach the adults, the kids are going to be fine,” explains Les.

Les Ashworth enjoys the support of the community to develop solutions that help students and their whānau.

Les Ashworth enjoys the support of the community to develop solutions that help students and their whānau.

Parents can drop in to see Les, sometimes just for a coffee and a chat; other times they might need more.

“Some of it is when something has gone wrong and they need to unpack it and they can’t figure out what to do – they’re often angry and confused. I’m not a counsellor, but essentially a large part of it is a counselling, social work role.”

She also provides coaching and supervision for the school’s teachers and teacher aides.

“I do coaching and supervision with the teacher aides for at least two days every term. So when the teachers get PLD days, the teacher aides get them as well,” she explains.


Les says she couldn’t do her job so easily without the whole-hearted support of the Board of Trustees and the community.

“I’ve had so many different experiences and been so lucky with my career, but I know that when you do stuff that takes slight risks, it doesn’t work unless you have people [board, principal, teachers, students, community] around you who think in the same way.

“I have an incredible board who back me and support me trying things and we can do stuff other schools can’t do,” she explains.

Les is excited about the potential to use technology to help a boy who is blind and autistic and highly auditory. She has also been working with teachers to put frameworks and scaffolding in place so that children with dyslexia can access learning just like anybody else.

Remote innovations

As outside specialist staff may only visit occasionally, Les says they only see a ‘window’ and it’s hard for them to observe children and work with teachers. She has come up with a solution using technology.

“I set up a platform and we’re using narrative assessment and videos – so videos are taken of a child engaging in something and whoever puts it up writes a narrative. But there’s an expectation that whoever else [such as parents, students, RTLBs] is involved with the child looks at it and puts the information through their own lens. I’ve only trialled it with three children so far.

A cross-curricular project saw students make these pou, which tell the Māori creation story.

A cross-curricular project saw students make these pou, which tell the Māori creation story.

“That means that a teacher aide can get ideas and explanations from a speech and language therapist, or from an occupational therapist. You have collaborative comments and then from all that information, a next step is created. It’s a live document. It’s going to benefit those kids significantly,” she says.

To provide on-the-ground support, a community of practice was set up involving Les, a counsellor and a school nurse. It was distressing when the nurse left, Les says, but new support came from a Nelson DHB initiative, Whanake Youth, who are now visiting the school one day a week.

“They definitely think outside the square. They’ve got access to psychologists, psychiatrists who can do some screening. Suddenly I’ve got access to a group of people who want to work collaboratively and have loads of information and expertise,” she concludes.

Education Gazette will feature an article about Murchison Area School’s journey towards biculturalism and developing a localised curriculum later in 2021. 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:08 am, 14 October 2021

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