Nga Puna O Waiorea

At the chalkface - a snapshot of life in two New Zealand schools

by Kim Knight - Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 27 April 2008

Teachers are stupid and kids are dangerous. The way pressure groups tell it, our education system is going to hell in a hand basket and it's a wonder anyone gets out of the playground alive.

Last month, the Principals' Federation politicked on a survey showing 6% of respondents had endured physical attacks on themselves or a teacher aide.

A recently released Ministry of Education discussion document claimed graduate teachers lacked the skills, knowledge and temperament to do their jobs.

"With nearly 10,000 students leaving school last year without basic literacy and numeracy standards, these findings should be of concern," said Katherine Rich, National's education spokeswoman.

Government has told principals to "endeavour" to reduce average secondary school class sizes to 26 but has given them no extra funding to achieve this.

It has, however, provided transitional funding for the third of schools that had budget cuts when were given three months' notice of census-based decile changes.

Remember the days of the old school yard? They're long gone.

On any given Monday through Friday, more than a quarter of a million teenagers get up and go to one of our 352 secondary schools. They study reading, writing and drug education. Science, social studies and adolescent sexuality. Today's teenagers are a tougher breed. As are the institutions tasked with the care of them.

Christchurch's Cashmere High School and Auckland's Western Springs College are typically middle-class New Zealand secondary schools. They are both ranked decile 8. They are led by principals who were this year awarded prestigious fellowships for overseas travel and education. Their boards of trustees include human rights lawyers, company chief executives and senior teachers. They are, by any conventional measure, "good schools".

Last month the Sunday Star-Times went back to the classroom. This was no To Sir with Love assignment. No rich-kid-poor-kid-white-kid comparison. Our project, simply: a tale of two schools a snapshot of life in two middle-of-the-road New Zealand schools that, between them, are responsible for the futures of more than 2700 young adults.


Ken Havill is stirring something leafy and green through a mug of hot water. "Green tea," says the Western Springs College principal.

"I've had so many people come through this office from China and Japan and they give me green tea, so I've got a fridge full of it. I actually quite like it. I used to walk down to the staffroom and get an instant coffee nine or 10 times a day. I've knocked that on the head."

At Western Springs, the students call their teachers by their first names. They don't wear uniforms (the last time parents were surveyed on this, 92% said they wanted their children to keep wearing mufti). The school roll has almost doubled since 2003 and its make-up has altered dramatically. Back in the 1990s, Pacific Island pupils represented half the roll. Today that community accounts for just 11%. Tight immigration policies, combined with the gentrification of contributing suburb Grey Lynn, have literally changed this school's face and its decile rating.

Last year, Western Springs learned it was going up a grade. "It cost us between $20,000 and $25,000 in reduced [Education Ministry] funding," says Havill. "But it cost us a lot more than that, because we had a first point of contact health service grant through the Auckland District Health Board, and they knocked that on the head... they decided we were a reasonably high decile school and there were others on the isthmus that should get the money. That was worth $50,000."

Havill is a Sacred Heart College old boy. He is regularly hit up for contributions to his former school. "There is a huge reservoir of funding support. This school does not have anything like that at all."

The decile change forced Western Springs to increase its school fee it expects to raise $123,000 from parents this year, up from $96,000 last year.

"The board wrote to all the parents. I don't know if people were happy, but I think they've bitten the bullet."

At the start of every school year, Western Springs hosts a barbecue for new students and their families. "At the powhiri," Havill said, "I told them I wanted them [parents] to feel like this secondary school was like a primary school, in the sense that parents are comfortable bowling up and walking through the doors. If you make parents feel welcome, and have an open gate and open door, a lot of anxieties are alleviated."

Testament to parental commitment: after every Warriors rugby league home game, an army of Western Springs parents cleans up Mt Smart stadium.

"That's the main way our parents have fundraised," says Havill. "It's bloody hard work getting down underneath those seats and picking up the rubbish. And they've been doing it for years."

You get the sense this is a community, not just a school. Its students are high academic achievers (the last Education Review Office report was glowing). Teacher turnover is about 13%, compared to the Auckland average of 16%. Senior students run weekly peer support lessons. "What do you do if you see a friend smoking?" they ask a group of Year 9s. "Take it out of his mouth and put it in his leg," suggests a student. The older boy suppresses a laugh. "Hmm. That's good. Because you can't smoke in your leg ..."

Actually, smokers are most likely to be referred to Quit programmes. Today's health programmes are more educative than punitive.

Drugs? "Every year we have occasion to deal with a few kids in this area. It's about being vigilant. There is no evidence of anything beyond dope. I'm on the lookout for P and there is no evidence of that."

In Havill's "how to be a good school" book, two things count: academic achievement and discipline. "A kid should know where they are in the system, in terms of how close to the edge they are."


It's raining. A pukeko stalks across a playing field. The cafeteria lunchtime special is spanakopita, and later that day Monty Beetham will bring his Dancing with the Stars' routine to the school. But first, classes.

John Ward, 38, is teaching Year 9 social studies students the intricacies of longitude and latitude. Remember the latter, he suggests, by thinking of it as flatitude, "but please don't say that in an NCEA assessment".

John. Johnno. Jonathan. Wardy. He answers to them all. Back in the United Kingdom, he sold coffee to restaurants and catering companies. He always wanted to be a teacher, "but we had a house, a mortgage, and it was just too much to give it all up to train again".

When his wife took a job in New Zealand, it allowed a career change.

"You think those cliche things, `I want to make a difference'. I don't think anyone would realistically do this if they didn't. All those things I hoped for have probably come to fruition."

He's directly in charge of four classes, and about 120 students, but is also the dean of a 250-strong "house".

"That first year is challenging, without question. There's so much going on. It's not just the teaching, it's all the things around it."

The teachers the Star-Times met don't just teach. They coach soccer and hockey and debating. They spend their lunchtimes patrolling playgrounds and marking essays. They do their prep work at home, late into the night, and they're at school before 8am most days.

Ward's starting salary was $38,000. Teachers' pay, he says, is an issue. "I'm the secondary earner in our house. In terms of attracting the highest calibre of people to do this job, some of the top graduates who come out of university might not look at teaching because they will be motivated by financial reward.

"How many talented people does that rule out of teaching?"

He's never been told to f--- off (it's a stand-down offence at Western Springs too), never felt physically threatened. Does his gender make a difference?

"You're always going to get those situations where it would be better for a male teacher or a female teacher to be dealing with something. The trick is, if you're facing one of those situations, hand it over."

He thinks, perhaps, he gets genuinely annoyed with students "maybe three times a year... maybe I shouldn't say that. Now they'll know I'm pretending the rest of the time".

And yet: "Every single lesson is not a raging success. Every year, there's some frustration where you think you could have done better. When I compare it to sales, if you don't do a pitch properly, you don't get the business. But the things you're doing here if you get them wrong, and keep getting them wrong can have really lasting and damaging consequences."


Remember the days of the old school yard? The bathroom walls still proclaim (pick-a-name-any-name) is a dirty slut; chewing gum is still banned. Today's students are also asked to switch off their cellphones and keep their classrooms free of graffiti tags.

Principals grapple with new funding models, teachers grapple with new educational assessment procedures. The kids keep coming.

At a form class at Western Springs, the Star-Times shared a student's birthday celebration. Pupils sang. His teachers led the three cheers and later one asked, "Can you feel the love?"

And the student said yes.

Full article Sunday Star Times