The country is my classroom
More than half a million New Zealanders have received their schooling not in square classrooms but in housetrucks, boat cabins, caravans and bedrooms. Most have never met their teachers, but all praise the merits of a great New Zealand institution: The Correspondence School.
It’s 7 a.m. on a wet morning in Opononi, a small northern town on the edge of the Hokianga Harbour. For a brief spell in its past Opononi was as well known as any major city in the country.
In the summer of 1956 Opo the dolphin swam among the crowds which had come especially to see her and to experience the magic of the bond this unusual animal seemed to have with humans. Then, on March 9, the day before a law protecting her came into force, Opo was found dead, apparently killed by a human. The country grieved at the senseless brutality, over an act which forced us to face the dark side of human behaviour. The crowds stopped coming. Opononi slid quietly back into its former existence of fishing and farming.
Now, as then, Opononi people awake to one of the most spectacular views in the country: massive, awesome sandhills. Not mere dunes but truly huge hills of sand where wild horses still gallop. Each day the locals look across to these dunes, pink and yellow and moody as a seascape, as sunlight and cloud shadows roll across the sensuous curves. Some days they must pause and reflect thankfully that the natural barrier of the Hokianga Harbour lies between them and this creeping landscape.
This morning, though, the hills are a surly grey as rain squalls sweep across them. It’s a disappointment, the group of us walking from our motel agree. Today, with a group of a hundred or so Correspondence School students and their parents, we had hoped to explore the sandhills.
But the forecast is bad, the harbour very choppy.
“We can’t take risks loading and unloading everyone at the sandhills,” a Correspondence School teacher, Phil Hutchings, decides. Instead we’ll take a boat ride around the harbour, and Phil and colleagues Maureen Hilyard, Carolyn Corbett, and Mary Mallone will set up activities in the Opononi War Memorial Hall.
They’ve brought the materials with them — newspapers, art materials, even bags of rocks hauled all the way from Wellington beaches — (“for painting into pet rocks,” Mary says). Since children who learn on their own tend to miss out on group stimulation when doing music, drama, and art, this is a small attempt to redress the problem. Later the teachers will see that their laptop computers have drawn most of the attention, approximating, as they do in this setting, the video parlours of the cities.
Today is a special day for the group who will come here. They’re part of the largest school in New Zealand, with over 20,000 full- and part-time students. But only occasionally do they get a chance to meet their schoolmates, for the Correspondence School’s ‘classroom’ is kitchens, housetrucks, yacht cabins and bedrooms around the country.
In a way, the crowd coming today fits the image that city slickers have of correspondence students: that all of them live on islands, in lighthouses, and on remote farms. Most of the students coming will be on correspondence because they live a long way from conventional schools. Somo will be enrolled because their parents are itinerants, some because they are emotionally or physically unable to go to a conventional school.
When the school was founded in 1922 it was to serve the children of “backblockers”. Now, although these isolated students still represent a good chunk of the full-time roll, almost half the school’s full-timers come from the cities.
The purpose of today is to let the students and parents do a spot of socialising and, for some, to meet the teachers for the first time face to face. Phil and Maureen are both ‘resident teachers’ who spend one week in two visiting the students in their areas, which run from Auckland north; from the islands of the Hauraki Gulf to the children of seaweed pickers in the far north. Both teachers spend a lot of their time in gumboots, looking for obscure addresses. Maureen has only been in the job for a few weeks.
“I’ve visited all the easy ones so far,” she says. “From next week I’ll be using the Post Office to help find the others.”
Phil is relatively new too — he and Maureen have taken over this beat from a teacher who visited students in the area for seven years, Jan Jackson. She was pretty popular, and today, Phil and Maureen know, parents # and students will be sizing them up to see how they compare with Jan. The relationship between families and resident teachers is critical — they are the human face between the school and families.
Carolyn and Mary are both teachers from the school’s headquarters in Wellington. They and their students who will be here today know each other well — but only on paper, through letters sent out with the lessons. Face to face is different. “You’re meeting a different person,” one student says. “I’m a bit nervous,” Carolyn admits.
It’s a country-time start and mid-morning before we’re under way. They’ve straggled in in their muddy vans and cars — some driving for hours to get here. Bobbie Nilsson and her young son John-Peter have had a three-and-a-quarterhour drive from their farm on the edge of the Parengarenga Harbour ”after feeding six calves, two lambs, and a baby goat,” Bobbie says.
They are a diverse group, from the twin girls in their bike pants, iridescent green sweat shirts and spiked hair to the nuggety bare-footed children in their Swanndris, Maori, Pakeha — and French. The parents, too, are from a mixture of backgrounds: a midwife, a couple who run a horse-trekking business, an ordained minister who now translates Chinese texts for universities, an oceanographer. One woman has the most workworn hands I’ve ever seen. Tough, honest hands.
It is interesting to watch how these young people act towards adults and each other. They’re open and forthright with adults, much more so than children I know, not at all embarrassed.
“It’s because they spend so much time with adults,” Phil points out. (Occasionally too, spending so much time with adults means that some have the solemnity of adults themselves. Principal Ormond Tate later tells me, smiling, about an incident at one school camp. A seven-year-old had approached him and shaken his hand gravely. “How are you, Mr Tate?” he’d asked. “What have you been doing since I last saw you?” So the 12 or so camps the school runs each year, and days such as these, help to bridge this social isolation).
They also have a remarkable tolerance towards each other, regardless of age and abilities.
Today the rope swing is very popular and the students are queued, awaiting their turn — often for a long time. I realise that the reason they’re having to wait is that they are allowing the two-year-olds exactly the same number of rides as the older children. Quite often, because they’re only two, these small children bungle their turn, and each time the nearest bigger child lifts them back on to give them another chance. It means a lot of waiting, but there’s no squabbling, no one elbowing in, no complaints.
Their co-operation and tolerance strikes me as remarkable from my experience of school children in the city, and Ormond Tate confirms that what I’ve seen is something many people note about correspondence children.
“When you watch our children playing team sports they’re pathetic. They don’t get a chance to take part in things other children take for granted, games such as football or netball — even playground games like bullrush and skipping in long lines — so they don’t have those skills. But it’s wonderful to watch the way the little kids and the disabled children are accommodated. They never turn on them and say `you lost us that goal’. Never.”
Some of the children are finding it hard to mix with each other. Because they’re used to plugging away on their own at home, all this company is a bit tiring. A couple have gone off to their family’s car to read in peace.
Leo-John Tracey, a friendly, sandy-haired 14-year-old who lives with his family in buses high above the Opononi township is feeling shy. “I wish I knew more people,” he says wistfully. “I definitely find it hard to mix.”
But on the boat trips the sort-out happens — the teenagers and small children crowd to the front of the boat, the parents sit at the back. In such close proximity they can’t help but talk to each other. We cruise past the amazing sandhills and there, close to the water’s edge, are some of the famed horses. A small boy creeps past me to take a picture of his mum with a fancy new camera. A furry tail suddenly flicks out from under his sweat shirt. “Possum,” he says, pleased at my startled response. By mid-afternoon it’s time for the families to head off on their long rides home. Arrangements are being made between students to visit each other. “We borrow each other’s children,” Bobbie Nilsson explains. Leo-John, now part of a large circle of young people, is swimming in the chilly Hokianga waters.
But for those who have been out on a last trip in the boat, a little bit of Opononi magic has happened. A school of orca whales with a baby has come up beside the fishing boat and everyone is thrilled. It’s not something which would happen in a classroom.
You can start to piece together a picture of the Correspondence School as you sit in the foyer of its Portland Crescent headquarters in Wellington. The main difference is, of course, no students. None of the noises of hundreds of children. No smell of wet jerseys and the smells that all other schools have, which seep into the very materials of which the schools are made.
No students, but hundreds of teachers. Altogether, 563 full- and part-time teachers work at this school — which is so large that it now occupies three buildings in Wellington.
Mailroom staff cross the foyer wheeling trolleys of yellow and blue plastic bins like those used by fish companies. But these bins are full of the tough green envelopes in which students’ lessons are sent out and returned — two weeks’ worth of lessons at a time. Any day up to 1100 of these envelopes arrive in the four mail deliveries. Over the years millions of these envelopes have come and gone through the correspondence mailroom, because a staggering (and conservative) figure of half a million New Zealanders have now been educated by the Correspondence School since its modest start in the 1920s.
The visitors book tells its own story. The addresses read: “living in a housetruck; Solomon Islands; Great Barrier Island; Chathams; Australia; travelling on a yacht.”
It tells only part of the story about the students who are, like most of those we met at Opononi, doing correspondence because they are a long way from schools. In this case many of them are the sons and daughters of New Zealand missionaries and servicemen and business people serving overseas. Or they are part of itinerant families whose parents travel the country doing work such as fencing, or pollination, or floor-laying.
Most of these students are part of the school’s full-time roll.
There are many others who are full-time students of the school. There are schoolgirls who have left school because they are pregnant; or children too sick to attend conventional schools. They may be students who left school without passing examinations and now want to regain the lost ground. Many of them now are students who have been suspended — a euphemism for expelled — from conventional schools.
Six thousand on the school’s roll are also attending other schools. Some of them are at small country schools where a teacher has suddenly left and can’t be replaced; or at a school anywhere which can’t give all the subjects their students need. Or they may be students with special needs: gifted children, Downs syndrome children, brain-damaged children , or those with dyslexia, or other learning difficulties, who all need specialised programmes.
But the bulk — the vast bulk, 10,000 plus, of the school’s students — are part-time. Three quarters of them are women catching up on their education and unable to go to night classes because they have to look after children, or do shiftwork, or live in the country where there is no night school.
And within those groups there are smaller distinct groups: 400 refugees learning English; over 1200 prisoners learning a range of subjects; 400 adults taking remedial primary courses to help them to become literate and numerate.
The youngest, pre-school students, are two years old; the oldest student is 84-year-old Aucklander Stella Baird. She studies fifth form Maori because she has been meaning to learn it since she first taught in a remote area among Maori people many years ago, and sixth form mathematics “because I was no good at it … and I’m sick of kids upstaging me.”
The school itself is a strange beast. It has a complex structure which melds primary and secondary staff as well as a large administrative staff. The ranks within it follow conventional schools, with a principal and deans and senior mistresses and masters. An Education Department officer, employed to review the structures of the organisation, took a year to come up with his assessment and admitted that close as he had been before to the Correspondence School, he had been surprised at the scope and complexity of the organisation.
The school titles look oddly out of place in an organisation where the students are invisible — or rather are visible only through their work, which is on display all over the buildings. Possibly as a consequence of this physical absence of students, the teachers are relaxed and positive and all around the school they tell me spontaneously how much they enjoy the work.
Ormond Tate is the principal of the school. He’s a tall, affable man with thick glasses and an accent which could be from the north of England, or perhaps Australia — but turns out to have originated in Putaruru and been nurtured in the suburbs of Auckland. Every two weeks he conducts a school ‘assembly’ on the school’s radio programme, which beams out to the far corners of the school’s catchment area (Bluff to North Cape) with messages of upcoming school days and camps and congratulations for work well done.
He is enormously highly spoken of by parents and teachers, both for his astuteness and his vitality — a vitality which runs through the school. “He doesn’t miss a beat,” one teacher said.
He’s been principal for 10 years now, and in that time he’s worked hard to strengthen the bonds between school, families, and teachers. To make sure this bond is maintained, the school has built up an extraordinary communications system. As well as the fortnightly post-out of lessons and the weekday radio broadcasts, 20,000 letters go through the mailroom each month. Twice yearly the parents and ex-pupils get a magazine and there are two students’ magazines a year as well. Any full-time student or their parent can telephone the school collect to discuss problems, and the school days and camps double as a chance to pass on information.
Ormond Tate goes to most camps, and each Friday Maureen Hilyard, Phil Hutchings, and the seven other resident teachers through the country telephone him directly. He oils the wheels of the system for them; they in turn keep him in touch with any requests and concerns from the parents.
On top of these school systems there are 23 Parents’ Association branches over the country which keep in contact by newsletter.
Parents have always been very involved with the Correspondence School — naturally enough, since they’re also involved with the school lessons, acting as supervisors, especially when the children are young.
Now the parents are more important than ever, for on October 1, with all the other schools in the country, control of the school went over to a parent-weighted Board of Trustees.
It’s a situation which many other schools are finding daunting, and in the Correspondence School’s case there’s the added obstacle of having parents who live all over the country and who can’t meet weekly to discuss issues. The Board will meet 10 times a year, but in between times there will have to be a lot of talking done by telephone conference calls and facsimile machines.
One of the main concerns facing the Board will be the proposed cuts to both their budget and their roll. Several months ago Government announced that they would have to lop $2 million off their $32.69 million budget, and a total of 5000 students, or half their adult part-time roll, would have to go.
Since then a million dollars of the proposed amount to be cut has been given back and the Board thinks that it can get away with cuts of only 1300 or so students off the adult part-time roll, and that staff positions will be safe for the time being. But even greater cuts are proposed for the next financial year, and an outside review committee has been ordered to see where these can be made. It could be a year of tough decisions for the new Board of Trustees.
At the Doorway of the school’s headquarters in Portland Crescent there is a large red polished stone. It comes from Mt Aspiring Station in Canterbury, a gift from the Aspinall family, who for three generations has educated its children by correspondence.
It symbolises the origins of the school, when its students were the traditional backblockers who rode their horses over mountain ranges and through icy rivers to pick up their mail — and their correspondence lessons.
Families like these are only a small group on the school’s roll these days, but they are a very involved and influential group of parents in, and on behalf of, the school.
Mt Algidus Station is one of New Zealand’s best known sheep farms. Thousands of New Zealanders feel they know Mt Algidus through the books of Mona Anderson. Her best seller A River Rules My Life is now a classic. The river she talks about is the Wilberforce. In fact, the station’s homestead lies at the confluence of the Wilberforce and Rakaia Rivers, with the Rolleston Range behind.
Graeme and Sally Nell are the present owners.
“Find your way to Windwhistle,” Graeme says, “and from there…” he takes me through a series of instructions full of turns at local garages, gorges, and homesteads. Fortunately, we have a good map. “When you get to the Robertsons’, phone us. Drive to the edge of the river and we’ll come across and pick you up,” he says.
We follow the map and instructions through the mist-covered ranges, telephone from the Robertsons’ (who are used to this sort of thing), and finally we are looking down on this river which has ruled — and taken — many lives. The Wilberforce, a huge braided river twisting through the pale shingle, is a tame beast on this day, but in hours this river can flood, cutting access to the Nells for days at a time. Today the station’s large truck winds slowly down the hill and across the strands of the river bed; if the river had been higher they would have come across by jetboat.
Sally Nell is driving and with her are children Lucy, George, Victoria, and Charles. It’s right in the middle of shearing, but luckily for us it has been raining and the merinos are standing in the yards bedraggled and too wet to shear.
The Nell children range in age from Lucy, 11, to pre-school Charles. All are doing correspondence now, but their highschooling will be at boarding school. The children have their own small classroom at the back of the house, away from the distractions of telephone and the comings and goings of staff. They also have a supervisor, Jo Ensor, because Sally’s part in running this station of 22,728 hectares and 18,000 sheep is, as with other women on these stations, substantial.
“Some days, with everything else going on, I’d be in tears trying to work with the children as well,” Sally says. She echoes a concern that many parents share. “I’m relieved to have a supervisor because although having our children on correspondence gives us a far better idea of how they are doing, it’s scary too. There’s just you. The responsibility is quite frightening — you feel as though you only have one chance to get it right.”
The Nells are happy that their children can spend their primary years at home with the family because of correspondence schooling. I sense that if Sally and Graeme had needed to send the children away when they were young it would have been a shattering experience for the whole family.
The children’s lives are deeply entwined with their animals — the number of pet sheep has now become a flock, each personally named after a relative of the family. Lucy can give me a knowledgeable run-through of different wool classes.
“We can take them down to town and cram a week’s city experience, take them to all the things, rush them around the video parlours, and they’ve done it, haven’t they?” Sally says. “But city children can’t come here and in such a short time get all the experience our children get.” Here, life is slow-moving, things happen with seasons. “I know they can’t learn team sport by correspondence but it depends whether you think that’s important. Lucy wanted to become a ballet dancer and she can’t, but even if they’d gone to a little country school they might not have had the things Correspondence School supposedly misses out on anyway.”
In North Canterbury, on another farm with another complicated set of instructions, 15-year-old Kylie Hamilton lives with her mother Geri, stepfather Stuart, and baby brother Dene. Spring comes late to this part of the country, Mt Whitnow. Down on the plains the blossom is at its best; but here the first tender green is only just starting to colour the bare trees.
Kylie and her family liave lived on the station for nine months, since Stuart was employed as station farm hand She’s a bright, talkative teenager, and as with the Nells, her animals, her horse Cane and fox terrier Shortcake, are very important to her.
Living up here she finds she has to adapt some of the lessons she does to suit the local conditions. She’s recently finished a human biology lesson for which she decided she would lay out a sheep’s intestine across a paddock and measure it. “A hundred and ten feet,” she says. She loves science and she says, “with Mum helping me it’s really fun.” Like other parents of correspondence students, Geri and Stuart get as much out of some lessons as Kylie does. Long after she has gone back to the television set at night they’re still outside working through her astronomy lessons for themselves.
Schoolwork wasn’t always enjoyable for her, though. Like a hundred or so students on the school’s roll, she was originally on correspondence because she was suspended. About a quarter of these students do very well on correspondence; there’s little change for the others.
Kylie was suspended from a Canterbury high school and her eyes slide away unhappily as I ask her about it. She talks about the difficulty she had with her maths. “I’d ask my teacher if he would explain it to me — I’d say I couldn’t do it and he’d say ‘I’ve explained it, now go away and work it out’.” So for Kylie, school was like a boring television programme with nothing to grab her attention. Now she’s doing okay at maths. “Brilliantly at English,” she says. “I really hated school, but I love correspondence.”
What’s the difference, I ask her.
“You and the teacher respect each other more. You don’t have to face them and argue with them and they don’t pressure you. At school at the start of each year I think the teachers set their minds on who they like and who they don’t. I get on really well with my Correspondence School form teacher. She’s a hard case. She writes me letters about what she’s been up to. If I’m having trouble I can ring up, and if I’m still in trouble they’ll send me extra teaching notes.”
The thing about our students,” says Helen Smith, “is that they don’t have to be in a certain place at a certain time to get their lessons. They learn when they like, and how they like. So there’s quite a bit of freedom.
“But that carries responsibilities with it — they also have to be self-motivated, have to be able to organise their time and learn sound study habits.”
Most families think that this ‘glide time’ aspect of correspondence learning is one of its biggest pluses.
Helen and 12-year-old twin daughters Rachel and Hannah have arrived back at their home in Bon Accord Harbour, Kawau Island, only hours before we arrive to stay. Helen, a member of the school’s Board of Trustees, has been down in Wellington at a meeting; the twins have been staying with a friend in Auckland, taking their books with them. The worins take off days or even longer, to join in with island activities or tok still has to be done, but each family can set its own routines. Sometimes the tw go and see friends on the mainland, and this means they might work through weekends or conventional school holidays to make up the time.
Some students have jobs for parts of the year — doing seasonal work, such as fencing, for their parents. So they’ll work right through a term’s study, weekdays and weekends, to complete the lessons.
The day before meeting Helen, Rachel, and Hannah, we had visited the Robison family in their yacht Scheherazade, moored in the Bay of Islands. The Robison students, Shelley, 10, and Kester, 13, like to start their school days at 6.30 a.m. That means they’ll be finished around lunchtime and they can get on with the other pursuits that this flexibility allows.
In their case the main passion is collecting stamps, but these two are no casual hobby collectors. They collect only stamps over a hundred years old — and bid in international stamp auctions around the world. Their grasp of world currencies, geography, and the political and historical reasons behind the issue of each stamp is formidable.
This flexibility can make outsiders question whether the standard of correspondence education could be as high as other schools’. But a year’s schoolwork is still a year’s schoolwork. Whether it’s done in schools or by correspondence, the same ground still has to be covered. Unlike students in conventional schools, correspondence students can’t skulk at the back of the classroom, cutting out from the work.
The test of whether they can keep up with their counterparts in other schools can be seen in the public examinations. In all of these the correspondence students do as well.
Question: You’re a Correspondence School student and you’ve just made a delicious batch of pikelets for a home economics assignment. How are you going to show your teacher what a wonderful success they were?
Answer: Staple one to the lesson and send it to her, of course.
It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Teaching by mail has peculiar demands and problems.
“You can’t shout at students on paper,” Ormond Tate says. “If you do, they’ll simply disappear. We have to encourage the students, but at the same time gee them along, and we have to establish a very good relationship with the whole family. The parents are very involved with their children’s work — and sometimes they worry quite a lot about the standard of their help.”
Lesson Number One then, for any correspondence teacher, is “Be Positive”. Look for the good areas, praise the student, then explain carefully anything they’re struggling with. The teachers’ desks are littered with stickers of smiling faces, stars, and Well Done’s.
When the lessons are being written, the teachers have to keep in mind the diversity of situations and people they’re writing for.
“We have to remember that the students might be in housetrucks or caravans,” set writer Jenny Foggo says. “We have to remember that we are writing for a variety of backgrounds and experiences and different beliefs. We have to be careful about what resource requirements we include because some people won’t be able to get them.”
It’s simply not possible for many students of this school to nip around the corner to pick up something from the dairy.
To help get around this the school supplies some of the basic resources — bundles of wood, tools, basic science equipment which students later return. (Months after cyclone Bola, tatty little bundles of rusty tools kept dribbling in as students found them scattered around their properties.)
Marking by mail has its difficulties, too, in some subjects. For woodwork projects, photographs of the pieces with close-ups of all the joints are allowed. For cooking, students have to answer detailed questions which they would only be able to answer if they had made the recipe. And in the practical subjects, partly to keep student interest high and partly as recognition of different home situations, students are allowed a lot of choice about what they’ll make, which led to “one ghastly year where all my students made velvet dice,” head of the department, Brenda Joyce, says.
It’s not surprising that there’s often a strong bond between Correspondence School teachers and their students. Some develop lifelong friendships with each other; a number of teachers are invited to special family events such as weddings and birthdays. For a start, these teachers don’t have to deal with 30 students at a time, just the one whose work they’re marking at that time; they don’t have to discipline their students; their students call them by their first names. “That was a bit hard to get used to at first,” one teacher says.
For many students, especially those on the roll for pregnancy or sickness, teachers become important confidants. A number of teachers at some stage will have to face the death of one of their students.
The students’ letters are remarkable windows into lives far away from those of the teachers reading them back in Wellington. Some are funny, some are poignant. “They make me question my own values,” another teacher says.
The letters speak of the wonderful openness of country children… “Tomorrow the crutchers are coming”, in a letter sent to the Queen.
They speak of the difficulties they work under — of finishing a project while a Downs syndrome child pours baking powder over the work. They talk of links to the land… “Dad and I went to kill a cow. We skinned it down and then I went to Sunday School”, and of alienation and loss of those links… “I think of the sun a lot. I wonder a lot about what it’s doing”, from a prisoner at Paremoremo.
Sometimes, behind the words on the page, there is another story. This one is in large handwriting, signed “Lisa”.
“Bruce is finding the reading workbooks quite easy. He enjoys the puppy tape and the workbooks. He is getting on quite well.”
But the story behind the letter is: Bruce, shy, tentative, is 25. The family with whom he is boarding in the central North Island, they discover he has a very low reading age. They offer to help him catch up by organising correspondence primary lessons for him, and at first the mother supervises his work. But Bruce is too self-conscious in front of another adult to make progress, so Lisa, 11 years old, has taken over his supervision. With Lisa’s help his work is progressing well.
The Correspondence School’s profile is high in the country areas, but surprisingly low in the cities. Here there’s still the feeling, as one student’s parent said, that Correspondence School is “just a handful of teachers sending stuff out to a few kids in the wops”.
But Correspondence School students, half a million-plus of them now, are spread all over the world, hold all sorts of positions, run all sorts of businesses. From its ranks the school has produced archaeologists and Antarctic researchers, university professors, a managing director of one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, publishers, and ships’ captains.
The reality of what this remarkable New Zealand institution is and does couldn’t be further removed from its city image.