Robin Long grew up at Gorge River, in a home accessible only by a two-day tramp through South Westland forest. The family had access to a telephone exactly twice a year, when they walked out to civilisation to restock supplies and catch up with friends.
Schooling for Robin and her brother Chris came from the Correspondence School in Wellington—a monthly package of workbooks that arrived when a tramper carried it in from the road end, or a friendly helicopter pilot took the time to drop it off.
Robin’s mother, Catherine, guided the children through their lessons. “It was very efficient,” Robin says. “When I finally did go to a normal school, I couldn’t believe how much time was wasted.”
Outside of the little house, the kids sought learning from the hills, ocean and bush that surrounded them, and from visitors who occasionally arrived at Gorge River. “We mostly spent time with adults,” says Long.
When she left to attend Mount Aspiring College in Wānaka, she found it difficult to slot into the structure of ordinary school life.
“School is weird,” she tells me, “in that it divides you up into kids who are all within a year of you, and you don’t socialise with anyone else. It’s really strange coming from an upbringing where anyone could be your friend.”
The Longs’ experience of living so far from educational facilities, one shared by thousands of children on remote sheep farms, islands and, in the old days, at lighthouses, is a way of life that has all but vanished in New Zealand now.
Geographical distance has decreased. The roads are better, the vehicles more comfortable. And of course, the internet brings the outside world far closer to everyone.
The Correspondence School—Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu or simply Te Kura as it is now usually called—is celebrating its centenary this year. Today, Te Kura caters for only around 400 geographically-isolated students—that’s about one per cent of the roll. But is there still distance in New Zealand society? You bet
James Prendergast, of Hamilton, was born female, but at the age of 14 began transitioning to male. Teachers, his peers and many of his family rejected his journey outright. “People just wouldn’t have a bar of it,” he says.
“I went through a lot of bullying and harassment. I wasn’t allowed to wear the uniform I wanted to wear. I wasn’t being addressed by my name. I was being purposely addressed by pronouns that were incorrect.
“It was severely depressing, and really anxiety-inducing. I had panic attacks about just waking up and going to school… If I managed to get to school I’d just be in the health centre crying.
“I struggled with the basic work. I couldn’t attend exams because I was in this constant state of fight-or-flight. So I ended up falling quite far behind.” By this stage, Prendergast was living with his aunt, as he no longer felt safe at home. “I was on my own trying to figure all of this out and had no support at school. I lost all my friends.”
He attempted suicide. Afterward, he realised he simply couldn’t stick with mainstream education. His options? Drop out—or find a different sort of school.
Te Kura is the largest school in the country. Its roll of almost 30,000 includes a vast assortment of students. There are adults, including those who are in prison. There are also many “young adult” learners, typically teenagers in their last years of school, who pick up a few Te Kura courses alongside regular schooling.
There are also just over 5000 full-time students, around half of whom are Māori.
Students under the age of 16 cannot opt in to Te Kura; they need to be referred through the Ministry of Education, Oranga Tamariki or the Department of Corrections, through one of a number of “gateways ”. For some the gateway is geographic isolation. Others are high achievers (sportspeople, say) whose lifestyle involves a lot of travel; some get in because they’re temporarily living overseas.
There are also around 4000 students who, like Prendergast, just can’t function in normal schools—kids who get repeatedly expelled, who stop turning up, who are badly bullied or suffer from mental-health issues that make learning impossible. For these kids, the school can be life-changing.
“One of the first things the teacher asked me,” Prendergast says, “was, ‘Can I ask your pronouns?’ So that already was amazing, that someone even acknowledged it.”
Te Kura these days is a very different school from the mail-based system it used to be. Learning is conducted online, and students can easily connect with their teachers whenever they need.
Once he’d got used to the self-directed learning and the discipline needed to “get out of bed and get online ”, Prendergast flourished in the Te Kura system. The school, he says, provided a “safe environment” for him to learn and grow in. “With Te Kura, I never felt like I was just another student. I felt like I was part of a community.”
The Correspondence School began in 1922 as a single desk in the Department of Education, staffed by one teacher, Janet Mackenzie. Her initial role was to serve around 25 primary school children who lived in remote parts of New Zealand.
By the end of Mackenzie’s first year, however, the roll had swelled to 100. Within five years, it hit 720. The school kept growing throughout the 20th century, providing a vital bridge to education for tens of thousands of students.
During the 1948 polio pandemic, when all school students in New Zealand were forced to stay at home, the Correspondence School stepped up, sending schoolwork to every home in the country.
But by the 1990s, the school was suffering something of an identity crisis. The roll had grown to almost 20,000 students, most of them urban, many of whom had been expelled from multiple schools. The board of trustees, largely made up of parents of farming families, was struggling to manage the enormity of their task. By the early 2000s, the school was in financial trouble and its performance was severely criticised by the Education Review Office (ERO). The government stepped in to appoint a new board and by 2006, the books were again balanced.
This was when Mike Hollings (Ngati Raukawa/Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi) took over. “I was charged with improving educational outcomes,” the chief executive officer tells me, “moving the school to a more 21st- century model, using technology, online learning, and also better accommodating the needs of Māori students.
“The first step was actually changing the hearts and minds of staff. Becoming more culturally adept, if you like. We have a strong focus on developing people’s te reo Māori, and a strong focus on making sure that the programmes we’ve got look engaging for Māori students.”
Part of the new push was also to decentralise the school from its Thorndon headquarters.
“We went on a mission to move everybody out to where the students were.”
The school opened offices in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch, with sub-offices in surrounding towns. Today, there are 250 sites around the country where students and teachers can meet on a weekly, or even daily basis.
The best results, Hollings and his team know, come where the teachers are deeply connected to their community. “They know the people, they know all the iwi affiliations and they know where the kids come from. It does make a big difference in how students and whānau interact with the school.”
Te Kura tailors each student’s curriculum to their interests, and tries to give them agency—to put them, rather than the teacher, in charge of their education. It also likes to get students involved in community activities and internships, which Hollings describes as the “ultimate” learning experience. “We’ve got kids in florist shops, bike shops and early childhood centres,” he says. “We’re working with the Department of Conservation, symphony orchestras, Shakespeare companies and theatres. Whatever the kids have got passions about.
“At Te Kura, we don’t have the tyranny of the timetable. We don’t have buildings that restrict us.”
It worked for Prendergast, who was able to turn his life around with the school. His interests in marine biology and history were woven into his education. Observing how his teachers interacted with their students, he discovered a passion for teaching himself. He is now working as a teacher aide and planning to get a teaching degree.
“I don’t think I would want to do that if I hadn’t been treated well [at Te Kura] ,” he says, “because my only experiences with teachers before Te Kura had been negative.”
Margaret Sullivan (Te Aupōuri) knew she wanted to be a teacher at the age of two. “If I won Lotto tomorrow, I’d still be teaching,” she tells me. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of her car, watching the low hills of Northland fly by outside the window.
Sullivan’s calling lies at the edges of the education system. For the past two decades, her beat has been New Zealand’s far north, where she works as a “liaison teacher” for Te Kura. When a student stops engaging with their teacher, or stops submitting work, it’s Sullivan’s job to go to the student’s house, assess what’s happening and re-engage them in their education.
Two decades ago, Sullivan started a programme called Enviroskills. She organises camps in which students learn skills they can use in the rural environment, like possum trapping, spraying, fencing and motorbike riding. It’s helped many kids find their way to employment, and the programme has been adopted all around New Zealand.
She’s done hundreds of thousands of miles along Northland’s back roads, journeys that have immersed her in a side of New Zealand life many might struggle to comprehend. “Poverty,” she tells me, “is everywhere here. But it’s not always obvious. You have to know where to look.”
We pass through Kaeo and head towards Mangōnui. To the east, bays are filled with holiday homes and yachts . We turn inland, following a rutted and windy gravel road. After some time, we emerge into a valley that cradles a loose settlement. There are houses wrapped in rotten weatherboard and black plastic sheeting. Broken car bodies litter the fields.
A bit further on, we arrive at the house belonging to Marie Robertson (Ngāpuhi/Ngāti Kahu ki Whaingaroa) and her whānau. It’s fairly new, large and well appointed, an anomaly in this area. But Robertson’s whānau story is typical of so many Māori families.
“My mum was smacked for learning her tongue [ at school] ,” she tells me. “My grandfather had to teach my aunties and uncles quietly.” At home they could be themselves. “But then you go to school, you have to be someone else.” That disconnect is still in play.
“With all that’s happened, it’s a struggle for our kids to learn now.”
Robertson’s mother moved around a lot, and as a young girl, Robertson was shifted from school to school, constantly feeling like she was falling behind in her studies.
“If your teacher’s busy worrying about the high achievers and not worrying about the ones that need help,” she says, “there’s no relationship, there’s no bond. If they don’t try and understand that every child learns differently, it causes even more of a barrier. That’s how kids slip through the system.”
Eventually, she was enrolled in Te Kura, and assigned a teacher called Barbara Aires.
“She spent hours with me,” says Robertson, “just learning who I was, what my family life was like, what my strengths were with learning. And that’s when I noticed my education started picking up. I started loving every subject.”
At 17, Robertson became pregnant. Aires convinced Robertson not to give up on her schooling, even when a second child came along less than a year later. “Sometimes I was up late at night,” Robertson recalls. “I’d sit there when my babies were content and read them my schoolwork. We found a way to make it work, and we got through.”
Now, Robertson has six children. She has put them all through Te Kura, supervising them herself. She tells me Te Kura incorporates kaupapa Māori (Māori ways of doing things) far more than any school she’s dealt with.
“Even with maths, science… every subject,” she says, “there’s always something, like whakataukī (proverbs), and it’s really encouraging to see.
“It gives the kids a way to connect back to what they should have never had to go through school to learn.”
Sullivan and I carry on our journey. Our next stop is with the Gates whānau—a family of 11 kids, six of whom still live with their parents. Right now they’re staying in bell tents on a farm. Mother Anita (Ngāi Tahu) is supervising her school-age children through Te Kura. When we arrive, a cluster of laptops are set up around a shared table between the two tents.
It started with her two oldest boys, both of whom suffered severe anxiety while attending a local school. “I had to drag them to the school bus crying some days,” Gates says. “Sometimes I’d let them stay home because I didn’t want to be horrible.
“One of my boys was bullied. And then I found out that one of my sons had become a bully. He told me that’s the only way to survive at the school… It just seemed like the right thing just to have them all at home.”
Getting the kids enrolled with Te Kura wasn’t easy: because there was a school bus available at the end of their road, they were initially not considered eligible.
But since the switch, Gates has noticed an enormous improvement. “They all have different styles of learning,” she says. “For instance, Promise, my second child, you couldn’t sit him down at a table. He would have been classed as ADHD. But he’s not. He just learns differently. He’s active. He had to be outside, writing the ABCs on stones and lining them up. You’ve got to find creative ways of doing stuff.”
Our journey continues towards Northland’s wild west coast. Along the way, Sullivan recounts stories of her encounters in Northland. The first visit to a home, she says, is always the most difficult. First, she jingles her keys at the gate, to make sure there are no dogs loose on the property. Once inside, she immediately scans the room for light bulbs (methamphetamine smokers use them as pipes—the empty light sockets are an instant giveaway).
Sometimes, she says, the dogs are given the used implements to lick. Sullivan tells me she’s not afraid of any person she meets. But guard dogs jacked up on meth— that’s another story.
One time, she visited a house and found it being raided by the police. The mother calmly led the child out through the cordon so Sullivan could take her elsewhere to work.
On another occasion, she ended up working in a cobweb-infested house with a boy who, every time she praised his work, would go outside and kick the dog. Sullivan thinks he’d never been praised before, and simply didn’t know how to deal with it. In the end she took him out to do his lessons in her car. “I often do that,” she tells me. “When there’s no light bulbs.”
Out of this rough patch, though, Sullivan has nurtured many success stories. And in the process, she has embedded herself in the hearts of students and whānau around Northland.
She gets invited to weddings, attends tangihanga, and, when she has to, stands beside wayward kids on their days in court. “I always say yes if I can,” she says. “Because that’s how you become part of a community. If you say no, they stop asking.”
Our journey brings us to the great Waipoua kauri forest, where we enter the rohe of Te Roroa.
Through Enviroskills, Sullivan has hewn a relationship with the iwi that runs through generations.
Heni Matthews, an iwi leader, tells me their children grow up, by necessity, with an intimate knowledge of the land. “Hands-on skills, no sweat,” she says. “I can trust my kids or my nieces and nephews to go out to the beach to feed themselves. But literacy is a hard hill to climb for them. We awhi them through that, and it’s good to have Te Kura in there to help them out.”
Sullivan has watched these kids grow, and seen their struggles as they try to adapt to the outside world. “In this community they’re secure,” she says, “they’re wrapped around and people are watching. But then they move out and suddenly they haven’t got the support. That’s when things go awry. They get criticised and picked on, because their āhua (sense of self) is secure and other people are a bit jealous.”
In the past decade, she tells me, a number of young people have taken their own lives here.
One of those who went out of the forest as a child was Heni’s son, Justin Birch, who struggled at school. “I found it really difficult to communicate with people,” he says. “I kind of felt like I was alien to the society outside the forest. I was the kid that touched everything I shouldn’t, and got lost when I shouldn’t be walking off.”
Like many of the forest kids, Birch ended up coming back to complete his schooling through Te Kura—and back to the tino rangatiratanga structure he’d thrived in. He’s now employed by the iwi in their ongoing work to protect Waipoua from pests, diseases and weeds.
As Sullivan drives me back to Whangārei airport, I think of how in the old days, Correspondence School teachers would tramp into remote lighthouses and sheep stations to meet their students. Sullivan, it seems to me, is the last of that tradition, still going the long miles to bring education to the backblocks of New Zealand. But this image is fading. The real frontline for Te Kura now is not along these rural roads. It’s in towns and cities, where our education system is in a state of crisis.
Pick a metric: it’ll be grim. But perhaps most tellingly, our kids are struggling with the basics—our literacy and numeracy results on both international and national tests have slipped over the past 20 years, and are particularly dire right now.
Likewise, school attendance is dropping, a problem which kicked in well before COVID-19 did. Melissa Derby (Ngāti Ranginui), a senior lecturer teaching early literacy and human development at the University of Waikato, says social media and bullying are likely factors, fuelling anxiety around going to school. I think of Marie Robertson and her whānau when Derby says intergenerational trauma plays a role, too.
“Home/school partnerships are crucial in terms of children flourishing,” she says.
“If the mother, in particular, had a bad experience at school, that can pass on to the child. Parents are less likely to go into school to ask questions of teachers, or to engage with the school. That can create a barrier.”
It’s clear what happens when a child meets such a barrier. Study after study has found Māori are not performing as well at school as other groups. In fact, they don’t make it to school each day as much as other groups. Critically, 19 per cent of Māori students leave school with no qualification, compared to nine per cent of non-Māori.
Russell Bishop (Tainui/Ngāti Pūkeko) is a foundation professor of Māori education at the University of Waikato, and has written extensively on the subject. “Traditionally, being Māori meant being second-best,” he says. “That’s the whole basis of colonisation. And unfortunately, that idea has carried on, and in schooling, it comes out now in what is termed ‘deficit theorising.’”
Deficit theorising is in effect, victim-blaming—the recurring idea that Māori are destined to fail at school. This, Bishop’s research shows, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—if teachers expect less of Māori students, they won’t push them to succeed, and so they often don’t. Importantly, the converse is true, too.
A study Bishop conducted 20 years ago found the major impediment to Māori students’ achievement was the relationship they had with their teachers. “Their teachers thought they were not able to do the same work as non-Māori,” he says. “They were seen as having deficiencies. They were seen as wanting.”
Te Kura is increasingly being tasked with picking up the tab. Its “non-enrolled” admissions—kids who’ve been expelled from multiple schools, or have simply stopped attending—have skyrocketed in recent years. Half of these students are Māori.
The ERO completed a review of Te Kura in late 2021 in which it flagged that the school was increasingly being relied upon as a safety net for high-risk students. The report said that while Te Kura was doing well with what it had, the school’s funding was simply not enough, and that was constraining its ability to help the students who needed it most.
“Ākonga (students) with moderate and high additional learning support needs are disadvantaged in this respect when they are enrolled at Te Kura. It is inequitable that some of our most disadvantaged and at-risk ākonga are accessing a part of the system with the least support.”
On the back of that report, Te Kura received an additional $15.5 million in the 2022 budget, specifically to deal with at–risk students. “Since we’ve got this additional funding,” says Hollings, “we have a lot of kaiāwhina (teacher aides) that we have put in place. Many of those visit homes and work with the students. But we’ve also got more locations that ākonga can come to, so they’re not just confined to home.”
Weekly huinga ako, or advisory meetings, are a crucial part of Te Kura’s learning system. They provide opportunities for students to meet with their teachers and interact with other students. Sporting events are also arranged. They’re a chance for students to have some of the social interaction that learning from home may lack.
Adele Eparaima (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga) is a Te Kura teacher based in Hastings. She is also a mother of two children currently enrolled with the school. She tells me that while most of the kids in her classes, including her own, have thrived with Te Kura, getting kids, especially in poorer communities, to attend huinga ako is not always easy. “Like any other school,” she says, “we have kids that disappear and pop back up and we can’t find them, phones are disconnected, we try to do a letter drop at their house and find they don’t live there anymore.
“For lots of them, transport’s an issue,” she says. “We can’t pick students up, we don’t have the resources. We have huinga ako in different spaces throughout the week, and that’s constantly expanding, but it’s still not enough.
“If I had my way, I’d have a van and we’d be cruising around picking these kids up. Because I know they want to come. We just have to figure out ways to get them to us.”
Te Kura’s innovative approach to learning has been a lifeline for thousands of students who otherwise might have been left behind in education. A hundred years since its inception, it’s still bridging barriers in New Zealand society.
As the recent ERO report says: “There is a clear role for Te Kura in the education of diverse and at-risk ākonga.
“Meeting the needs of these ākonga should be a whole-of-system responsibility. There needs to be confidence… that the rest of the system is doing all it can to retain and engage its ākonga.”
Russell Bishop, in discussing the fate of Māori in our education system, is more blunt. “Te Kura should not have to be picking up the pieces for schools that are not catering for Māori children.
“Schools,” he says, “ have to open their minds up and say, what is it that these young people bring to school? What cultural backgrounds do they bring? What ways of understanding the world do they bring with them? And can we together build on that, so that they can actually take learning forward?”
In Bishop’s view, successful education is all about building and nurturing a community of learners— students, teachers, staff and, crucially, whānau and the wider community. In te ao Māori, it’s called whanaungatanga.
For James Prendergast, the transgender kid from Hamilton who found his way in the world through Te Kura, it was that sense of community, more than anything, that made the difference.
“There’s a lot of love,” he says of the learning community he found with Te Kura, “a lot of aroha for students.
“I’m still in contact with my kaimanaaki (support person) all the time. They always message me and always get so excited if I stop into the office. It’s like family.”