A new report on education outcomes since the forced merger of schools in Wainuiomata eight years ago notes "significant improvements" in student achievement.
Wainuiomata High School principal Rob Mill believes the new climate of change and co-operation amongst the suburb's schools would not have happened without the amalgamations. Other districts could benefit from similar reviews, but it won't happen unless there is pressure from the Ministry of Education (MoE)/Government, he says.
The MoE says the number of secondary school students in Wainuiomata gaining NCEA level 1 have shown the most dramatic increase, jumping from 19% in 2003 to 66% in 2007. Level 2 results have gone from 27% to 45% in the same period, and level 3 from 20% to 44%.
University Entrance results changed from 13% of students gaining the qualification in 2003 to 40% in 2007.
Mr Mill says it's "one of those experiences I will never forget" when he put up the figures on a projector at assembly, including that the school's 2007 level 1 results were better than the national average, and pupils burst into applause.
He says changes in student "aspiration" have been just as marked. "We used to have quite a small number thinking of going to university." Last year, about 40% of the Year 13s went to university, he says, "a couple of years ago the rate would have been 15-18%.
"The kids are starting to believe in themselves."
Mr Mill - and the Ministry of Education report - acknowledges excellent progress being made at the primary and intermediate schools feeding the high school, with the JEDI and WELD ‘cluster-wide' initiatives to lift literacy levels across all age groups earning special mention. Such initiatives, including sustained investment in professional development of teachers, were funded from money released by not having to maintain as many school buildings and facilities (in total, some $3.5 million over five years).
Wainuiomata pupils are voting with their feet. Back in 2000 before the Government ‘review' that saw 12 state schools become seven, Mr Mill says only 66% of year 8 students went on to Year 9 at Parkway or Wainuiomata Colleges. Last year 92% of Year 8s came to the valley's single college, Wainuiomata High School.
"We're now the school of choice for almost everybody." There are even 30-40 students who come over to WHS each day from the Hutt side of the hill. Wainuiomata High's role has been steady at around 940 for a number of years, against a declining local population.
All this gives Trevor Mallard considerable satisfaction. The Hutt South MP, who was Minister of Education at the time of the mergers, took "a lot of flak" from locals who didn't want to see their old school, or the one their kids went to, amalgamated with another. The outcry over similar reviews around the country saw the Labour-led Government abandon the programme.
Last week, sitting in Mr Mill's office and hearing the WHS head and deputy head boys and girls confirm there is now a strong school spirit, Mr Mallard says he hopes the release of the MoE report on Wainuiomata progress "might stimulate people to look at (schools in) their own areas". He believes there needs to be more people willing to question whether the number and structure of schools in their district is the best arrangement, including "an area not too far from here" (he may have been referring to Upper Hutt or the wider Hutt Valley, but did not confirm).
But his view was that this had to come from local people "rather than something being centrally imposed".
On that point, Mr Mill disagrees. The principal realises it's "politically difficult" but says it is "naive" and "not realistic" for the Ministry of Education to wait for community pressure for school mergers. Mr Mill says there "wouldn't be a single teacher in this school who would want to go back to the pre-merger situation" but the amalgamations wouldn't have happened without being imposed. People get "entrenched" in the status quo, and tend to feel it's up to others to change but not them, unless there is outside pressure.
Mr Mill acknowledges the foresight of Mr Mallard and the Ministry holding back 10% of plant/building funds from Wainuiomata merger savings to drive cluster-wide co-operation. From this JEDI funding, WELD (Wainuiomata Education Literacy Development) emerged. Every February, representatives from all Wainuiomata schools meet to discuss student achievement data. Mr Mill says it's a time for celebration but also "public accountability". If there are holes and shortcomings, there is debate and planning to plug them. From a situation Mr Mallard describes as an inter-school "blaming culture" pre-mergers, Mr Mill says there is now real willingness to share best practice. "Staff (at the high school) don't want to let slip what has been achieved lifting the standards at (say) Arakura School and staff there don't want to let us down."
JEDI/WELD money has run out, but the schools successfully applied for money under another scheme, and the cluster-wide meetings and co-operation continues. Mr Mill says this process is "bigger" than principals or a handful of leaders in each school. "It can't fall over when one or two people leave. We're all leaders in our schools."
In a sense the progress becomes self-fulfilling. As teachers are energised by extra training and expectation, student achievement lifts. Teacher job satisfaction and security is enhanced. Mr Mill says there are still challenges finding teachers in some subjects, but recruiting and retaining staff for the high school is vastly improved from what it could have been.
Mr Mallard contrasts that with the situation in Masterton, where the lack of reorganisation is resulting in the "slow death" of one of the schools (Makoura College).
School leaders confirm a good school spirit and pride in wearing Wainuiomata High School's uniform. Student-led initiatives like the 40-Hour Famine involvement and the competition for the right to shave the heads of First XV players for those who raised the most have helped, says head boy Jerome Easthope. Not so long ago there was no way a senior student would want to be caught talking to Year 9s, says deputy head boy Campbell Barry. But a peer mentor scheme has cut into all that baggage. "It gets that pride up there," he says.
Head girl Stacey Rives and deputy Amy-Lee Groenewegen agree things are improving and note that wearing the official school blazer is mandatory only for prefects, but lots more buy them too. "It's sometimes surprising who gets them," Stacey says.