The battle of Te Aute - how did they win? video

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The story of how Te Aute College stayed open.

On a still summer's morning, an old waiata can be heard echoing from a chapel along the Pukehou plains. 

Te Aute College has woken again from its slumber to give its praises to God.

A chorus of boys in blue, some with their eyes closed, sing a soothing song.

The students know they stand in the pews where prominent Maori men began their pilgrimage into life – the likes of Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Howard Morrison and Norm Hewitt.

"I strive to be like one of our famous old boys," 15-year-old Rihari Peeti says.

Te Aute, an Anglican Maori boarding school, has long been a place where culture, mana, faith and whanau are fostered.

It wasn't long ago, however, when it seemed the school's song was falling on deaf ears, and the tune they were singing could be their last.

WEIGHED DOWN BY WOES

For more than a century Te Aute, which sits between Hastings and Waipukurau, was the pre-eminent place for young Maori males to receive an education.

Princpial of Te Aute College Shane Hiha, who has helped bring the school back from the brink of closure.
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Princpial of Te Aute College Shane Hiha, who has helped bring the school back from the brink of closure.

In 1854 Anglican missionary Samuel Williams helped establish the school after local iwi Ngai Te Whatuiapiti gifted the land to the government. 

For years its rugby team was feared, its students were scholars, and its brotherhood of boys was respected.

Old boy Sir Pita Sharples fondly remembers his time at the kura.

"The principal bailed me up for playing up once. He said he did not know what to do with me. He offered to kick me out, or make me prefect.

"I said, 'Please, sir, prefect'."

Ever since, Sharples has been a staunch believer in the importance of the school to New Zealand.

"Its history has produced leaders in the Maori field who have gone out and done wonders."

Te Aute had always had to fight – the school burned down twice in its first 100 years, and despite other troubles thrown at it, the college fought them off.

Students of Te Aute College, near Hastings, in their familiar blue uniform.
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Students of Te Aute College, near Hastings, in their familiar blue uniform.

But by the early 2000s, the tide had begun to turn for Te Aute, and the kingdom seemed to be crumbling.

A culture of bullying had crept into the hallways and grades began to fall as fast as the roll was. The school had dabbled in being co-ed to bolster its roll, but it was a short-lived idea.

An Education Review Office (ERO) report from 2003 raised serious concerns about bullying in the hostel, the school's management was struggling to contain its debt, and the Ministry of Education was breathing down its neck. 

The school, which had held such eminence, was spiralling towards closure.

A report written by lawyer Dame Patsy Reddy, now the governor-general, in 2010 said, "The current financial state of Te Aute is serious."

Te Aute Trust Board, which oversees the running of the hostel and the land, had accumulated debts of almost $10 million.

But the financial problems were not new. In 1916, the board was forced to divide endowment land into small blocks, and lease them for farming under the Glasgow Lease System. 

Under the system, as the value of the land increases, it is very difficult to charge what the land is worth. The leases are also long term, and can be reviewed only every 21 years. 

In the 1970s, the school ran into financial hardship because the leases were not bringing in sufficient money, and it was given a helping hand by the government. The ongoing lease issue exacerbated problems in recent times.

"The trust board got into debt most recently for various reasons; investments, property, dairy prices – basically economic downturn all sort of aligned," board of trustees chairman Dr James Graham recalls. 

Students singing in the chapel at the college. Chapel is part of the students' day.
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Students singing in the chapel at the college. Chapel is part of the students' day.

"It meant, among other things, they could not service the hostel in terms of basic maintenance, water, all of those types of things."

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In 2011, a state-appointed commissioner was put in place to steady the ship, but with the debts still unpaid, the school was far from safe.

BLESSINGS FROM ABOVE 

The chapel at Te Aute College.
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The chapel at Te Aute College.

The saving grace of Te Aute came like mana from heaven.

The Anglican Church had always been a financial contributor to the Te Aute Trust Board, but when things hit rock bottom, the church's tithe was not enough to cover the interest on the debt.

"The church has always been involved with Te Aute," Graham said. "There will be those who say its involvement wasn't as providing as it should have been, there would be some who say it was OK"  

In 2013, when the interim board was put in place, it pitched the idea the church would take over the trust, and in doing so, cover the multimillion-dollar debt.

After some consideration, the church agreed to save the school.

"It was a relief, a satisfaction, and for many it was a tearful, emotional time given the legacy of an institution such as that," Graham recalls.

"In terms of the options which had been explored, that was probably the only way forward at the time. Otherwise, students may not have finished the year.

"The school may have just shut part way through the week."

As 2014 dawned, it seemed like the school was hobbling away from a bruising battle, and finally, a rainbow had appeared in Te Aute's clouds.

'THIS NEW RENAISSANCE'

Principal Shane Hiha smiles as he looks at the school's wharenui. 

He knows he's a bit of an odd fit – he is part Maori, but can't speak te reo, and while being a local boy, he didn't attend Te Aute.

He was deputy principal at Napier's William Colenso College when he put his name in the ring for the top job. At the time, the Ministry of Education was looking to replace the school's commissioner with a full-time principal.

Hiha eventually decided to withdraw his application, thinking it wasn't the right time to move. When he was offered an interview, he had a change of heart.

"I have not regretted it one little bit," he said.

He came to the school just before the Anglican Church bailed it out. Since then, he has led the charge, along with staff, in trying to reshape Te Aute into a modern Maori school.

"For Te Aute to exist, because we have such a small staff, we have to behave like a whanau. It's about helping each other out to make sure things work."

A reworking of all things at the school was done by breaking the back of the bullying culture, and reshaping the way kids are taught.

Since he took charge, the school roll has grown from 67 to 124. It is classed as a state-integrated school, which teaches te reo, but is English speaking.

"As with any boarding school there are some things which have happened in the past that have not been appropriate in today's society," Hiha said.

"We have worked hard to remove those from our culture. We have introduced restorative practice principles as our No 1 way to heal broken relationships and conflict. It is working really well."

It may be all well and good for the school to have a new culture, but can Te Aute lead the way in Maori education?

The current situation for Maori learning, in particular for boys, is bleak.

Countless studies have shown the risk of not reaching university, let alone NCEA Level three, are very real for Maori and Pasifika students.

Ambitious and alternative is the school's current way to put a dent in the trend. 

Self-directed learning, or SDL, has been adopted by the college. The programme places learning in the lap of students, who throughout their school years craft their own curriculum.

"When they are in the junior school, teachers will sit alongside students and have a conference with them to find what the kids are about," Hiha says.

"They will work out a plan for that term of what they want to learn for the term, built around what they are interested in. The learning which comes out of their project work helps them to move forward so when they get to NCEA, they are able to concentrate on the subjects they like doing and it will lead them to their pathway."

The programme is working well, according to Hiha, and the school's latest ERO report backs it up.

"The biggest risk is not having the skills to get a decent job when they leave school to lead a meaningful life," Hiha reckons.  

Once associate Minister of Education, Sharples believes the school is on the right track.

"This new renaissance is doing enough. I think the key is the spirit of the place."

THE BROTHERHOOD 

Raymond Rink has only just got to Te Aute, but already he knows it has done him good.

"What Te Aute has changed with me is the relationship I have with my brother. At home we are not very connected in many ways. We all do our own things, our own ways.

"But here, I think our relationship has grown better. I am here with him all the time. Knowing he is year 13, I have this whole year to get used to it; when he is gone, I will be ready." 

Loyalty is more important than lineage at the school, and those who put on the uniform become part of the "brotherhood".

"We have a lot of connections through this brotherhood, this special TA brotherhood," Rink says.

Boys from throughout New Zealand and the Tasman make their way to be part of the community, and Hiha understands why.  

"When the boys leave Te Aute they take with them a set of skills into the world. They also take the connections of brotherhood with the boys they went through school with. 

"They have shared experiences, they have had hardship together, they have had fun times together."

While the school has emerged from battle a victor, the thorn in their side will continue to be the lease issues. The trust board is in an ongoing conversation with the Government about  resolving the problem, something Graham is hopeful for. 

"This could all be to no avail if the land issue remains unresolved where, through the flick of a switch, the stroke of a pen or the beat of a heart, greatness, legacy and sustainability would be no more."

Despite the school's struggles, it never lost its mana and it never lost its brotherhood, according to Sharples. 

"The respect for Te Aute never died and that is how it has been able to reinvent itself." 

The test of that reinvention will be time. The omens look good for the kura, academic achievement is up, the roll is strong and the books are balanced. 

The song they are singing along the Pukehou plains, for now, is one of survival. 

 - Stuff

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