Gloriavale, girls, and the purpose of education stuff nation

I spent much of a full day at the Gloriavale community, talking, listening and being shown around their impressive ...

I spent much of a full day at the Gloriavale community, talking, listening and being shown around their impressive facilities, Catherine Delahunty writes.

This week Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty took up the invitation from the women of Gloriavale to visit and see how their community and educational opportunities work.

OPINION: The welcome my colleague and I received could not have been more open and hospitable despite the challenges I have made in the media about the breadth of their senior school curriculum and in particular the lack of options for girls.

I spent much of a full day at the Gloriavale community, talking, listening and being shown around their impressive facilities.

Members of the Gloriavale sect on the West Coast, filmed by Seven Sharp.

Members of the Gloriavale sect on the West Coast, filmed by Seven Sharp.

They even put on a show for us. And at the end of the day the women asked me if,  when I left, would I champion their community to the outside world. And in all honesty I had to say no.

Because as free as the adults of Gloriavale should always be to pursue the values they hold, my concern has always been about the rights of children, and in particular the rights of girls, to an education that allows them to think critically about their place in the world, and find their own voice.

Over the course of the day, two Gloriavale men, and several women gave us a tour of their midwifery rooms, early childhood centre, sewing rooms, schoolrooms and accommodation blocks as well the large new school they are  building out of a kitset of spruce timber.

We were served a lunch of local produce - mashed potato, beans, mushrooms, and a roast, and given litres of home-made sparkling apple juice, bread and cheese to take home.

Then we had a frank dialogue about the roles of women and the role of education. It was made clear to me that education is valued at Gloriavale, but in a functional way which prepares members to serve in the community they live in.

Education for the sake of exploring ideas and critical thinking beyond the biblical context is just not valued or encouraged. If a student wants to qualify as a midwife or kindy teacher to help the community they will be supported and encouraged. 

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The fact that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) statistics show no girls doing science credits in the last 5 years evoked a range of responses from young women saying they wouldn't want to do science to saying they had done science via cooking.

They pointed out that students generally wanted to leave school to start work in the laundry or farm at a young age and when we looked around us, it was not surprising.

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The culture of Gloriavale strongly encourages a practical community life totally based on one set of roles performed by men, and another by women, and which efficiently provides for a large number of families with up to 14 children.

Yes, I've been critical of this, because I believe both that girls have a fundamental right to an education that provides opportunity beyond what's directly in front of them, and I also believe that when a school gets public funding it should deliver a broad curriculum.

My own values are derived from a broad education and the freedom to read widely, ask many critical questions and study subjects which do not have a direct relationship with my employment.

I believe that education, especially for girls should foster their independent voice and their agency in a wider world.

A good education should enable girls to be good mothers, if that's what they want, but it shouldn't limit them only to that role.

I looked at the gorgeous, yet regimented girls in their identical clothing and wondered how a physicist, an international lawyer or a plumber might blossom if the only role models she was exposed to were those in her own community. We agreed to disagree, because you can't argue with religious certainty and a literal interpretation of a religious text.

This community feels they are under attack by people like me and throughout the day the women and men I met did their best to share their vision of a safe, structured and practical world led entirely by men who consult with women.

I appreciated their generosity, their hospitality and their candour, but I also felt claustrophobic.

Later buying fish and chips in Westport we talked to a group of young women who had chosen to travel down from Rotorua to study deep sea fishing. I found their sturdy independence a relief.

Their world may not be so "safe" but they looked like they were living on their own terms.

Catherine Delahunty is the Green Party's education spokeswoman and was invited to a lunch with the ladies of Gloriavale.

 - Stuff

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