As times change, small rural Wairarapa schools face struggles

Tuturumuri School, in rural Wairarapa.

Tuturumuri School, in rural Wairarapa.

Last month, Tuturumuri School's bus route was cut off. It's not surprising considering the school's roll: three.

Ten years ago there were 25 students enrolled at the rural Wairarapa school south of Martinborough.

Now, it's one of 158 schools around New Zealand with 25 students or fewer. 

Students hard at work at Mauriceville School, which has a roll of 22.

Students hard at work at Mauriceville School, which has a roll of 22.

The school's board of trustees chairman Mike Firth said his school wasn't alone in facing a declining roll.

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"It's a sign of the times in a way," he said.

"It's the way rural New Zealand is heading. Schools are getting smaller as less and fewer people move in."

Things are changing in rugged, isolated south Wairarapa.

Firth said traditional farms had begun to decline, the land instead used for different products, like producing manuka honey: lucrative but less labour-dependent, resulting in fewer students for the school.

Tuturumuri enjoys top-grade facilities, with a dedicated staff - according to the school's website, there are four full and part-time staff members -  and strong community support. But that may not be enough.

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"The future's looking pretty bleak, because no-one's moving into the area," Firth said.

Rumours have been circulating about the school's demise, although Firth said there were no current plans to close. 

Despite the school's current operating costs, which the Ministry of Education estimates at around $250,000, the ministry also said there were no plans to close it.

Katrina Casey, the Ministry's deputy secretary sector enablement and support, said small, often rural schools were an important part of New Zealand's school system.

"There is no roll number at which we would automatically consider closing a school, although we have done so when a school has no students and no prospects of growing in the immediate future," she said.

"When a very small school  loses, it's generally because a board of trustees has voluntarily sought to close because they and their school community consider that the school is no longer viable."

Another school with fewer than 25 students is Mauriceville School, 20 minutes north of Masterton.

Principal Rebecca Stevens understood Tuturumuri's struggles, although her school has its own problems: a decile one school, many Mauriceville locals send their kids to higher-decile schools in Masterton.

The school's roll currently stands at 22, although it fluctuates. At the start of 2016 it was just 11.

Many of the students didn't fit in at other schools and were sent there, some through word of mouth.

Fundraising, Stevens said, was hard. But working at a small school was rewarding, with greater input into students' lives helping form close relationships.

"It's easier to make a positive difference," she said.

"Sometimes you have the same children for years and they get to know you."

"It can be hard, but it's incredibly rewarding."


 - Stuff


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