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Expectations & Consequences

Expectations & consequences

St Stephen’s School built a reputation for turning out Māori leaders over more than 150 years before it closed, reputation in tatters. Now an old boy and former teacher is spearheading its revival, aiming to nurture the potential of Māori boys. Aaron Smale concludes North & South’s three-part investigation into Māori education outcomes.

By Aaron Smale

One of the earliest memories I have of Nathan Durie is the white freezing-works gumboots. It wasn’t the usual footwear you expected a teacher to be wearing. But then he was never the usual teacher.

I didn’t know this until recently, but he wasn’t even a qualified teacher when I first encountered him at St Stephen’s in the 1980s. I knew he was an old boy, and he had the air of someone who’d been there before, but he also had an uncertainty about him, like he didn’t know what it was he was supposed to be doing there. That’s because he didn’t know what he was doing there.

It was only when I drove up the school’s long, tree-lined driveway to have a catch-up that I found out why he seemed a bit out of place. After leaving St Stephen’s he’d gone back to the shearing sheds he’d grown up in; that had been a source of employment for generations of his whānau

“I already knew where I was headed — I wanted to be a shearer, because it was glorified in our family. You’ve got to think about that when you become a parent yourself. The things that you promote become the things your kids see as important.”

Between seasons he’d gone travelling, and on his return home he had time to pass before he flew back to Palmerston North. So he called in on a mate who was working at his old school.

“I called in to say hello and got offered a job working on the grounds… When I finally got up here, [my mate] Hina Ranga said the PE teacher had left. ‘Would you mind filling in?’ I was playing touch rugby on the field with the kids… and I was getting paid. I couldn’t quite believe it. This is a lot better than being in the shearing shed.”

Durie and his brothers were the first from their family to attend St Stephen’s, but there had been a long, intergenerational history of whānau members attending its brother school, Te Aute, that started with his great-grandfather.

“Our great-grandfather had gone to Victoria University of Wellington to study law. He didn’t quite finish because his father got sick so he came home to look after the farm. But what he learned allowed him to work within organisations, trust groups, land groups, that ensured the little bits of land we still had left stayed in our hands, and the other systems around marae and that were organised. He probably never realised it at the time, but the trickle-down effect of somebody taking that pathway normalises that for families.”

But despite this high expectation within his whānau, there were others at the top who still expected them to occupy the bottom rung of the ladder. He mentions a story his father, Ra Durie Snr, has told a number of times over the years.

“My father didn’t spend long at Te Aute. He went there when his youngest brother went, when he was only 11, and he went there to look after him.

“Dad talks about the prime minister of the time coming to Te Aute college… He talked about the roadworks on the side of the road, and said, ’It’s full of your people’. Dad assumed that his message was going to be to stay in education so you don’t have to do that. But his message, in actual fact, was the opposite. His message was that when you finish school, pick up the shovel, because we need roads in this country. This is your contribution to society.”

That 11-year-old kid his Dad was looking after, who heard the prime minister tell him he belonged on the end of a shovel, became Sir Edward Taihakurei Durie, a high court judge, Chief Judge of the Māori Land Court and for many years Chair of the Waitangi Tribunal, leading it through some of its most significant inquiries. Even 50-odd years after progressive Te Aute headmaster John Thornton had left the school, where his students included Apirana Ngata and Maui Pomare, political leaders were still making negative assumptions about what Māori students were capable of.

“Had Ngata gone to Te Aute a generation or two later, he would have been [directed toward the trades],” says Durie.

After his first stint at St Stephen’s and going through teachers college, Durie taught in mainstream schools and worked alongside some teachers that he regards highly to this day. But he also saw systems and expectations of Māori students that created a repeating pattern of Māori kids falling out of the education system without reaching their potential.

“[I saw] the worth of schools like St Stephen’s. At its worst, it was doing better for Māori boys than what the mainstream was doing, even if you compare it with a boys school regarded as being very successful.

“I worked in some very good schools, schools that I absolutely loved… but I got frustrated seeing good Māori kids fall out of those systems.”

He’s cautious about giving this a label.

“The term racism is too easy to chuck out there. But there’s already trouble — bad kids, based on the colour of their skin.”

Like any institution, particularly boarding schools, there was a pecking order, and at St Stephen’s that culture was maintained by violence or at least the threat of it. The violence was often arbitrary, and when you were living there 24/7, the threat of it was something you couldn’t escape.

He did another teaching stint back at St Stephen’s in the 1990s as deputy to Principal Te Ururoa Flavell. Flavell was trying to change the culture of the school to reflect Māori tikanga rather than the culture of an English boarding school. But things were too far gone.

I’d witnessed and experienced that culture while I was there. Like any institution, particularly boarding schools, there was a pecking order, and at St Stephen’s that culture was maintained by violence or at least the threat of it. The violence was often arbitrary, and when you were living there 24/7, the threat of it was something you couldn’t escape. The senior students ran the place and the teachers went home in the afternoon, so the culture was passed on. As a junior you were told to shut your mouth and suck it up and one day it would be your turn. So the ingrained attitudes perpetuated themselves, even

when students left. One older student that gave me a hiding for nothing in particular was later convicted of a serious murder and ended up in Paremoremo Prison. But I knew he’d also suffered violence from a senior student who ended up a chief executive of a major iwi runanga. To me those two individual journeys encapsulated the contradictory outcomes that sometimes came out of St Stephen’s. We’d see and hear about seniors heading off to university and see that as a normal pathway. But we’d also hear about guys who ended up in prison.

My memories of the place were confirmed and given official recognition after I left in a series of damning Education Review Office reports through the 1990s that spoke of the atmosphere of violence. That description perfectly reflected what I knew. I also heard about guys I’d known who committed suicide, guys who had been at the top of the pecking order but somehow couldn’t find their way in the world when they left.

Eventually, the school’s reputation for turning out Māori leaders was overwhelmed by bad press and the numbers dwindled to the point where it was unsustainable and it closed in 2000.

Even though Flavell and Durie couldn’t save the school from itself, Durie took away lessons from his third time there.

Durie has made a habit of never quite fitting in. Coming out of teachers’ college, he realised he had life experience and a perspective that was different from most teachers.

“I didn’t enjoy all of the schools, and I wasn’t that comfortable in some of them. I often used to think, ’if this is uncomfortable for me as an adult working in these places, how the heck are kids supposed to feel?’”

His next step was deliberately outside the box. He could see that, for many Māori kids, sport was something that they were good at and kept them engaged. His logic was to use this as the incentive to create success on the academic side and to foster a strong cultural identity. He started up Tū Toa, which evolved into Manukura.

The school, based in Palmerston North, became hard to pigeonhole, others saw it as a dumping ground for “at risk” kids or a niche product for elite athletes that gave the school an unfair advantage. The high levels of success have led to speculation that the school cherry-picked students that are going to make it look good.

“We get all sorts of things said, like, ’they’ve just got the best kids’. Our working class kids are pretty rapt about that.”

“They want their kids to get into these opportunities, because they’re as progressive as the next people. So they see Manukura as being a ticket to success.

“The essence of Manukura was what my uncle, Mason Durie, has talked about for a long time: Stop trying to fix problems and focus on their potential. The potential of Māori boys is phenomenal.”

Nathan says he’s come across kids from backgrounds where their physical prowess is what has been praised, so they are sometimes confused when they are getting recognition and encouragement for their intellectual abilities.

St Stephen’s in its current location in the Bombay Hills, south of Tāmaki Makaurau.

“Often it’s the old alpha-male syndrome. They all want to be the top dog. But when you make the alpha part all about being clever and smart, and all of those other things, the alpha dogs are frightened to be that person. That’s all we do at Manukura, we celebrate anything that looks like success so for kids this is the norm.”

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While Durie is extremely proud of the success of Manukura, he was still noticing that Māori boys were falling behind girls.

“Girls are predominantly confident, gung ho, culturally competent, academic. I used to say to our staff, ‘We don’t help the situation when we compare.’ We say girls are engaged, girls are organised, girls are positive, positive, positive. But when we put that same lens across boys, then we just say, ‘they’re unorganised, they’re disengaged and negative, negative, negative.’”

He went so far as to say to the staff that they were doing to Māori boys what the mainstream was doing to Māori generally, which met with a furious response from his staff. “These are people that actually give a shit.”

Wanting to find ways to help Māori boys be successful brought Durie back full circle — to St Stephen’s.

When I pull up the drive, the memories come flooding back. Some are good, many less so. Most of the buildings are still derelict after over 20 years of being abandoned. But the East Wing — where I spent nearly two years as a junior in Selwyn House — is going through a massive refurbishment. The senior block is practically finished and is being fitted out. The last time I pulled in to have a look, in the early 2000s, the place was trashed. Now it’s starting to look like something new.

There have been rumours of and calls for a St Stephen’s reopening ever since it was closed. Now Durie and his wife Yvette McCausland-Durie are spearheading the revival of the school on the Bombay Hills south of Auckland. What made them decide there was something worth revisiting?

“I’m clearly not a man of my word, because I can remember driving out that driveway the last time saying ‘I’ll never return here,’” he says with a wry smile. “But my uncle Mason has always talked about the potential of this place.

“We definitely need to get some movement in terms of Māori boys’ success within the education system. So that will be measured against NCEA and university pass rates. But most kids, once you’ve got those tickets, what does it actually stand for in the finish? Down the track, I think the things that are really important are just that self confidence and that ability to lead change, to be the instigators of change.”

In 2022, 11,989 Māori school leavers (73 per cent) attained NCEA Level 1 or above, a decrease of 3.6 per cent from 2021. For all school leavers the percentage is around 83 per cent.

The Māori leavers’ rate increased from 72.7 per cent in 2012 to 82 per cent in 2016, but has been in decline since 2018. Since 2018, the decline is 8.3 percentage points. The gap between Māori and school leavers generally has grown.

Durie has had to contend with some old boys who wallow in the nostalgia of a deep and storied history, while others like to remind him of some of the less savoury aspects of the school. He is willing to acknowledge both sides of the school’s history, but the new iteration can’t get snagged on either. It has to learn lessons from that past and then aim for something that meets the needs of Māori students in the present and future. He expects that there will be a lot of people sitting back and watching to see what the new version of an old school will look like.

Durie points to the words etched into a shield high up on the front of the clock tower that state the school’s purpose: “A school for religious education, industrial training and instruction in the English language.”

He says the words around industrial training reflect a deeply entrenched assumption about what Māori students were destined for that ran right through the history of Māori education, including the Native Schools.

St Stephen’s has been on the current site since the early 1930s, but it originally started in Te Araroa in 1844 as a mission school run by the Anglican church, before moving to Parnell. Like Te Aute, its aspirations for the students could be crimped by those in charge.

“If you read Brian Old’s book on the history of St Stephen’s, it was a girl’s school for a period as well, where girls were taught how to do laundry. All of that kind of thinking was more about education for the times and education for the government’s needs — never with a focus around what do Māori need as a people in a new world.”

Durie sees parallels with attitudes in the education system today.

“For too many Māori kids, society uses words like ‘kinesthetic learners’. In other words, you must be on the end of the shovel. It’s just an academic way of funnelling your mind to think, oh, ‘I don’t learn like this, So I’ll get a job manually.’ That whole industrialised education system that we adopted was designed to do that. Is it doing anything different today?

“Education is supposed to provide you with some choices. But if your mind has only ever been told you’re ‘kinesthetic’, or however else they may have termed it, then you’re already pre-wired to go in one direction.”

Durie’s seen all sorts of ways education has funnelled Māori kids into subjects and educational pathways. While streaming might have officially fallen out of favour, subject and exam timetables can prevent Māori students from taking subjects like physics if they want to take te reo Māori, the assumption being that no one would want to take both.

He even believes that many of the St Stephen’s and Te Aute alumni of the past ended up carrying water for the government in terms of the messages they took back to their communities.

“We’ve got this proud history of alumni from this school who have really made a living out of working in that middle management, senior management echelon of government departments. And that can be a really good thing and something you could promote as a really good ticket for your school, but they were also involved in this whole thing of assimilation. If you give somebody a job and pay them well, they become a promoter of that job, whatever that industry is.”

It is an accurate observation. From the earliest days, government officials intended for the education of Māori to serve the Crown’s purposes. LieutenantColonel A H Russell, was one of the first regular nativeschool inspectors appointed in 1871. He believed the best students should be sent to Te Aute and St Stephen’s so “the Colony might thus select, cultivate and ultimately utilise the promising Native talent, by appointing the best pupils from such superior schools to be interpreters, surveyors, clerks etc, as they might show themselves competent to fill such offices.”

Nathan Durie inside the old Selwyn House dormitory, which is being refurbished.

Many of these roles were instrumental in the Native Land Court’s alienation of Māori land from its owners. Durie says Māori politicians were often the ones implementing government policies that, in the long run, weren’t always to the benefit of Māori.

I’ve known Durie for over 35 years and watched his evolution as an educator, from the young guy walking around in freezing-works gumboots, to the leader who has innovated and brought about change. While he has benefited from the mana of his whānau name, he has added to that mana considerably.

One theme running through Durie’s teaching philosophy is that perceptions of Māori children, whether by the state, society at large or the teacher in front of the class, end up shaping a student’s perception of themselves and the future they see for themselves. That perception becomes self-fulfilling. Perception becomes reality. He’s still challenging those perceptions about Māori kids, even positive ones. He saw and heard it at the first official event at the beginning of the St Stephen’s reopening.

“When the Manukura kids came on here to the powhiri, old-boy friends of mine were commenting positively about the way our kids presented themselves and performed. One of the comments was that the Manukura kids are ‘next level’. And my response to him was to say, ‘Oh no, that’s just the level now…’”