Now his son is one of the shining stars of the Hawke’s Bay and Tairawhiti Schools’ Trades Academy @ EIT. This man has no difficulty getting his boy to school on a Friday, the day when 400 students from across Hawke’s Bay and the East Coast converge at EIT’s main campuses to undertake tertiary training. Some of these kids travel up to five hours a day to get there and back. They think it’s worth it, and so do their parents and schools.

Our region’s Trades Academy was a finalist in the Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards this year. One of my most treasured memories is sitting with a group of school principals, parents and students, and listening to their discussion with judges as to how the Academy worked and the outcomes it was achieving. Young people, some at risk of dropping out of school, were hanging in there, and achieving success, often for the first time in their schooling. This in turn raised their confidence with other school work and activities, markedly improving attitudes and achievement.

Other students had discovered a potential career path, or found out before it was too late what they were not cut out for. Families noted better motivation and happiness about school in general. Principals talked about better attendance, achievement and connection with the world of work and tertiary pathways.

Trades Academy achievers

The data spoke for itself: in 2013 Hawke’s Bay and Tairawhiti Trades Academy students had participation and achievement results that ranked right up there with the national outcomes.

81% of our region’s students completing their Academy programme in 2013 gained NCEA Level 2, equalling the national results. 86% of the 4,500 students across New Zealand undertaking the programme made effective transitions to further education (school or tertiary) or employment and apprenticeships. Comparative studies completed by the Ministry of Education have shown that results achieved in trades academies and other similar initiatives significantly exceed the outcomes achieved by students of similar type who remain in traditional education programmes.

The Trades Academy concept was championed back in 2010 by another local, Anne Tolley, during her time as Minister of Education. Since then, academies have been established across the country, and in 2015 will involve 5,250 young people studying across a range of secondary/ tertiary areas including trades, science and engineering, sport and recreation, and information technology, to name but a few. The purpose is hands-on, vocationally based training that forms an integrated secondary/ tertiary programme, contributes to NCEA results, and allows students to try out some possible career options.

Plus, on top of these merits, I’d argue that the academies have transformed the way the education system works, the way that regions collaborate, and the way that young people and their families are connected to the world of tertiary study and work.

In 2014, our region has had 27 schools and 400 students involved in our local Trades Academy. The interesting thing about this is that the schools range from Decile 1 to Decile 10 on the socio-economic scale. Technically some of these schools are in direct competition with one another. All are self-governing, autonomous entities. All stood to potentially lose funding by sending their students to the Academy.

The greater good

They could have worried that EIT would use the Academy as means of ‘stealing’ their students. They could have done the much easier thing – stuck to their normal timetable and same curriculum because it was known and reasonably successful. But those schools did none of those things, and in their commitment to a genuine collaboration across a very diverse region, they have taught us many things.

We learned that autonomy and diversity can enhance, rather than discourage, regional cooperation. We witnessed good leadership that didn’t just safeguard the known; it asked ‘what could the future look like?’ We worked hard to ensure that concerns about competition, funding and branding could be worked through if the welfare of people was our biggest priority.

At the end of September, as I travelled from Hastings and Napier to Wairoa, Gisborne, Ruatoria and the tiny gems that are our communities up the East Coast, I marvelled again that 27 schools from Hicks Bay to Central Hawke’s Bay are able to join forces with their local tertiary organisation for the betterment of the young people they serve. They are living examples of people and organisations working together for ‘the greater good’.

As the re-elected government settles into its third term, we can continue to argue the merits or otherwise of their education and other public sector policies. Our local councils and politicians can continue to debate the joys or perils of amalgamation, and argue about who should have known about what and who should run this or that regional project. Alternatively, we can all get on with making those policies work for the greater good.

Our local educators, young people and their families have shown us it can be done. They are quietly going about the business of working together across enormous geographical, cultural and economic divides. They are a lesson of the highest order for us all.

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