I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at a national conference of Rural and Teaching Principals held in Napier recently. The impact that these educational leaders have on children and their families within their mainly small, isolated communities cannot, in my view, be overestimated.

I know this first-hand, because I spent the first years of my life in a small rural community called Mokai, not far from Taupō. My parents taught at the two-teacher school there, and I, along with my brother who was born there, attended school with all the school-aged children. As a pakeha family we were embraced by the Mäori community – the kids looked out for me and my brother, and Mum and Dad became part of the educational and social life of the community.

Tiny Claire Hague begins her academic career

For me, then, school was a magic place, and inextricably linked in my earliest memories with family, friends, and general feelings of wellbeing and security. It’s perhaps not an accident then that I have spent all my working life in schools and the education system generally. I believe those early years shaped my development in crucial ways that have impacted on me since. They have influenced my choice of friends, my educational and professional goals, and my increasingly strong belief that New Zealand should be – and in many areas is – an inclusive, diverse society, just like the one I was so fortunate to be nurtured in half a century ago.

When I was Principal at Napier Girls’ High School, I again witnessed the power of a rural community upbringing and education. Most of the 150 girls in the hostel were from that background. At first they viewed coming to a large urban secondary school with trepidation. They were worried that their academic knowledge would not be up to scratch; that they wouldn’t cut the mustard in the top sports teams and cultural activities; they wouldn’t cope with so many students in one place; in short that the urban kids would be way ahead of them in every aspect of their new phase of schooling.

In fact, the opposite proved very often to be true. My observations of students from rural schools were that they more than held their own in academic and extra-curricular areas; their social skills were second to none; and they earned huge respect and affection from ‘day’ girls whose education and communities were vastly different from their own.

I think they did all these things because their rural primary schooling had embedded within them some wonderful skills and attributes. Resilience was key, along with a love of learning, and an ability to relate to people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities. Most of all, they had an innate sense of being a valued and valuable person, and therefore someone with something to contribute to their school and their community.

In my current role at EIT I have been again fortunate to witness the power of rural education at first hand. In rural communities from Ruatoria to Porangahau, people from the age of 16 to 70 are availing themselves of tertiary education that can be delivered into their communities – from agriculture to trades, from horticulture to hospitality. Some of these people lost their way in education during their teenage years. Others just want to learn within their own communities, something that we city-dwellers take for granted.

As these students come through the tertiary system and want to study at increasingly higher levels, the challenge has become to explore the delivery of degree and post-graduate programmes into rural communities. Technology is making this increasingly possible, with a variety of online and ‘blended’ courses now available from a range of tertiary organisations across the country.

EIT has done a lot of work in this area, spurred on by its merger with Tairāwhiti Polytechnic, which has brought to us a whole new group of East Coast communities with very high aspirations for their own education and that of their children and grandchildren.

The challenge for us, and for the country, is to not just make tertiary courses available for rural communities. We need to do that within a learning model that instils the resilience and sense of personal value that is needed for people to translate their higher education into a meaningful contribution – and one that recognises and addresses the increasingly fragile social and economic wellbeing of many rural communities.

I was privileged to attend a Trades Academy Open Day in Ruatoria last year. Secondary school students from the East Coast and Gisborne who had been studying at tertiary level one day per week on EIT’s Gisborne campus showed off their projects and their new sets of skills to their East Coast whānau. Mothers and sisters got the hair and beauty treatment. Fathers and brothers watched as students raced mini-bikes they had engineered and built for the secondary school champs at Manfield, cheered on by primary school kids from the local kura. Everyone availed themselves of the food made and served by the hospitality students. Once again I felt the magic that I had experienced as a little girl – being welcomed into a rural, mainly Māori community where all people felt valued and valuable, and made me feel the same.

So I’d like to finish where I began – by celebrating the unique contribution rural educators and their communities are making to current and future generations of New Zealanders. Your work is valued.

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