Keith Newman asks if Te Aute College, south of Hastings, can recover its financial, moral and academic mana to equip a new generation of Mãori leaders … or whether it’s an educational moa in the 21st century.

Te Aute College, the historic school that equipped young Mãori men for mainstream leadership roles at the turn of the 20th century, is battling for survival as it weighs up commitments to church and State, the bank, and a vision statement promising to once again change the face of Mãori education.

The school has much to prove as it emerges from a decade of crisis and adjusts to a new student-driven curriculum, a fresh board of trustees, the resignation of principal Piripi Blake and the exit of a Ministry of Education commissioner who’s had oversight for two and a half years.

Dr James Graham

Although Te Aute is again reporting academic achievements well above the national average for Mãori boys and has just logged on to ultra-fast broadband, it still carries a horrendous debt, needs to increase its roll from 83 to around 120 and get multiple stakeholders heading in the same direction.

Invested parties include the Anglican Church; the Crown; land donors Ngai Te Whatuiapiti; the Te Aute Trust Board (TATB); responsible for its assets and those of sister school Hukarere Girls’ College; the Te Aute Board of Trustees; parents; farmers who lease school-owned land; and mortgagee, the BNZ.

Dr James Graham, a former Te Aute dux, educational advisor and member of Te Whatuiapiti hapü, says it’s time everyone agreed on a collective vision for the recovery, management and governance of the school.

He quotes a whakataukí (proverb): “He totara wahirua he rua kai na te ahi — the totara log split in two is food for the fire”. While some people have authority that needs to be recognised, others may need to find “another waka to jump on.”

Piripi Blake

The ancient root of Te Aute’s modern day problems rests in the transference of endowment land, set aside 160 years ago for the long-term support of Te Aute College, to in-perpetuity or ‘Glasgow leases’.

Ngai Te Whatuiapiti chiefs gifted (4,273 acres/ 1,729 ha) and the Crown (4,014 acres/1,624 ha) to entice missionary and fluent Mãori speaker Samuel Williams to Hawke’s Bay in 1853 to build the school at Pukehou and act as peacemaker between settlers and Mãori.

However, in 1916, the TATB; at the insistence of a 1906 Commission of Inquiry, broke the endowment into 23 smaller blocks and leased it to farmers at rates that could only be reviewed every 21 years.

Te Aute College was left with 758 acres (307 ha) for its own purposes and while the value of leased land escalated rapidly over the decades, the revenues never kept pace with market rates. This is at the root of a Treaty of Waitangi claim by the hapü (sub-tribe) who insist their gift has been mismanaged.

Dr Graham says Te Aute should be one of the richest schools in the land, but the management of the leases has made it one of the poorest, often returning less than 5% of the land value.

Mãori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples, another Te Aute old boy and Ngai Te Whatuiapiti descendant, claims the Glasgow leases “are one of the most criminal things invented”, having been used to accommodate colonisation by giving farmers security of tenure.

Any attempt to buy it back would include the cost of expensive improvements, putting it out of Te Aute’s reach. “They made the area rich at the cost of making the school poor.”

Separate to the Treaty claim, Dr Sharples says attorney general Chris Finlayson is reviewing the leases and considering a new endowment to compensate the school.

The reputation rap

Te Aute’s honourable reputation began unravelling around the same time St Stephen’s College in Auckland was shut down in 2000, and for similar reasons – financial difficulties and behavioural issues that had some students and even teachers fearing for their safety.

Some of the challenges stem from October 1975 when Te Aute became ‘state integrated’ with pressure to accept troubled ‘social welfare’ or Child Youth and Family Services (CYFS) students, often expelled from other schools.

Investigations began in 2002, and a July 2005 school newsletter confirmed that bullying, drugs and theft “continued to be a problem”. The Education Review Office (ERO) reported unfavourable 2003 – 2007 NCEA results and in December 2008 it raised further concerns for the health and safety of students and staff.

It said “hostel and educational effectiveness” had at times “overwhelmed a succession of boards, staff and school leaders” and was adversely affecting student achievements.

The arrival of principal Blake in 2009 resulted in a stronger stand against bullying and violent behavior with repeat offenders removed as a counter to the “entrenched negative boarding school traditions”.

Blake told BayBuzz that having about ten CYFs boarders was a recipe for mayhem. “Those boys needed a whole different support mechanism for their education. We are now very careful about who we take.” Only three were selected to attend Te Aute for the 2013 year.

Under Blake’s guidance the ERO reported fewer incidents of “poorer behaviour” and pastoral care and student welfare issues were being addressed. He says Mãori boarding schools are under a lot of pressure to not only educate, but also mentor and work through a range of sociological issues students bring into the 24-hour living environment.

Te Aute’s decade of behavioural difficulty was a sharp contrast to the school memories of Dr Pita Sharples who admits nearly being kicked out in the late 1950s, until he was inspired by the stories of old boys who went on to do great things. This instilled a sense of pride and a desire to give something back to his people.

Dr James Graham says his Te Aute days in the early 80s were marked by a strong sense of leadership and camaraderie. Whanaungatanga – being linked together as a family with a common purpose – and pride in “knowing who you are as a Mãori and as a person” permeated the culture.

“While you were encouraged to rise to your full potential there was also a sense of obligation that your skills and talents should not be wasted then or later in life.”

A legacy of debt

Just as Te Aute was getting on top of its morality issues, a financial burden that overshadowed even the Glasgow leases came to light – the purchase of a second Woodville dairy unit, adjoining one gifted to Te Aute by an old boy.

Sources claim government ministers assured the TATB during a 2006 visit that millions of dollars would be available to them, resulting in a loan being arranged with the Bank of New Zealand. Ministerial officials then allegedly vetoed the offer.

Dr Graham says those who advised the TATB should have been sacked. “Irrespective of the intentions of those on the board at the time, some of the professional advice they received, including from the bank, was not the best.”

It wasn’t until around May 2010 that the Anglican bishops, to whom the TATB is accountable, first learned of the transaction. “No one knew they were in such a mess,” says a source involved in the Church’s oversight of Te Aute.

The TATB was sacked, the church stepped up with $2 million to help stabilise things. Although details of the debt were kept under wraps, a ‘secret’ Te Puni Kõkiri report finally disclosed the damage. In the 2010 financial year TATB lost $2.18 million; Te Aute was bleeding $750,000 a year and bank debts and overdrafts with the BNZ were approaching $11 million.

Attempts to work out a deal with the bank were floundering when lawyer Patsy Reedy stepped up and unsuccessfully urged the government to raise Te Aute funding to the same level as state schools. The board of trustees resigned and following a request to the Ministry of Education, Commissioner Elizabeth Ellis moved in to run the school ahead of the 2011 year.

The financial affairs and running of the school and hostel came under intense scrutiny. Only when Hukarere’s Eskdale property was put up as security for the BNZ did other creditors back off. By late 2012 the overall debt had been reduced to $8.4 million.

Robin Hapi, co-chairman of the most recent version of the TATB, says it’s still working things through. “There’s still a long way to go. The farm at Te Aute is returning a substantial dividend to the board but the dairy farm in Woodville, while performing well, is depressing the overall operation.”

Accentuate the positive

Today the talk is mainly positive. In 2011, NCEA results were considered “a triumph” with students achieving well above the national mean for Mãori students. At the end of 2012 the Minister of Education commended Te Aute on achievements at twice the national average for Mãori boys and the best in Hawke’s Bay.

However, 2012 was a disruptive year with the loss of Tiwha Blake the deputy principal, head of Mãori language and wife of principal Blake, who passed away suddenly on the last day of the second term.

“She had a huge input with the boys, it really knocked me and the students around,” says Blake who brought in a relief teacher with less experience. “We are always above the national average for Mãori boys and while we achieved that for 2012, it was still our worst year.”

Blake, in announcing his retirement to BayBuzz, believes his legacy would be the change of culture at the school and overseeing, with Commissioner Ellis, the introduction of the new Tõku Moemoeã (My Dream) curriculum. Students can now learn at their own pace, based on their abilities, career aspirations and interests.

Blake says Te Aute is the only school fully embracing the programme, which he believes is the best model for improving achievement among Mãori boys. Commissioner Ellis says emphasising Mãori visual and performing arts and kapa haka alongside literacy, numeracy and agricultural science, is “revolutionary and will make Te Aute College a leader in Aotearoa.”

Dr Graham agrees it could help break the cycle of appalling educational statistics; one in two Mãori boys were destined to fail in education or exit school without qualifications in 2012. “There’s millions of dollars being pumped into the mainstream system that’s not conducive to all Mãoridom. It’s worse than it’s ever been, so why would you close schools that have done well for Mãori on a per capita basis?”

The new approach is a major step toward realising Vision 2035, developed in 2009 by the Te Aute Futures Group headed by old boy Sir Mason Durie, highlighting the need to differentiate by specialising in applied sciences, economics, the arts and sports.

Robin Hapi says the school needs to continue making changes so it can develop leadership in agri-business and agri-science, something that’s “not happening with any gusto” currently.

He’s confident it will become part of the strategic direction, once the TATB is in a better position to support such initiatives in a sustainable way. “We have our own farm, a deep rooted history in agriculture, associations with local iwi and are in close proximity to the likes of Brownrigg Agriculture.”

Dr Sharples has been working with Taratahi Agricultural Training School, which has two major farms in Masterton, to create new courses for Te Aute in 2014. “We’ve got to lift the attainment level. Mãori farms that win agricultural awards every year often don’t have a Mãori manager and there are opportunities there.”

There’s also an anticipated need for skilled Mãori to manage land, forests and fishing allocations following Treaty settlements.

Cynicism remains

Although around $2 million from the Anglican Church kept Te Aute limping through its darkest days, it’s suggested there’ll be no more cash unless “certain milestones and accountabilities are met”.

Within Te Pïhopatanga o Aotearoa – the Mãori arm of the Anglican Church – there’s a certain cynicism around Vision 2035 and whether Te Aute can pull out of its nosedive. “We’ve heard it so many times before but we don’t see any progress,” says a source with a 40-year involvement.

Elizabeth Ellis

Dr Graham, who helped develop Vision 2035, admits there’s an element of dreaming but says that’s what a vision is. “It’s a dream and from that you realise it’s a process around which you can strategise. It’s like climbing a mountain, there’s a lot of work and preparation required to get to the top.”

He says many dedicated people are working hard to restore the right kind of management and governance. “I’m getting on board with that, and yes, I will send my two sons there to climb that mountain if I know the foundation for the vision is well established.”

The Te Aute Trust Board has rejected some of the options put by the Anglican Church, including separate administrative and governing entities for Te Aute and Hukarere, and working with the boards of St Stephen’s and Queen Victoria which still manage assets and investments despite their closure.

Instead the TATB wants legislative changes to give “better effect to the intentions and expectations” implicit in the original endowment while “modernising its own structure to become more sustainable,” says Hapi.

A report to the Anglican Synod in 2012, claims the Crown failed to give “proper effect” to the role of the TATB, that the original 1853 arrangement was “not adequately completed” and the Whatuiapiti endowment imperfectly recognised. This “legacy of justified grievance” forms part of the Treaty of Waitangi claim.

Church input challenged

Commissioner Ellis believes greater cooperation between Church and State is needed to move things forward. Another source in leadership at Te Aute says, as an Anglican school, the Church should have more input into the “spiritual and moral” wellbeing of the students.

A strategic plan of guidance to help young people make the right choices about ways of living in society would be welcomed. While a range of secular services were called in to address behavioural issues in the decade from 2000, the source suggests greater support and assistance should have been evident from the Anglicans at the “special character Christian school”.

Dr James Graham also believes the connection forged with Ngai Te Whatuiapiti chiefs in 1853 implies a greater obligation and responsibility. “Some would argue that in nearly 160 years … the Anglican Church has not been as strong a partner as the original agreement suggested.”

Consequently, a cheeky challenge was put to the Anglican General Synod meeting in Fiji in July 2012, when former TATB member Professor Whatarangi Winiata, proposed it hand over half of the $315 million in the St John’s College Trust Fund to its Mãori arm.

He suggested this would be in line with the church constitution and could be used for Mãori educational needs, including rescuing Anglican Mãori boarding schools like Te Aute. A small working party is currently looking into this, according to the Anglican general secretary, Michael Hughes.

While the agreement to consult was applauded as “historic” and “ground breaking”, another motion from Professor Winiata, asking for an advance to help save Te Aute College was declined. Archbishop David Moxon said “material uncertainties” about the prospects of Te Aute College made the decision difficult.

If there’s no progress at the July 2014 General Synod meeting, a resolution is certainly promised in time for the 2014 Synod at Paihia, near Waitangi, possibly as part of the 200th anniversary of Rev. Samuel Marsden’s first sermon on New Zealand soil.

Some believe it would be appropriate for the church to make a generous show of solidarity to its Mãori arm with a literal transfer of funds and management rights; others suggest that’s unlikely.

Hope for the future

A lot rests on promised financial relief from the Treaty claim, government compensation for the lease losses and the veiled offer from the Anglican Church. While managing its existing debt burden, Te Aute will need to add at least as much as it owes on facilities and new classrooms to cater for the expansion implicit in a more specialised curriculum.

Although the threat of closure is receding along with concerns about student behaviour and achievement, Te Aute will need robust leadership and stakeholder agreement around common goals to keep it moving forward.

Even Vision 2035 concedes it may be 2016 before parents see the kind of track record from Te Aute College that will once again inspire them to put their sons on a waiting list. Dr Graham says the same resilience that got Te Aute through its turbulent past is needed today. “The essence or ethos of Te Aute is enduring; we have to respond the way they did back then by doing the mahi (work).”

Meanwhile Dr Pita Sharples remains in bat for his old college, challenging iwi around the country to set up their own scholarships, alongside the new government offerings, so Mãori youth with leadership potential get the same chance as their ancestors to become Te Aute history makers.

Additional Sources:

The Te Aute Trust Board (TATB) report to the Anglican General Synod, March 2012
The Te Aute Endowment, a chapter in Opening The Gate by Hugh McBain

Join the Conversation


  1. Te Aute, as a Maori boys’ school and its sister school, Hukarere, should be leading Hekia Parata’s vision for Maori achievement. Why aren’t they? Does the Trust Board have a list of “things to fix” rather than the same old speeches and attitude, or is it time to get real and close the place, like St Stephens?

  2. I had the privilege of spending time last year as Acting Principal of Te Aute College. I loved every minute of it, relishing in the spirit, the song, the history and the sharp intellect of the boys, the commissioner and some of the staff.
    The College is unique, a national treasure that, despite having been badly neglected, has survived. Shabby Ministry treatment, poor financial governance and too many principals in the last two decades, have combined to impact the school.
    (A visitor, comparing the buildings to other similar integrated schools, would be excused if they drew the conclusion that some form of educational funding apartheid had been applied.)
    The signs of this are evident in the poor state of many of the buildings but they have not dampened the core spirit that resonates and abounds.
    In spite of these barriers, the College continues to produce young Maori male leaders who inspire their whanau, hapu, iwi and the nation.
    The College, with the introduction of their innovative 21st Century approach to learning, Tõku Moemoeã that will build on the existing strengths, is poised to enter a new period of strength and growth.
    It’s time for the Ministry and Church to rectify past neglect and ensure that the College is physically supported so that building and resources match the learning that happens.

  3. Mark, your input to this discussion is welcomed. Apart from the issues mentioned in your post, i.e. some of the staff not being as “sharp” as others, “shabby” Ministry treatment, poor financial governance, did you leave a list of suggestions for the Trust Board?
    I did a spell of relieving teaching at Te Aute some years ago and was very unimpressed at the lack of Ministry support, in particular with the difficult task of re-orienting the troublesome students that had been literally “dumped” on Te Aute without any additional trained staff to assist with behaviour management in either the hostel or the school. The ERO reports in particular, seemed to blame the overworked staff for not mitigating the impact of the misguided/uncaring WINZ and MinEd policies.
    At that time too, the Trust Board seemed to regard the boarding and school fees paid by WINZ and other agencies as essential, without caring a toot about the impact of the attached students on the school. At least one of the hostel buildings had been made uninhabitable by their destructive attentions.
    It is to be hoped that the many prominent “old boys” deliver the message at the highest levels that the school should be saved and as you say Mark, it is time the Government and Church actually committed to repairing the damage they have wrought.

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