Free-range kids in the Bay of Plenty.

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Our family ended up at Matahui Road School after moving from a highly esteemed local primary school in the Bay of Plenty Region, where after 6 weeks in the new entrance class the teacher didn’t realise that my son could read, do some maths, that sort of stuff.  She really had no idea.  Things change and this may not be a problem at that school anymore, but it was a problem for us then.

And then, one day at the previous school when I was quietly helping in the classroom, Will finished his project and went into a corner and rolled a yellow digger up and down repeatedly for 20 minutes.  The teacher was busy, harassed, she didn’t have time to look after him, and he was causing no trouble.  And I thought to myself, is this how his education will be?  In this large classroom at this beautifully resourced, decile 10 school?  He dashes through his work and has permission to be bored because he causes no trouble?  Oh, and then he would hop in the car at the end of the day talking about being pushed over and kicked by a gang of boys….  so many factors weren’t right.

At about the same time my cousin had apologetically told me that her kids wouldn’t be going to this same school, the school their father and grandfather had attended, because she had found another one.  One that was little, just north of Tauranga, it was independent (private) and well, different.  A school that claimed to ‘inspire a love of learning’ that was wise to such things as the ‘habits of mind’ – a concept that was new to me then.  Learning isn’t just about knowing stuff – it is about learning behaviour that will make you strong in this world.  Fair enough.

This school, apparently, reinforced ideas such as:  ‘the true measure of success is not in knowing the right answer, but in knowing what to do when you don’t have the right answer’.

To teach confidence in how we approach this world.   Big call.

My mother-in-law had gone along with my cousin to the open day, possibly a little jaded that the daughters-in-law were departing from family habitude.  But once she arrived at Matahui Road School she exclaimed happily “but this is how the boy’s school used to be!”  And she was converted. Our hearts lifted.

It is a little school, our school, with under 90 on the role.  And its main claim to fame for every new parent, a critical variable for many –  are low class sizes.  Every family has a child that needs extra attention – a little more time.  And to be honest, I believe that is all most children need to get there in the end – time.  Patience.  Something this world does not always have.

And with smaller classes I do believe this is what we get – a more focussed and less harassed teacher. A critical variable in successful learning.

Matahui Road School is an independent primary school in the Western Bay of Plenty.  This is quite rare in our region.  It survives on half the income per student that the flash secondary schools in Auckland and over the hill in the Hamilton region, require to survive.  It is not rich.  It has a marketing budget that would fit in my belly button, as money is spent on more important things.  Nor is it a religious school.  It was set up 25 years ago by two mothers who had a vision of a school where children could be free to learn, free to explore, in a safe yet dynamic environment where risks could be taken –  self-esteem fostered and confidence encouraged.  I would definitely say it is a highly moral school – in part because of a values system that is entwined throughout the schools culture.

The cars aren’t as grand as the public school down the road – many parents make sacrifices to send their kids here.  People don’t come here to name drop.  They come here to make happy, strong kids.

Everyone is different and here, this attitude seems to work.  Our school gets excellent academic results – Matahui, for a small school, punches above its weight.  Our ICAS results confirm this.  There is also, and many of us believe importantly, an energy and strength about the kids who, after their stint here depart for college/secondary – and the feedback from the secondary schools confirms it.

Teachers here are kind, and, I believe empowered in the process of how they structure the program and teach their kids.  So the teachers are happy here.  And in many ways, in this world today, we underestimate the power of kindness and happy educators.

Here, big kids talk to little kids and little kids talk to big kids – no-one is pigeon holed into playing only with their age group.  Be warned, play equipment can be well, risky at times.  If you swing the swinging ball hard without looking, someone will get hurt.  And the swinging ball is one of the most fabulous, beloved pieces of play equipment in the playground.  Because without risk, kids mightn’t be exposed to anxiety.  Kids need and want risk.  Don’t deny them that. And guess what the swinging ball encourages? Kids looking out for each other! Caring! Sharing! Courage! Communicating! As well as risk.  Crazy how many things one big orange ball can do.

And a comment of my son from a long time ago now, stays with me, ‘Mum, at that school I went to when I was little there were ‘no bullying’ signs everywhere, and I was bullied, but at Matahui there are no ‘no-bullying’ signs’.  How interesting.

Is it the best primary school in the Bay of Plenty?

We think so.

Our daughter and our son have been at Matahui Road School for a few years now, living as free-range kids, barefoot most days, as you do at a Kiwi school.   And I would watch them having fun and running around and it all looked so easy.  And this was something that used to niggle me a lot, because it niggles every parent that comes here at some stage or another – are they learning enough?  Are they on par with NZ, with the international world?  Because there is a financial commitment to coming to this school, and parents don’t just want their kids to thrive – they need to perform academically too.  Is it worth it?

And I can confirm that this school is on par. If not above.  We have just had a year at school in France.  As many of you may know, the French system, is, despite the efforts of caring and dedicated teachers, an industrial system.  It is a ‘sit at your desk and write down this dictation’ kind of system.  Yes, it draws out of the ether some of the best engineers and mathematicians in the world.  But it is a largely joyless system.  So it is natural to question this seemingly laissez faire approach of Matahui and contrast the two educational polarities.

Does it really work?

My kids entered French school with minimal French, and after 4 months struggling with learning a new language, thrived.  Their math and science were fine. They only had a year there and they did well, fitted in and kept up.  All in a foreign language.  Then they returned to Matahui and breathed a big sigh of relief, because they were back in a place where they could be happy AND learn at the same place.

This is a skill not every school can achieve.  And, when it comes down to it, we only live once.

Seniors leave Matahui on every academic level.  Because we are not all the same.  Like the world out there, our kids are a mix of brilliant, average and struggling.  Kids will be who they are.  Some will be academic and some won’t be.  Just like the mix of parents who love them.

But do you know what our school is really good at?

Teaching children that everyone is good at something.  Teaching them that they can learn. Teaching them not to dread school and everything it means.

Fostering friendships and confidence and a love of learning in a world where too often, kids and their simple need to be kids, gets left behind.  One of the big buzzwords when it comes to success these days is ‘grit’.  This is why Matahui Road School has a nationally awarded EOTC – Education Outside the Classroom program, that builds strengths in kids in ways they never knew they had.

Our school is about self-awareness and self-esteem in children that means they can grow up and be happy adults.  It’s not just a springboard to secondary school.

Oh and along the way tall poppies can be tall poppies, average kids can strive, dyslexics can be dyslexics (and learn to read at all the different ages dyslexics do – not just at 6 and ¾), sporty kids can thrive and spectrum kids can learn in the hundred different ways they do.

And mix in together and play ball tiggy and play music and climb the best climbing tree in the world.

Because our kids have varied and multiple intelligences.  And we love them for it.

Success is success.  And we all reach whatever our definition of what success is, in a million different ways.

Think about every entrepreneur you can imagine.

NB: this rave is unpaid.


About Jodie

It is only by questioning and discussing and attempting to view the world our childrens children will live in, that we start to understand that life isn't a linear process - it is a room of dominoes falling. Our world has a lot of special interests and stakeholders that by default, keep science undone, and economics hooked in the 1920's - resulting in governments that don't address the complexity that is challenging our world. From pollution to mental health (and the cost of food) to the health of our freshwater - it's complex and dynamic. What equilibrium do we want to reach - a healthy vital one or a suffering one?
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