On his second day back from sabbatical, Lakeview School principal and Masterton councillor Tim Nelson spoke with reporter FLYNN NICHOLLS about some of the most pressing issues in education.
Lakeview is a growing primary school in Masterton, with its roll about to tick over 500 students for the first time in its history.
Fresh from 11 weeks in Southeast Asia with his family, Nelson said his school is in a better place than ever.
“I know there are still people in the community who have a negative perception of Lakeview, but our growing roll just shows that a lot of people are choosing our school, and we’re grateful for that.”
Lakeview School has recently brought in several innovative programmes to address low attendance, declining literacy, and food poverty – pressing issues facing schools across New Zealand.
Structured literacy, for example, is an approach to teaching reading and writing that explicitly teaches children spelling rules and the sounds of letters, allowing children to sound out unfamiliar words.
It is organised so there is a clear progression of cumulative skills developed from year one to year eight.
This approach is a step away from the widely used “whole language” model that exposes children to many different forms of language usage in different contexts, from which they will theoretically infer fundamental language skills.
Nelson said the programme will have a hugely positive impact on both high-achieving and struggling readers.
“I’m really into structure – unlike learning to speak, learning to read isn’t a natural thing; it’s something you have to be taught,” he said.
“There have been reports that a lot of children are coming through schools who aren’t as literate as they should be, but in this programme, progress is measured, and everything builds on what happened before – we can make sure
people don’t slip behind.
“It’s evidence-based, and we’re adamant that when we put time and resources into a programme, it’s not based on some ridiculous ideology that hasn’t got any substance behind it.”
Lakeview is also one of 10 Wairarapa schools participating in the government’s lunches in schools programme.
Started in 2019, it aims to reduce food insecurity and provides close to a million lunches a week to students at 950 participating schools.
Last week a Budget document showed that Treasury does not think that the programme represents value for money, but Nelson said he wants to see it continue.
“It’s an awesome programme; I’d be disappointed to see it taken away,” he said.
“It’s a social equaliser, in that some parents might not send their kids to school if they don’t have lunch to give them, but here lunch is provided for everyone, regardless of who you are in the school.
“Kids nearly always enjoy the lunches; I think it’s fantastic.”
Nelson noted that Lakeview has very high expectations for behaviour, with clear rules for attendance, vaping, and respect for others.
“The kids are really aware of what our expectations are – they respond to it, they like boundaries, they like to feel safe, and families support it as well.”
This year, the Lakeview and Masterton Intermediate school boards are jointly funding an attendance programme run by Frazer Mailman and Laurence Titter that has slashed chronic truancy after several years of declining attendance.
Nelson said the programme has a tangible impact on increasing attendance, which is one of the school’s strategic goals.
“Frazer and Laurence track students, visit homes, meet with principals, and talk to kids every single day,” he said.
Although a few students still have poor attendance records, they have been identified, and an individual plan is in place for each of them.
The two school boards fund the programme, not the Ministry of Education [MoE], despite the ministry announcing earlier this year it would spend $88 million on attendance programmes.
“I’ve found the government to be absolutely pathetic regarding attendance,” Nelson said.
“It would be great if Kieran McAnulty could go to caucus and convince [Education Minister] Jan Tinetti that this programme should be supported by MoE and extended to other schools, but I have no expectation of that happening whatsoever.
“We could wait around all year and hope that these things happen, or we can do something ourselves, and that’s what we’ve done.”