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School has fertile soil for students

In the first instalment of a four-part series about the remarkably liberal, progressive environment at Mākoura College, ANGELA YEOMAN looks at rangatahi [young people] transitioning from the school into the economic turmoil of the 1980s.

‘Learning Fast’ film

Dame Gaylene Preston’s 1980 documentary ‘Learning Fast’, which followed the journey of several 17- and 18-year-olds as they left Mākoura College at the end of 1979, was shown at the Wairarapa Film Festival this year

Jane Ross, the driving force behind the festival, as well as a digital adviser with Masterton District Council and radio host for Film Talks on Air, is also a former Mākoura student.

She first heard about Learning Fast in 2018 and, although it took her a few years to track down the documentary, she never stopped looking for it, and was finally able to include it in this year’s festival.

“The kaupapa of the festival each year is to celebrate local films and filmmakers, and local stories,” Ross says.

“I’m privileged to have been able to bring this story home and share it with a local audience.”

Secret of Mākoura College’s success

Mākoura College opened in 1968. At the time the documentary was made, the roll of Masterton East’s state co-educational secondary school was close to 800 students.

The Times-Age tracked down one of the stars of Preston’s documentary, Joseph [Joe] Murray, who left Mākoura College in 1979 “with only a couple of UE subjects” under his belt.

“I didn’t spend much time at school that year,” he laughs. “But I found mentors at Mākoura College.

“Our teachers at Mākoura were there because they had a passion for working with the diversity that can be found in any body of students.”

One of the teachers he’s talking about is Mike Hollings, a Māori language teacher and department head at the college at the time. And he’s talking about Lee Williams, a youth worker who “set up a youth base in town – a place where young people could go. It kept them out of trouble.” There were others too.

Ross tells the Times-Age that when she was leaving Mākoura College [a few years after Murray], she applied to Teachers College in Palmerston North.

“Mrs Boorman, my economics teacher, took the day off work and drove me to the interview. Her partner, Grant McAlpine, came too,” Ross recalls.

They bought her lunch, waited for her, and gave her encouragement. The personal commitment of Mākoura’s teachers to their students was, and remains, legendary.

“We were seen as individuals and supported to succeed,” says Ross.

The ‘Learning Fast’ documentary reveals the hopes and expectations of the school leavers, buoyed with skills, talents and self-belief instilled in them by their teachers and mentors. And they were going to need all the resilience they could get as they walked into the reality of the 1980s.

1980s economy and labour market

New Zealand was the world’s sixth most wealthy country per capita in 1965, slipping to 19th by 1980. The twin evils of rising inflation and unemployment across the globe – and a recession in the USA – hit our economy hard. The year 1981 was characterised by economic anxiety, rising unemployment, and industrial strife. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon instituted price and wage freezes, which ended up making things worse. Near the end of the 1980s, the share market crashed.

The unemployment rate for 15 to 24-year-olds is always expected to be at least three times greater than that for older age groups, because those with fewer skills and less experience can take longer to find suitable employment. This was evident in the 1980s.

By 1986, when there was an overall unemployment rate of 6.9 per cent, more than 18 per cent of males aged 15 to 19 were unemployed, along with 21 per cent of females in that age group. The rates for males and females aged 20 to 24 were eight per cent and just over 10 per cent, respectively.

It was this labour market that Murray and his friends, the ‘Learning Fast’ stars from Mākoura College, stepped into.

The life and times of Joe Murray

Murray lived in a four-bedroom state house in east Masterton with his seven siblings, Māori mother, working-class Pakeha father [who had an entrenched working-class outlook on life], grandparents, an aunty, and whāngai siblings [referring to the Māori tradition of children being raised in other families].

‘Learning Fast’ shows Murray and his friends finding community with each other, both while they were still at school and after they left. They talked about finding a great job, getting away from home, becoming rich. They regularly searched, applied for, and even interviewed for jobs. They cashed their dole checks. They thought it was their fault they couldn’t find work. Their parents – not understanding the labour market and the economy – were no help. Sometimes, they were actively unhelpful. Desperation and depression set in. Everyone smoked, relentlessly. Lani, from a Pasifika family, confessed to being pregnant at age 18. One of the friends went back to school for another year. Murray got a job at State Insurance.

“I was one of the first Māori in the place,” he says. “It was soul destroying and discriminatory, but it taught me how to fill in the forms of the bureaucracy, which meant I could then decipher those systems and rules – things that are often roadblocks for Māori, for my family and friends.”

At the age of 19, Murray moved to the Waikato, lived with his brother, and found kapa haka.

“Until then, there was an emptiness inside me. I didn’t know who I was,” he says.

Around the age of 22, he and his partner became pregnant with his first child and only daughter. It changed everything. They gave up smoking, started their own kōhanga reo, began learning te reo Māori themselves, and Murray was strong-armed by an older wahine to enrol at Teachers College. He was the first in his family to go to university.

Murray’s first year of teaching was in 1990, and 30 years later he moved from a deputy principal position at a large secondary school in a high deprivation area to work for the Education Review Office [ERO]. Over the decades, Murray has been at the forefront of te reo Māori revitalisation, including working for a total immersion kura [school]. While studying at university, he had custody of his daughter as a sole parent. Eventually, Murray met the woman who was to go on to be the mother of his four sons.

Murray’s brothers and sisters scattered to the four winds over the years, but all have experienced success in different ways. The oldest sister, Eileen, guides and directs some of the largest corporations in Europe. As a sole parent, she put her daughter through medical school and her son through university doing nuclear physics and management.

“I look back at us in ‘Learning Fast’ and can see how our social grouping was the way we coped,” Murray says.

“Some of us were depressed, but there was no understanding of mental health then. We had little in the way of work experience. Some of us were lower class and didn’t know how to have the conversations we wanted to have with family and others. I was a bit envious of Joan [a pakeha student in the documentary] – she was middle class, able to talk with her parents, a talented musician – and I was probably a bit in love with her.”

Murray’s journey with te reo Māori and finding his identity parallels that of his former mentor Mike Hollings, who went on to be chief executive of Te Kura Correspondence School and retired this year after a stellar career.

Mike Hollings: teacher, mentor, chief executive

Hollings told the Times-Age he “scraped through” college in Masterton, surprising himself by leaving in 1967 with UE accredited. There was little at school to capture his interest. He also struggled at university to begin with but that all changed when he found te reo Māori, linguistics, education, and social sciences. “I found my passions and interests, and so I suddenly had potential.”

Teaching at Mākoura College from the late 1970s, Hollings carried on the legacy of
the inspirational founding principal Noel Scott.

Teaching involved “rewarding student effort, providing authentic learning experiences, introducing education into the community, removing streaming,” and making space for Māori students to celebrate their culture, language, and identity.

“I have great memories of teaching at Mākoura,”
Hollings says. “It embarked me on my own career.”

Hollings went on to instruct teachers in Māori immersion at the University of Waikato from 1986. He eventually moved to lead Te Kura Correspondence School where he embedded the Mākoura ethos of personalising learning to each individual student in order to enable their success.

The ‘Learning Fast’ documentary can be watched at www.nzonscreen.com/title/learning-fast-1980.

Part two of this series, to be published next week, will focus on rangatahi transitioning from Mākoura College today.

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