It shut then Te Kawa burned down

A country kid recalls the National government closing her school.

Te Kawa School pupil Te Atawhai Apiti, aged 8, enjoys a swing from Helen Clark. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Te Kawa School pupil Te Atawhai Apiti, aged 8, enjoys a swing from Helen Clark. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

The playground looks busy from here, but the kids in this picture made up a big chunk of the roll at tiny Te Kawa School a generation ago.

It was a big day for high-flying Te Atawhai Apiti, then aged 8, and for embattled Opposition leader Helen Clark.

Novopay, charter schools, zoning and national standards are all hot political issues today, but 1994 had its share of rows. As the school year ended, the future of Te Kawa's 19 pupils was hanging in the balance.

Proponents of school closure said the school's tiny roll made its continued existence too expensive to justify. As then-minister Lockwood Smith counted the dollars his government could save, Apiti and her friends got their schoolhouse in order for a visit by Clark.

"I think we knew she was coming because we prepared for it," Apiti recalls. "We had games and we cooked for her."

The guest of honour was invited to pizza the kids had cooked themselves, Apiti says.

Clark had visited the tiny township, about 10 minutes' drive northeast of Otorohanga, to voice support for the school board in its efforts to keep the school alive.

The rancorous political debate of the time was a mystery to the children, who had spent their time together in the school's solitary class. "They were so small you could mingle with the teacher more."

In the end, Clark and Te Kawa lost the battle. It was a bad year for both of them.

One torrid year after taking over the Labour leadership, Clark was not popular. Some opinion polls that year ranked her party lower than the Alliance. But her political fortunes would swing in the years following her visit to Te Kawa. She only narrowly lost the 1996 election and by the end of the decade was Prime Minister.

Apiti and her friends ended up taking a bus to Tihiroa Primary School, also in South Waikato. The bus journey wasn't too long, barely 15 minutes, but the sea of new faces in 1995 made it clear life would never be the same. "It was pretty sad, especially for us country bumpkins," Apiti says.

The Te Kawa School buildings were sold, turned into housing. Then, late one Friday night in 2004, the same building where Apiti and her mates learned to read and write burned to the ground. It was reported that clothes drying in front of a fire caused the blaze in which three dogs were killed.

A few days after the fire, owner David Moore told the Waikato Times: "A lot of people knew the school. There would be four or five cars of sightseers coming every day. It was a real piece of history."

Apiti now works in manufacturing, at Gallagher Group in Hamilton. She has two primary school-age kids of her own.

john.weekes@hos.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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