Nick Grew says learning an instrument teaches students more than just music.

It also teachers essential skills such as respecting taonga and teamwork.

It is because of this belief the Whangarei Girls' High School (WGHS) head of music applied for, and won, a $40,000 grant from the Ministry of Education's Teacher Led Innovation Fund which will allow him to carry out an 18-month project exploring how to raise Maori achievement through orchestral playing.

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"In the education system we've been trying all sorts of things but I think now, and from my experience, what I'm finding is we need to come at it from a cultural standpoint with any hope of making that positive change."

The idea came from Mr Grew's desire to do further research on the work WGHS was doing with Sistema Whangarei where Year 9 students perform in an orchestra 12 weeks after learning a string instrument for the first time.

The project is based on the principles of Venezuela's El Sistema movement, one of the world's most successful music and social development programmes.

It will use Maori concepts such as ako, a reciprocal teaching and learning relationship, and tuakana teina, which for the WGHS students would be learning through an older sister/younger sister relationship.

"It's teaching them essential skills, not only playing in a music group and listening. Being aware of the space around them is a huge part of it.

"We talk about taonga - treasure - the instrument is the treasure, you are treasure, the space is treasure. So it teaches them respect.

"If we can take on some of these concepts, everyone can benefit."

Some of the concepts which will be used in the project have also been used over the past three years through Sistema Whangarei's relationship with WGHS.

"We've got some older volunteers who actually went through that Year 9 programme three years ago and they started beginning violin three years ago and now they're playing," Mr Grew said.

"But they're excellent sweepers so the potential of that role is you've got that older-sister / young-sister relationship."

Sweepers are people who observe and help string players with correct technique.

Mr Grew said assessing Maori achievement did not necessarily relate to academic achievement but was more about engagement.

"Hopefully by engaging them and making them feel like they belong to that community of learning, it will have a knock-on effect and it will help them to achieve better academically in the long run."

Mr Grew said how the achievement would be measured was being discussed.

He said the funding would go towards relief time, the services of Sistema Whangarei - who are a huge part of the project - and so at the end of the project it can be distilled into something which can be presented at conference.