The Government's flagship welfare policy for Maori, Whanau Ora - worth $40 million this year - is designed to lift families out of poverty and dysfunction, but it has been criticised as a waste of money and an opportunity for some to rort the system. In a four-part investigation reporter Simon Collins speaks to those at Whanau Ora's frontline.
Ngaruawahia High School has not expelled a single student in the past three years and is using Whanau Ora to keep pupils engaged instead.
The small decile 2 facility with just over 250 students is the only mainstream school with funding from the Whanau Integration, Innovation and Engagement (WIIE) Fund - $11,500 to develop plans with five whanau.
The school's truancy and restorative justice worker, Aroha Rawiri, offered the programme to several families of the students she worked with, and found some had been picked up already by other Whanau Ora agencies - a sign that the scheme was indeed reaching the most needy families.
She took five whom no one else was helping.
"These ones have struggled on how to connect or dealing with agencies and dealing with the schools," she says. "In some of them the language is different and they just shut off."
Ms Rawiri grew up in Ngaruawahia and already knew most of the families, but she still took time to build trust gradually. When she finally asked them about their goals, they focused on "keeping their children engaged in education", and "seeking support to employment".
Ms Rawiri motivates the students just by offering a friendly face in their lives.
"The kids approach me in school," she says. "They keep me informed: 'I've done this,' 'I'm doing well'."
Truancy dropped off. Principal Robyn Roa says the students and their parents are noticeably happier.
"You can see it in their ahua, their way," she says. "When kids are heavy, you can see it, they will mope around.
"Sometimes you get angry parents. When you get parents coming in a lot lighter, at least they know there is someone here to help them."
Ms Rawiri has encouraged some parents to take courses themselves as a step towards jobs or just to learn about their own Maori tikanga (customs).
One mother who was adopted has discovered her own birth family.
Mrs Roa has not excluded any students from the school since she became principal three years ago.
"Who are the kids being excluded? They are Maori kids," she says.
"Often a family's links to the school are through disciplinary measures. This isn't. This is a more supportive approach. It's not that kind of thing that Maoris have endured for generations." Simon Collins
WHAT IS WHANAU ORA?
Whanau Ora (Well Families) is a Government welfare policy initiated by the Maori Party. It is open for everyone but its focus is on Maori families.
HOW IT WORKS
Social agencies work with whanau to help identify and improve problem issues such as poor housing, health, education and legal problems. They also ask the family to plan a future which moves them from state dependency to become financially independent and healthy participants in their community.
It is funded in two parts:
* $33.2m this year for agencies to form consortiums to work together with whanau to improve all elements of their wellbeing.
* $6.4m this year directly for whanau to form their own plans to improve their wellbeing.
We have travelled to four of the areas where the services are most in demand.
Monday: Tai Tokerau (Northland)
* Urgent review follows abuse of scheme
* Disabled uncle has new hope after 14 years on benefit
* Doors open to decent housing and a better lifestyle
* More cash the key to better lives, says CEO
Wednesday: Te Arawa (Rotorua)
Thursday: Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland)
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