A group of 19 children cut off from civilisation have not been to school for more than a decade - and education authorities seem powerless to do anything about the situation.
Education Minister David Benson Pope yesterday described the case as "extraordinary" and "remarkable", saying he knew of no other like it.
Mr Benson Pope confirmed his ministry had been trying without success to get the Far North children into school since 1994 and it had no idea if they could read or write.
Child Youth and Family is aware of two of the families and has declared the children safe.
The parents of the 19 children told the Herald on Sunday they had no intention of providing a formal education for them.
Anahera Van Duin, who has four children, said she and her siblings wanted to educate their children themselves. "They were trying to find a way to put us in a box. They can't." Mrs Van Duin lives at Mokau, on the coast between Herekino and Ahipara, with her brother Stephen Tango, his wife Phillippa, and her sister Stephanie Samuels, with her husband Luke.
Between the three families there are 19 children who have never been to school, including 18-year-old Faith Van Duin, who has started a new generation of children to be brought up outside the system with her daughter Rangimarie Twaddell, 3.
It is at least 45 minutes by rough four-wheel-drive track to the small community. There is no power or running water, and the families rely on fishing and foraging to provide much of their food.
Mrs Van Duin said education officials had been refused access to perform academic tests on the children. However, she said the children could read and write, although she did not rate education as vital to their development. "I think if their basic life is fine and their thinking is fine they can do anything."
Mr Benson Pope said a social agency had jailed the Tangos in 1995 for failing to provide for their children, only to have the families vanish on their release. The ministry then lost track of them for two years.
"I think this is a remarkable case. It's an extraordinary tale. If people hide their young people, as this family has, I don't think any system will catch them."
Mr Benson Pope said he wanted to explore other options to get the children into structured education. One option was taking the children from the parents, although Mr Benson Pope said he did not favour that.
However, he questioned whether the ministry should keep trying in the face of such adamant resistance. "If people go to such extraordinary lengths to cut themselves off from what we would regard as more normal society, what can we do or would we want to, to actually try to include them?"
He said that about 10 years ago Mrs Tango was registered to home school the children. This was cancelled shortly after. However, he believed there must be an option that would fulfil ministry requirements and the families' desires.
Violet Paparoa, Northland practice manager for CYFs, said the service was aware of two of the three families: "We have no concern for the safety of these children and young people, and continue to work with other agencies to achieve the best possible resolution."
Education expert Dr Sarah Farquhar said the New Zealand system gave little room for parents to have a voice in their child's education, and some parents would probably find appeal in the Mokau families stand.
National education spokesman Bill English described the Mokau case as being serious: "The kids would be better off being educated."
- HERALD ON SUNDAY