Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Kawerau: Town that turned its prospects around

A new experiment is raising young people’s aspirations in our poorest town, Kawerau. Simon Collins reports.

Pinepine Savage says she turned her life around with the help of sports tutor Warwick Godfery. Photo / Christine Cornege
Pinepine Savage says she turned her life around with the help of sports tutor Warwick Godfery. Photo / Christine Cornege

Pinepine Savage holds proof in her own life that it is possible to turn around a town that everyone had written off.

Kawerau, her home town, has the country's lowest average income and highest share of sole parents and beneficiaries. Thirteen young people committed suicide there between 2010 and 2012. The town has been dominated for 30 years by the Mongrel Mob.

Pinepine, 24, grew up in a Mob family. Her dad and brother are in jail. Home life, she says, was "normal gang stuff - drinking, drugs". Her mum suffers mental illness and Pinepine missed out on a lot of schooling.

"I used to wag all the time at the river, me and all my friends. Most of them have got kids now," she says.

At 15 she went to live with her aunty in Australia, but didn't like it. She came home and enrolled at Te Wananga o Aotearoa in a sports course tutored by Warwick Godfery, who had been in the Mob with her father 25 years ago.

It was a turning point.

"The wa is like your family," she says. She did sports for two years and has switched to adult learning with the goal of becoming a sports tutor herself.

"I really want to be a tutor here because heaps of those students know me, but if I get a job anywhere else I'll make that move," she says.

Just possibly, things are starting to turn for Kawerau. It's early days, but since 2011 Kawerau has been one of six experimental "social sector trial" sites where funding for youth services run by Police and the ministries of education, health, justice and social development was handed over to local communities. Ten more sites were added last year.

Each of the first six was given extra funding averaging $370,000 a year as well as power to reshuffle other funding to achieve four goals: reducing truancy, youth crime, and drug and alcohol problems, and lifting youth involvement in education and work.

The claimed results in Kawerau are impressive: a 34 per cent increase in school attendance in the first two years of the trial, a 25 per cent drop in Youth Court appearances, and cutting the numbers of disengaged young people from 75 to zero by May 2012.

The reality is more complex. But miracles were never realistic.

Kawerau was founded in 1953 as a one-mill town for Tasman Pulp and Paper. But changing technologies have cut the town's fulltime jobs from 2964 in 1986 to 1323 in last year's census.

A quarter of Kawerau's workforce (24.9 per cent), by far the country's highest rate, was unemployed on Census day.

Mr Godfery says unemployment bred the gangs: "The gangs grew in terms of attractive options for youth probably in the 1980s when the economy crashed ... Now you have three generations of it where there's no jobs and no other options."


Mereana Rua says it helps knowing the whanau of the youngsters she deals with.

For a while, he ran a gang-based group employment scheme.

"The crime rate dropped overnight," he says.

But such schemes have gone. Many young men are either unemployed or in jail, leaving women on benefits. Sole parents make up 50 per cent of all Kawerau's families with children, compared with a national average of 27 per cent.

The Government's decision to close two of the town's six schools in 2012-13, because of declining rolls, only made things worse in the short term. The entire staffs of the college and the intermediate were made redundant. Only three, all from the college, were rehired by the combined Tarawera High School, and the rest were replaced by 40 new staff who did not know the 450 students.

Daryl Aim, the last principal of the old intermediate, says he and his deputy both applied for top jobs at the school but lost out, and the rest of his staff then decided there was no point in applying.

New principal Helen Tuhoro imposed a hard line. Kawerau's expulsion rate leapt to more than twice that of any other district.

"That was due to the school opening and us wanting to draw a line in the sand," Mrs Tuhoro says.

Truancy soared. "Our attendance rate was 60 per cent in 2013," she says.

Achievement plummeted.

Kawerau school-leavers with at least NCEA level 2 rose from 44 per cent in 2011 to 56 per cent in 2012, but slid back last year to 46 per cent, again by far the nation's lowest.

But it was only a temporary setback for Mereana "Dolls" Rua, who became the town's first fulltime truancy officer in 2011 through the social sector trial. Mrs Rua, 61, and her husband are elders of the local marae and the students know her.

"The kids see her coming and put their heads down: 'Oh no, we're in trouble, nan's coming'," says a mother, Hannah Edwardson.

Mrs Rua says: "Most of the students are our own, so I had a rapport with the whanau prior to the job. I'd tell them to get into the car, I never had a child not wanting to. I'd go and follow up with the whanau."

The attendance rate across all the town's schools improved from 82 per cent in 2011 to 86 per cent in 2012, before dropping back to 83.5 per cent last year. The national average is 90 per cent.

Mrs Tuhoro says the high school's attendance rate is back up to 81 per cent this year, partly because of a radical curriculum reform which has axed all old subjects such as maths and English at Year 11 and above, replacing them with more relevant subjects such as fishing, farming and forestry, computer-aided design, and "Industry and Science in Kawerau".

The school has given notebook computers to all Year 10 students this year and hopes to give them to all students eventually.

One Year 10 student, Miharo Smith, was suspended twice last year for smoking marijuana. But a youth worker at the town's youth centre introduced him to a church, and he now leads the high school kapa haka group.

He still goes to the youth centre most nights. "You can play ping pong or pool, it's like a hangout place."

Youth centre manager Ricky Paul says the average attendance is 60 to 80, aged from 7 to 19.


Tamara Ewing, 11, Jade Fowell, 10, and Stacey Ryder, 10.

Stacey Ryder, aged 10, who plays the piano with friends, says she comes "because I've got nothing to do". Waiheke Karepa, 15, comes for table tennis and plays in a band "because it's cool". He attends an alternative education centre set up as a social sector trial initiative by the local iwi, Tuwharetoa Ki Kawerau, which gives "wraparound" support to 10 youngsters.

Manna Support Services, which runs the youth centre, also runs a class at the centre for six students. Teacher Lyn Hughes provides a "therapeutic" programme, including daily sports and weekly one-on-one sessions with a counsellor.

Mr Godfery has also built up youth self-esteem through boxing tournaments. "We just ran an all-female boxing tournament [in May] which attracted 2000 people in a town of 6500," he says.

Manna Support, the wananga and the iwi meet regularly in a collaborative group called Te Whiri Kawai which grew out of the social sector trial. The group provided volunteer mentors and a lunchtime presence in the high school last year.

As the students are now "settled" in, the school provides its own "tuakana-teina" mentoring of younger students by older ones. But volunteers, including police officers, still help at the school's breakfast programme.

Police statistics suggest the initiatives are working. The number of youngsters aged 12 to 18 caught for key offences in Kawerau has halved from 209 in 2011 to 107 last year.

It's harder to see much impact on welfare rolls. Kawerau beneficiaries aged 18 to 24 doubled in the recession from 139 in June 2007 to 279 five years later, and have come back only to 239 so far.

Iwi social services manager Chris Marjoribanks says many will have to leave town for work. "We have to give our children the resilience and the confidence to step outside our community," he says.

Or, as Mrs Tuhoro puts it: "Our most important task is to provide hope."

Outcomes in trials mixed bag

Social sector trials are yielding mixed results in places outside Kawerau.

Tokoroa
Started 2011 to improve youth outcomes. It has created a "youth media and music hub" with its own radio station and courses run by Te Wananga o Aotearoa, and revived a weekly "clubs" night for 60 youths.

Te Kuiti
Started 2011 to improve youth outcomes. The project has supported trades and sports programmes at Te Kuiti High School. But Dennis Astle of Ngati Maniapoto Marae Pact Trust quit the trial governing group when funding for a youth training scheme ended and says the group is dominated by state agencies who "toe the party line".

Taumarunui
Started 2011 to improve youth outcomes. Supported a scheme which has trained 16 trades trainees so far and sent eight to work on the Christchurch rebuild in Te Kaihanga Co-operative. But Christine Brears of Taumarunui Community Kokiri Trust opposed a decision to support a new wellness centre owned by a local man. "We are being dictated to," she said.

Kaikohe
Started last year to improve youth outcomes. The project takes truants and at least four members of each family to a day on a marae to develop education plans. Iwi-based manager Brennan Rigby says: "You only have to go on to a marae with a group of young people and you see that their eyes open and their hearts open."

Ranui
Started last year to improve youth outcomes. It has helped start a work-ready training scheme for 20 Ranui students at Waitakere College, working with the college's Gateway team to get them work experience and to help them get driver's licences.

Rotorua
Started last year, the only trial focused on improving education. The project aims to develop e-learning, modelled on a scheme which has lifted education outcomes in Auckland's Tamaki area. Tech companies have been invited to make offers aimed at giving every child in Rotorua their own learning device at minimal cost.

Porirua
Started last year, the only trial focused on improving health, starting with basics such as encouraging handwashing by supplying liquid soap to 12 local schools that didn't have it, and talking to 15 schools that don't have hot water in the toilet blocks.

The future
Health Minister Tony Ryall says it's "very likely" the six trials that started in 2011 will become permanent when the trials end next June, and that the other 10 will be extended.

- NZ Herald

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