Editorial: Camera gives compelling insight to a school

Under The Bridge video frame grab, Papakura High School principal John Rohs. Photo / Michael Craig
Under The Bridge video frame grab, Papakura High School principal John Rohs. Photo / Michael Craig

Visitors to the Herald website will know that video now plays a large role in how we tell our stories.

This week we released our most ambitious venture to date into this genre, a 30-minute documentary on a struggling Auckland secondary school.

Film and print have different strengths and when they are combined well the result, we believe, can be immensely instructive.

Print is good for facts, figures, context and analysis, film can more easily reflect the human spirit and its response to adversity. There is plenty of that in Under the Bridge.

Papakura East is one of the poorest urban areas of New Zealand with Auckland's highest rate of welfare dependency. Like many schools in similar circumstances, Papakura High has seen its roll steadily dwindle as parents sent their children longer distances to schools considered better.

In the past decade Papakura has slid from a peak of 1300 students to below 600 last year.

As the roll declined, teachers were laid off, classrooms closed and the school's future was in doubt.

The principal had quit the previous year, a statutory manager had been appointed and the Ministry of Education had put a planned rebuild of the ageing school on hold.

That was predicament facing the school when our documentary team went there this time last year to begin a year-long investigation.

The video they have produced does not dwell on any of the difficulties the school faces. Instead it lets the new principal and a number of senior students talk about their hopes and efforts for themselves and their school.

Words struggle to describe the goodness and resilience of these young people as they support each other, delight in each other and look for their own way in life, which is why film does it so well.

Watching them, and their new principal, John Rohs, who came from Christchurch relishing the challenge, it becomes clear how schools succeed.

Papakura High is surrounded by social, economic and political excuses for its educational predicament but Rohs and leading students do not invoke any of them. Rohs has the attitude that if a school is not doing well, the solution lies in the school.

He speaks from experience. He came from Christchurch's Aranui High which was in similar condition and had turned itself around before the eastern suburbs were devastated by earthquakes.

Today's schools are remarkable places, as most parents find out if they did not realise it as students. They provide a range of activities capable of engaging just about all personalities and abilities, and let them find pride, fellowship and fun in representing the school or simply being part of it.

To see inside a school like Papakura High is to realise how much depends on dedicated principals and staff, and how careful policymakers need to be.

Education seems to be top-heavy with academic theorists, officials, qangoes, unions, regulators and reformers. Principals, boards and teachers probably do not need half of them.

Every school can succeed with inspiring principals and teachers who ought to be well paid and supported. On the evidence we have seen, Papakura High has made a good start. It should be exciting to see what happens.

- NZ Herald

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