Dr Camilla Highfield is the director of professional learning and development, at the University of Auckland's faculty of education and social work.

The Herald's recent video documentary, Under the Bridge, has shone a light on daily life for teachers and students in low decile schools such as Papakura High School.

That light illuminated a community where struggle has become the norm, with young people doing their best to make the most of the hand they have been dealt, while often having to put the needs of adults before themselves.

The simple experience of a child being supported in his/her endeavours by significant adult(s), which many young people in Aotearoa take for granted, is not the day-to-day experience of young people living in the Papakura community.

The significant adults working at the school have become kaitiaki (guardians), advocates and cheerleaders for their students and play a role that goes well beyond the traditional view of the classroom teacher.


It's uplifting to see teachers stepping up to ensure that their students are acknowledged and shown aroha and manaakitanga (hospitality) in order that they, too, can receive positive affirmation of their achievements. The featured students all had strong family bonds but also discussed how they have created new relationships with peers and teachers at school which provided academic support they needed to achieve their goals.

We see consistent images of the cultural pride and the powerful desire of students to understand their own whakapapa and identity within a diverse community. Students at Papakura High School do not leave their cultural identity at the gate, but embrace it and carry it with them.

However, the efforts of both teachers and students are a dressing on a wound that shouldn't exist. This situation isn't inevitable or insoluble. Papakura High School and its community are victims of decades of Government policy in social services and education.

Policy decisions such as decile rating, zoning, restricted funding for the curriculum and deferred building programmes have meant that leaders and teachers consistently deal with barriers and road blocks in their desire to create a better school for students who frankly deserve and need to be in the best-resourced school in Auckland.

Papakura High School and its community are victims of decades of Government policy in social services and education.


The situation in Papakura is one we who are working in the education sector see playing out every day in places all over New Zealand, where communities abandon their local low-decile schools to send their children to higher-decile schools that are perceived to be better.

In the past 10 years Papakura High School has seen its roll drop by more than half while many higher decile schools have seen theirs nearly double.

This is devastating for morale in the schools which are losing students, both for students and for teachers. It's easy to understand why when you put yourself in their shoes, looking around at a school full of empty hallways and shuttered classrooms, populated almost solely by students whose families aren't wealthy enough to send them out-of-zone.

The result for students is reduced academic achievement and curtailed life opportunities.

The formidable barriers these young people face can prevent them attending a tertiary institution to gain access to qualifications where they have access to a better job and a higher income. One of the Year 13 students chooses not to go onto tertiary study but become independent to work as he doesn't want to be "struggling and studying".

The decline of local schools is a loss for individual students and their families, and it is also a loss for the wider community.

Local schools bring people together from across the community regardless of ethnic or socio-economic status, with parents meeting and mingling at PTA meetings, sporting events, drama performances, academic competitions and cultural exhibitions.

The bonds that local schools foster in their communities are the glue that holds them together, without which we are left with a society that is less trusting, less selfless and less vibrant. The students and families in communities like Papakura may bear the brunt of it, but we are all left poorer for the decline of community schools.