New start for embattled centre

By Nathan Crombie nathan.crombie@age.co.nz -
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Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre's new head Arthur Graves and board chairwoman Mavis Mullins. PHOTO/LYNDA FERINGA
Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre's new head Arthur Graves and board chairwoman Mavis Mullins. PHOTO/LYNDA FERINGA

Longtime educator Arthur Graves has been welcomed as new chief executive at Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre almost a year to the day since former head Dr Donovan Wearing was found critically ill in a shed at the Wairarapa campus.

Dr Wearing died in Wellington Hospital a year ago tomorrow. His sudden death came about a month after a Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) investigation was launched into the centre, which revealed some courses had been under-delivered and tutors enrolled in beginner classes to boost rolls.

The award-winning centre was the largest and oldest rural education provider in New Zealand and had a resident campus near Masterton and non-resident campuses in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Manawatu, Hawke's Bay and Southland.

Dr Linda Sissons was appointed in May last year as interim chief executive at the centre and in September centre leaders admitted $7.5 million plus GST, for a total of $8.6 million, had been wrongly taken from taxpayer coffers and would be repaid.

The amount was calculated during the TEC investigation, which in turn had triggered an ongoing Serious Fraud Office probe.

Centre board chairwoman Mavis Mullins said Mr Graves was welcomed yesterday at a "simple but very meaningful" powhiri that included as guests Masterton Mayor Lyn Patterson, Carterton Mayor John Booth, Massey University vice-chancellor Steve Maharey, representatives from the TEC and Ministry of Education, board members, and a "full-blown" senior leadership team.

She said Mr Graves brings qualities and experience that will greatly benefit the embattled centre "as we look to the future with a new perspective and new eyes".

"We had an awful year last year but out of challenging times come great lessons and for Taratahi in particular, it's given us a chance to restart, to revise and refresh. It is a new year and a new beginning and we're very excited about it."

Mr Graves began teaching on the West Coast of the South Island and for 12 years was principal of Greymouth High School before he took up the role of deputy chief executive at Whitireia Community Polytechnic in Porirua.

He starts at Taratahi after leaving a five-year posting as national manager of the Ministry of Education Youth Guarantee programe, which aims to raise student achievement and improve the transition to tertiary classes and work.

The father and grandfather plans to shift to Wairarapa with his wife Rhondda and will start at the centre full-time on February 22, he said.

Mr Graves said the Youth Guarantee initiative included Trades Academies and "a whole heap of other vocational pathways" linking employers to secondary and tertiary students.

Mr Graves said he had also in his time at Youth Guarantee recruited former Makoura College principal Tom Hullena, who had led the Masterton school from the brink of closure to a prime ministerial award.

"We worked to restructure education to operate better in the schools and tertiary; and to connect the two together so it becomes a seamless system, which is not what it has been, and of course Taratahi straddles that space beautifully.

"It's actually almost unique as a model and heritage but most importantly it is unique because it blends together a bit of everything really; all the education varieties, to make its own mould."

He said the centre at Taratahi today employed about 130 workers and was "coming out of a very difficult time".

"Yes, we have had a tough 18 months and we should not shy away from that. But we should also look with positivity, energy and determination to the future," Mr Graves said.

"The future is where we are heading, so the future is where we look."

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