The last time Kia Aroha College tried to get its students to sit a traditional exam, things didn't quite work to plan.

Pupils from the small South Auckland high school soon began turning to one-another, asking each other "what did you get?" and "is this right?"

While most teachers would be disappointed, the school's new principal, Haley Milne, laughs as she tells the story.

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"The reality for our students is that talking to each other is part and parcel of how life operates," Milne says.

"We work in a Maori and Pasifika environment in a Maori and Pasifika way."

"When they spend their entire day working in a collaborative environment, what's then the purpose of them sitting a three-hour memory test as an individual?"

Kia Aroha is one of the only secondary schools in the country that doesn't "do" exams.

Based in Otara, a majority of the Year 7 to 11 students are from low-income households, hence its "decile-1" status.

The college was formed through the 2011 merger between Te Whanau o Tupuranga and Clover Park Middle School.

Until this year it was led by Dr Ann Milne, a pioneering educator who gained her doctorate with a thesis about the "whiteness" of New Zealand's education system.

Dr Milne's vision was one where her students - all from Maori or Pasifika backgrounds - would become "Warrior Scholars" in a place where their culture was the norm, and where issues of social justice were at its core.

Within this was a "philosophical opposition" to exams. Instead, students do assessments throughout the year.

"Exams were invented a long time ago," Milne says.

"The traditional thought is that exams are a robust way of assessing knowledge. Ours is that working through assessment as the year progresses is also robust."

"Our kids find that seeing their progress through the year is motivating. They don't wait for the whole year to sit something and then feel it's a success. "

While exams aren't "banned" as such, they just weren't part of the "students' reality", Milne says.

"A bit of an outlier"

That wasn't to say the school doesn't aim high for its kids.

"The bottom line is we want all our students to leave with Level 3 and university entrance. That gives them the opportunity to pursue a tertiary pathway or not," says Milne.

"But there's no research which says external exams produce people who are any more qualified than internally assessed students."

The day the Herald visits Kia Aroha a group of students are practising poi out the front. Set into the concrete wall of the main building is a quote in Te Reo.

Glass windows are adorned with koru patterns and in the open-plan classrooms decorations with the "warrior scholar" motto are hung on the walls. Students work in small groups, around tables, with a range of ages in the same room.

Senior teacher Willie Ropata says because of the small number of students - around 300 kids aged 11 to 18 - the school is able to be more flexible.

Learning plans are tailored to individual students. They can study what they're interested in.

If there's a concern around a subject, science, for example, they have the flexibility to spend a whole term focusing on just that subject, if they choose.

"We see other schools trying to do what we do and tearing their hair out," Ropata says.

"We're a bit of an outlier."

"Live and learn as Maori"

The school also follows the philosophy of the Maori leader and public health expert Mason Durie - that "Maori should be able to live and learn as Maori".

This includes kapa haka. They also learn how to act on a marae - not to teach this would be a "disservice", Milne says.

It goes for the school's Tongan and Samoan students too - they will learn about their own cultural origins and earn credits for doing so.

But there's also an expectation students will play sport and serve in the community.

Ropata says most of all they want they students to leave well-rounded. "But I don't know if we've got a true assessment that can measure that yet," he says.

The teachers say it can be tiring, having to constantly justify their beliefs to an outside world - one which is largely resistant to change.

But, fortunately their Education Review Office reports are good, and their achievement levels are at least as good as other similar schools.

"If the Pakeha community can't understand that then that's their problem," Ropata says.

"These are our kids, this is our community. We have a responsibility to create an education that works for our people. And we are willing to step outside the box."