WHAKATANE - Maori children at a small bilingual school near Whakatane have been working on a third language - French.

And with good reason: nine of them left for France yesterday for two weeks to represent Oceania at the Indigenous Children of the Earth Project in Marseilles.

For the Paroa School first and second formers, it is "a miracle come true indeed," says the principal, Tama Herewini.


He and assistant principal Hora Dillon are accompanying the students.

Two of the 10- to 12-year-olds have been to Sydney and one has flown to Christchurch but, for most, getting as far as Auckland Airport was a whole new experience.

Te Kura o Te Paroa was selected last year by Te Puni Kokiri (Ministry of Maori Development) when the invitation came for a small group to represent Maori culture at Marseilles from May 28 to June 12.

Representatives include children from Peru (Quechua Indian), South Africa (Xhosa), Finland (Saami) and Russian Siberia (Tchoukotka).

Marseilles is celebrating the 26th centenary of its foundation and the children will all paint a giant mural in the city during their stay.

The rural Eastern Bay of Plenty children come from a school that is 107 years old and is rated decile one, with up to 80 per cent of contributing whanau on some form of benefit. Decile one is the lowest on the one-to-10 scale of socio-economic rating for schools.

However, the latest Education Review Office report says Paroa provides quality education in te reo and English to all students.

About 99 per cent of the 340 pupils are of Maori descent, with strong Mataatua connections, and the school caters for Maori immersion education.

Mr Herewini said the whole school was involved in preparations for the trip. "Everyone in our community is really buzzing."

It was too difficult to choose which of about 80 form one and two students should go, so names were drawn out of a hat.

Since February, a French teacher had come in for an hour three days a week to ensure the party had a "basic tourist" grasp of the language and culture.

E-mails flashed back and forward with other groups going to Marseilles and the French theme was spread through Paroa school, with pupils even producing colourful Henri Matisse-style paintings.

A major effort went into raising about $8000 from hangis, raffles, sausage sizzles and funding from local Maori trusts.

The small community pulled out all the stops to provide the young travellers with everything they needed - even pocket money.