The fight agains plans to merge two troubled Maori boarding schools is spearheaded by a group of formidable old girls, reports JAN CORBETT. Next week they launch a last-ditch bid to save Queen Vic.

When Nin Tomas got the phone call asking her to join the fight to save her old school, she groaned.

"I hated that school," she says, remembering how homesick she was as a girl sent away to school from her home near Kaitaia, how she feared the principal and loathed pretentious city people.

But when she thought more about it, she realised her time at Queen Victoria School put her on the track to becoming the senior law lecturer she is today.


Without that school, she laughs, she might be working in a cowshed in rural Northland.

It might be sited on some of Auckland's most desirable real estate, but for several years the Anglican-owned Maori girls' boarding school in Parnell has been running at a loss. More recently its brother school, St Stephens in Bombay, has been ravaged by inter-student violence that has seen Education Minister Trevor Mallard threaten to withdraw its state-integration agreement.

The solution for the combined, church-approved St Stephens and Queen Victoria Trust Boards seemed logical enough - close both schools and combine them under a new name on a new site in South Auckland. That would allow St Stephens to shed its brutish reputation and both schools to benefit from economies of scale.

But to Queen Vic old girls like Nin Tomas, Rangitunoa Black and a former board of trustees chairwoman, Kuni Jenkins, the suggestion was outrageous. So with a group of a dozen or so others they dusted off the fighting committee to preserve Queen Victoria School, a committee founded in the 1970s when the school was last threatened with closure, Kia Tu Tonu a Kuini Wikitoria.

Their opposition festered on several levels: how dare the trustees violate tikanga Maori by making decisions without holding a series of hui; how dare they sacrifice the girls' school to paper over the troubles that have plagued the boys' school; how dare they consider throwing young Maori women into a residential situation with Maori boys whose penchant for violence fuelled the present crisis; and how dare they mess with a school whose links with monarchy are an important symbol of Maori's partnership with the Crown?

And given the degree of violence perpetrated against Maori women by Maori men, isn't the need for a safe haven that produces strong women greater than ever?

At least this is how the talk went when the fighting committee members met in each other's living rooms over the winter. Combining their accounting, legal and oratory skills, they challenged the trust board at every turn, at one point threatening to file for an injunction.

But beneath the stirring rhetoric these determined, well-educated and proud-to-be-Maori women were also fighting to honour the wairau (spirit) of a long-deceased, spinsterish, schoolmarmy Pakeha who made them this way.

Ask Nin Tomas why the school is worth fighting for and she will tell you, "because of Miss Berridge" - the principal Tomas once found cold and austere.

"I think of Miss Berridge as a woman who had such high hopes for Maori. She sacrificed herself for us. I recognise now how important that school was for her and how it helped us all develop. It deserves to be saved simply for that reason."

A tall, imposing figure who, with hands clasped behind her back would march the Queen Vic girls up to the Holy Trinity Cathedral each Sunday morning, Miss Alice Berridge epitomised Queen Victoria School during the 32 years she ran it, from 1943 to 1975.

Outside of the high academic standards she set for these girls she steeped them in Pakeha culture, taking them to the theatre, the orchestra and even to private residences for dinner.

Rangitunoa Black, chairwoman of the fighting committee, is a writer and composer who talks of returning to university next year to start her doctorate. She describes the role Queen Vic and Alice Berridge played in her life.

As a child raised in the forests around Kawerau, Black was teased at the local high school for speaking Maori better than English. Arriving at Queen Victoria in the late 1960s changed all that. "The school defended me as a native speaker and strengthened me as a young woman," she says. "Miss Berridge was a proud woman who was determined we would be proud as well. She gave us skills for living in a non-Maori world. We didn't know how to use a knife and fork. We didn't know how to sit at a table with Pakeha. She took us out to dine in people's homes - we were mixing with the nobs of Remuera."

Today, a large chunk of Maori professionals, bureaucrats, academics and community leaders trace their success to the Maori boarding schools where they learned pride in their culture and competence in Pakeha culture in a way they say would never have happened at the local state school.

Ranked among Queen Victoria's old girls are Dame Mira Szaszy, a former president of the Maori Women's Welfare League, tennis champion Ruia Morrison, academics Merimeri Penfold and Professor Pare Hopa and the ever-controversial Titewhai Harawira, who also remembers Miss Berridge as "a wonderful headmistress."

But are these schools relevant to this generation of young Maori?

Once a strident Maori nationalist and now an Act MP, Donna Awatere-Huata neither went to such a school nor will she send her own children to one. She says she has been close to the Queen Victoria struggle and says the only thing it deserves to be is "closed as soon as possible."

According to her, Queen Vic, like St Stephens, is riddled with "systemic inter-generational bullying which is no longer acceptable." She also criticises it for bad teaching, poor management and believes legends have grown up around the Maori boarding schools that are no longer grounded in reality.

Queen Victoria's present principal, Hera Johns, did not respond to the Herald's requests for an interview. But a quick scan of the most recent Education Review Office report and the list of Ministry of Education benchmark indicators suggests Awatere-Huata is right.

Not one Queen Victoria girl was awarded an A bursary last year, only 12.8 per cent were awarded grades B or higher, and in School Certificate only 4.9 per cent were awarded marks of B or above. Those results fell significantly below the averages for every other school of its type, size and decile ranking.

In its most recent report on the school (1997), the ERO criticised the board of trustees for not setting any clear goals for academic achievement and described uneven classroom management and teaching performance.

Despite their proud past, criticisms like these are now common across the country's eight remaining Maori boarding schools.

Like a nation ruminating on why it no longer wins gold medals in events it once excelled at, St Stephens old boy Professor Graham Smith sat down in 1996 to try to find out what had gone wrong in the Maori boarding schools - schools he maintains a passionate belief in from his own experience.

In a 70-page report for the Ministry of Education, he found the answer lies mostly in the ravages of economic restructuring and the rolling back of the welfare state which hit Maori hardest of all.

The downturn in farming and the withdrawal of the family benefit forced rural Maori families, who were once the core market for these schools, to either move to town or withdraw their children from schools they could no longer afford. Government and church scholarships also declined.

At the same time local state schools began introducing their own Maori language and culture courses, putting considerable competitive pressure on the core function of Maori boarding schools.

Professor Smith is critical of the Maori boarding schools' failure to reposition themselves as centres of excellence for Maori language instruction. These days that high ground is occupied by the kura kaupapa.

What it all meant is that through the 1990s the boarding hostels at Queen Victoria, where fees are more than $5000 a year, grew ever quieter. Not only were fewer Maori sending their daughters to the school, but a number of those who did either couldn't or wouldn't pay the fees.

Worse, an average of 50 girls who started at the school each year withdrew within the first months for a variety of reasons ranging from poor-quality accommodation in the hostels to narrow subject choice.

Right now the roll for the form three to seven school is 91. A $18,041 surplus in the hostels in 1994 had by the following year turned into a $69,566 deficit. Over the next five years the roll dropped by 31 per cent. By 1998 the debt had risen to $310,000, a level the trust board secretary described as "unacceptable and unsustainable." The accumulated deficit is now more than $1 million.

A taskforce of school, trust board and Ministry of Education representatives met in the middle of last year to decide what to do.

The outcome was a report from Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu recommending a new site, two separate boarding houses and one co-educational school.

The fighting committee derides Deloitte's document as nothing more than a property developer's report, remembering the Parnell site is estimated to be worth $25 million - money that would have to go into the new school.

"We're not prepared to sit back and see the assets go to anyone," says Rangitunoa Black. "If we let it go they would have minimised the history of that school and minimised its effect of bringing this country together."

And they were particularly riled by the push for a co-educational school.

Kuni Jenkins considered this purely an economic decision, not an educational one. The jury deciding the virtues of co-education over single-sex schooling is still out, especially for Maori girls.

"As soon as Dio goes co-ed, we'll go co-ed too," says Jenkins.

Trust board chairwoman Rangi Pouwhare is also a Queen Vic old girl who has a passion for the school and has been down the same emotional track as the objectors. The turning point for her was when she realised she would not choose to send her own grandchildren to the school.

Members of Kia Tu Tonu a Kuini Wikitoria indeed realise their old school has to lift its academic achievement. "I wish they would tell us how," says Pouwhare. "We're the only ones with a plan."

Not so, counters Nin Tomas, fresh from a three-day hui where a new group of ex-pupils thrashed out a rescue plan based on harnessing more of their old schoolmates to act as ambassadors and advertisers for the school to lift recruitment. "Our vision is that Queen Vic become the icon of education for Maori girls as leaders of tomorrow," she says. They expect to present their ideas to the bishops next week.

But the trust board believes it has the church on its side. Apart from new facilities and closer proximity to a larger pool of day students, another virtue of closing both schools and opening another is the opportunity to shed underperforming teachers and hire motivated, committed new ones.

So far, no one has seriously entertained the idea of giving up on these schools entirely.

At a time when the gap in educational achievement between Maori and Pakeha is also greater than ever, Professor Graham Smith is sure that Maori boarding schools such as this can provide one of the bridges, but they have to be significantly strengthened by both the state which maintains them and the churches which own them. What worked for young Maori like himself in the 1960s can, under strong leadership, work again, he believes.

In the meantime, conscious its consultation has not been exemplary, the trust board has called another hui in November to thrash out the alternatives.

"We've put a stake in the ground, but it's not set in concrete," says Pouwhare. "It can be moved if need be."

Like her opponents, Pouwhare hears the voice of her old headmistress and she admits there is one aspect of the plan for the new school she might object to. Miss Berridge never much liked the boys from St Stephens. She much preferred her girls mix with the boys from King's.