Covid lockdown reminded us of the value of a social smile and how vital cooperation is to our well-being. When disasters strike we become more aware of the human need for team work and creativity.
During Level 3, I wrote to the NZ Herald, advocating a return of the 60-year-old tradition of night classes in schools. Letters of support followed. Night classes were the setting where adults and school leavers developed new skills, prepared for work, retrained, explored ideas and shared their "knowhow".
The cost was minimal. If attendance fell below a prescribed minimum the course ended, but this seldom happened.
The programme ceased abruptly under the National Government in 2009. As Herald reader Clyde Scott commented: "It was to pay for the tax cuts [which] benefited the top half of earners. Those who earned below $40,000 got nothing [except] a 25 per cent increase, as GST was raised to 15 per cent to help fund the cuts".
Dara McNaught recalled: "PricewaterhouseCoopers at the time described the Government's investment of $16 million [in night classes] as yielding a return of $4.8-5.3 billion in value - around 50 times the original, which would be any investor's dream."
The scheme morphed into nationally scattered "community education". As the website of Glenfield College states: "We are the only remaining secondary school on the North Shore to provide adult community education."
I took my first night class as a working mum in the 1970s. It was the heyday of NZ pottery and I aspired to make a dinner set. I didn't, but gained lifelong appreciation of the art.
There followed Indonesian, tango, sewing and Chinese cooking. We laughed, co-operated and created. There were three high schools within reach, by bus or walking. It was how I began te reo and where I first met a computer.
Former night class supervisor, teacher, and participant Peter Stubbs remains convinced of their value. "Night classes raised qualifications and skill levels. For some they were a pathway to School Certificate and University Entrance and the ideal context for teaching English as a second language to an increasing immigrant population.
"We offered a huge range of courses, from the academic to practical workshop skills. I built my first dinghy as a night class student. I don't suppose the social benefits were quantifiable but there was no doubt about them".
McNaught notes that before 2009 there were 331 classes at 15 different locations across West Auckland alone. Rural district high schools lit up at night and classes often began with an initiative from the local community. Nationally, enrolments were heading towards 300,000.
The Government's night-class scheme was a microcosm of something wider, although less tangible, than a dinghy or pottery. Classes contributed to participants' collective sense of wellbeing and individual skill development. Regardless of age, they were an avenue of personal growth that flowed on to families and communities. They embodied the national trait of "can do" and contributed to social capital.
In an RNZ interview, sociology Professor Paul Spoonley outlined the importance of social innovation in a rapidly changing world. He described the transformative power of communities working together to identify and find solutions to local issues. New forms of employment, he said, will emerge in response to ongoing change but, unless you are a genius, most innovation emerges through a process of "social feeding".
Writer Simon Wilson echoed this theme in part 3 of his series: "Why I'm Afraid" (NZ Herald, January 16). He proposed "citizens' assemblies" – a process by which consultation with those most affected at local level would inform both infrastructure and superstructure spending of citizens' rates and taxes.
It is not fanciful to suggest that night-class populations would contribute and generate practical ideas relevant to a circular economy.
On October 14, 2020, the Herald reported the Government's announcement of $15 million designated "for teacher and psychological support for students disadvantaged during Covid school closures … to include those with increasing absences and truancy, special-needs students who are struggling and those whose educational progress has always required the 'hands on' presence of a supportive teacher".
I suspect the latter group includes most of us.
The value of being physically, cognitively and emotionally present in "real time", in a supportive learning environment, can never be replaced by online activity.
The budget for a new night-class format need not be high in comparison. Classrooms and workshops are already there. Many teachers are willing. Others would emerge in the tradition of tuakana-teina.
It makes economic sense to provide opportunities for a wider skill base to people who want to find work. This includes former truants and early school leavers likely to regret missed educational opportunities. It would also benefit the well-being of older citizens and facilitate cross-generational engagement.
The night classes of Aotearoa were always about more than hobbies. They contributed to community initiatives as well as personal and professional development. As we lurch through this pandemic, many with limited networks will be at risk of further social dislocation.
How easy to engage with a small group with similar interests in the context of a local night class.
This year it is timely for a governmental exploratory committee to investigate new forms of affordable, responsive, and more accessible community-situated learning.
• Jo Bowler is formerly a registered psychologist and university lecturer in human development at Massey University.