The awards ceremony might not be until September, but the implications of being a Prime Minister's Education Excellence Awards finalist are already being felt at Fairhaven School.

The school's Māori immersion unit, Toitoi Manawa o Fairhaven, is a finalist in two of the four award categories — Excellence in Leading, and Excellence in Health and Wellbeing Education.

Last week a film crew spent two days at the school making videos that will be loaded onto the awards' website and shown at the awards' evening in Wellington in September.

"It's not something you usually have, so it was quite exciting," says principal Paul Hunt.

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Paul says the whole process has created a time and a mood for reflection about the immersion unit that was opened in 2015 — and that, too, is exciting.

"You start reflecting on why you've done things, how deep the meaning is behind what's being done in Toitoi Manawa, and you start to realise the different layers of significance.

"And when you look at the difference it is making in the children's lives and the potential futures of the children, it's quite a major achievement."

An ERO report in 2013 highlighted a desire for a greater Te Reo Māori and Taha Māori presence in the school.

"So from there we went out and looked at other schools that had immersion units and we surveyed the parents and surveyed the whānau, iwi and it came back that 'yes we were keen'."

Paul says one of the reasons Māori students are not achieving as well in the mainstream system is that it's very Europeanised.

"That's not a fault, not a criticism, it's just the way it's been set up and who it's been set up by — but the way it's set up doesn't suit all people.

"By setting up an immersion unit which not only teaches Te Reo Māori but also has Tikanga Maori, Taha Māori and a whole range of things that are an integral part of Māori culture, you can embrace those things further."

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The unit works under the Te Marautanga o Aotearoa curriculum.

"That's not a translation of the New Zealand curriculum — it actually embodies philosophies that are important to Māori."

It is the engagement of whānau, iwi and kaumātua that has made the unit a success.

"Kaumātua gave us the name and a set of guidelines to follow as well."

The first bi-lingual class grew into two and then a third before the full immersion unit opened.

Hui and report evenings, called whānau conversations, are held at marae rather than in the school — which has boosted attendance.

Pod leader Tatai Takuira-Mita says she felt a range of emotions when she heard the unit was an awards finalist.

"I felt like it was validation of a lot of hard work that had been put in for many years by a lot of people and am very proud of the achievement and the recognition," she says.

She was pleasantly surprised to be a finalist in the two categories.

"Talking to a lot of people, I realised what we are offering is a really holistic approach to education and that was having a really positive effect not just on the children, but on the whānau as well."

In terms of leadership, it isn't just the leadership of the unit that deserves recognition.

"It's the leadership of Paul within the school as well — he gives me quite a lot of autonomy to do what needs to be done. He trusts that I'll do the right thing — so it's not just my leadership, but his as well."

Tamariki have been told about the award nomination in terms of the unit being recognised as doing a good job.

"I don't think they really realise it's as big a deal as it is — we explained to them that what we are doing could be helping as a good example for other people to follow,''

Two students were selected to be interviewed by the film crew — Rhapsody Dashwood
and Maui Marino.

"They were taken with their level of self confidence," says Tatai.

"I chose Maui because he is one of our young leaders at school and Rhapsody is very exuberant and enthusiastic."

A group of 10 will attend the awards including representatives of the school, kaumātua, whānau and Board of Trustees.

"They are the people who have been with us on the journey since the beginning," says Tatai.

"If we could, we'd take everybody."