The Joys of a Provincial Education

When my family was contemplating a move to Wairarapa, the children’s education was a key consideration. What would the move mean for them and for their future? Did a move to a much smaller town mean fewer options? Was the standard of education available away from a large centre as good? According to the people interviewed for this article the benefits outweigh any disadvantages.

The Family’s Story – Community and Independence

Liz and Mike McCreary run a sheep and beef finishing farm in South Wairarapa. Living on the farm has meant their two younger children go to Kahutara School – a rural primary school between Martinborough and Featherston, with just 107 pupils.

The family loves the school. Billy (10) and Eden (7) spend their playtimes climbing trees and running around barefoot.

“Being in a rural environment, it gives [them] so much more. They have life experiences all the time and there is way more room for independence,” Liz says.

Liz also values the strong community that surrounds the school.

“Other schools have a PTA, we have the KPC – Kahutara Parents and Community.”

The KPC is made up of parents of current pupils but there is a strong contingent of parents of past students as well.

“Long-time families [without children at the school] still come to every Pet Day and fundraisers and the school raises funds for the Kahutara Hall [a local community facility].”

But, for the McCrearys, the school offers the family even more. Billy has dyslexia and Liz is very grateful for the support Kahutara has provided – from listening to her initial concerns, to organising and paying for his educational assessment, to sending the entire teaching staff on a course about working with children with dyslexia.

“Everyone’s been amazing and they’re all so passionate,” Liz says.

Billy also receives once a week specialist tutoring from an organisation called Learning Support. Billy’s tutoring happens during school time, rather than the much more common after school sessions – which means Billy isn’t as tired as he would be at the end of the day, and his tutor can work with the school.

Liz’s older daughter Caitlyn is now 21 and studying agribusiness and food marketing at Lincoln University. She had her primary education in Masterton, and then boarded at St Matthew’s Collegiate. Caitlyn loved the opportunities being at school 24/7 offered, so much so that boarding school is on the cards for her little brother and sister.

Liz is happy with the education her children have had – away from a big city. “I can’t think of any disadvantages. The world is your oyster.”

McCreary education Krhutara

The McCreary Family. Photo by Mark Coote.

The Principal – Big City to Small Town 

At the beginning of 2016, Paul Green had his first day at co-ed Makoura College in Masterton. Not as a nervous Year 9, but as the new principal. Paul had come from James Cook High School in South Auckland, a school with more than 1200 pupils. He had swapped the inner-city school in New Zealand’s largest city for a smaller provincial college of with only 330 students. A year later, he is very positive about his choice.

“I love it. I know the staff know the students way better than they could in a larger school.”

He recalls how a small number of the students at the Auckland school he worked at ‘ghosted’ in and out – lost among so many others.

“One of our premiums at Makoura is on relationships. If [a student] is not settled, stabilised, feeling safe and secure [their] learning will be compromised,” he says.

Paul has experienced a number of different schools both as a parent as well as a teacher. Originally from the UK, he has lived and worked in London and Penzance – an English town slightly smaller than Masterton. When he moved with his family to Auckland 29 years ago, he chose to send his children to a school of about 300 that offered lots of activities for the whole family.

“When we arrived in Auckland, it was massively important for us to feel we were part of a community.”

He sees those benefits he wanted for his own family reflected in the education offered at Makoura.

“I would be very happy for my children to be [at this school]. Yes, we have fewer subjects but students could pick up [extra subjects] by correspondence and be supported by one of our teachers if they wanted.”

“I’ve been here a year and I know the names of nearly all the students.”

Paul Green. Photo by Beau Elton.

The Student – Seeking Excellence in Small Town New Zealand

With a Kiwi dad and a Chinese mum who run their own business, Danielle Hao-Aickin has lived all over the world. She was born in Australia, moved to Dubai, then had time in New Zealand before moving to China in 2005, where she went to prestigious international schools.

Three years ago, her parents were unhappy with the standard of education she was receiving in Beijing and so looked for somewhere to send Danielle in New Zealand.

“They asked around and were told Masterton had a lot of colleges. They chose Solway College,” Danielle says.

The Year 13 student has really enjoyed the change to the all-girls integrated school – although it is very different. Solway College has fewer than 200 pupils – Danielle went to one school in China with a roll of 5000.

“Solway is a lot less culturally diverse – most of the kids are from New Zealand. But I’m more comfortable here. I know every girl in the school.”

Although she misses the level of music teaching she got at her last school in China – one of China’s best music schools – she thinks the quality of academic teaching here is better.

“Here, the teachers help you more one-on-one and there are fewer distractions. The teachers spend more time with us outside of class,” she says.

She also notices a real difference in her peers.

“There were 50 people in each class [in China]. People were on their phones during class and there wasn’t a great school culture.”

As well as enjoying much smaller classes at Solway, she relishes the leadership roles the school presents. With only 146 students, she believes she gets a lot more opportunity and responsibility. She’s deputy head girl, as well as a prefect.

“I’ve also had the chance to participate in things like United Nations Youth in Wellington.”

This has influenced her career plans, with Danielle wanting to work for UNICEF in the future. And, unsurprisingly, sport is a much bigger part of her life here.

“There’s a lot more outdoor sport and activities, which China couldn’t offer due to [having less space]. When I first came here I sucked at sport… I’ve played so much sport here now.”

Danielle Hao-Aickin. Photo by Jenny Williams.

The Educational Entrepreneur – New Ideas in Early Childhood Education

Sian Paterson is passionate about education. After travelling the world and getting three tertiary qualifications (a BSc in psychology, a business degree and a graduate diploma in early childhood teaching), she opened Blue School in Greytown in 2012. Taking children aged three to six, Blue School is pioneering a new approach for children moving from early childhood education to primary school.

“The latest research from the Ministry of Education and overseas shows that social and peer relationships sit at the core of successful transitions,” Sian says.

Deciding to put this research into action, Sian developed a programme where groups of children from Blue School start primary school together when they are ready – not automatically on their fifth birthday. Blue School is leading the way with cohort transitioning in Wairarapa, and is among the first preschools to offer the programme in New Zealand.

“Confidence blossoms when our children go [to school] with their mates.”

Blue School takes a ‘stage not age’ approach. There is a ‘ready for school’ group and, when the children start to show an interest, they are invited to join. This means some children go to school soon after they turn five and some can be as old as six.

“There’s a stigma around waiting,” Sian says.

“People question why [a child] doesn’t start on their fifth birthday. We have to shift our thinking – what’s right for the child? It is a decision both we and the parents make.”

Vital to making cohort transitioning work is a strong relationship with parents and educating them about the process. Sian believes it’s a worthwhile investment.

“The difference in confidence between children who transition at five and those who transition when they are ready is noticeable,” she says.

Another important ingredient in the mix is an excellent relationship with the schools the children go on to.

“For us, the success of cohort transitioning is communication with our schools and the strength of our community relationships. We did a lot of groundwork – talked to schools and to parents, used the research and piloted it, and it’s been a huge success.”

Sian attributes some of that success to location – specifically a small town.

“Our fundamental belief is innovations start when small communities [like Greytown] question whether big systems, processes and policies work for our children and families.

“Last year, I spent some time in New York visiting schools and I came back thinking how lucky we are. We have such room for innovation in New Zealand.”

Sian Paterson. Photo by Jenny Williams.

The Successful Alumni

Dr Robyn Schofield

Robyn Schofield started her primary education at Tinui School, between Masterton and Castlepoint. Since then, her education has taken her to every continent apart from Africa, where she will visit this year. She’s been on research ships on the Southern Ocean and around the Great Barrier Reef. As well as two and a half months in Antarctica, she has also worked in the Arctic. She is currently a senior lecturer at the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Melbourne.

Although she feels the relative isolation meant she missed out on music lessons when she was at primary school, she appreciated the great teacher to student ratios and the excellent sports facilities – a pool, tennis courts and huge playing fields. She also has fond memories of Pet Day and the school cross country, which was run across the hills behind the school.

“I loved primary school, though my last year being the only girl in a year group of six was hard,” she says.

After Tinui, she moved to Masterton and boarded at Wairarapa College; another experience she made the most of. Sport again played an important role.

“I played netball. I ran and competed at the [inter-school sports] for athletics. I swam. At the hostel, boarding at Wairarapa College, there were always enough players for any sports game after school.”

She also enjoyed leadership opportunities, being a prefect and then deputy head girl.

She believes the benefits of a provincial education over one in a big city – with perceived advantages of size, opportunity and diversity – were community acceptance and tolerance.

“I probably wouldn’t have the problem-solving and people skills that I do without [my] rural upbringing and then hostel experience at secondary school,” she says.

Dr Robyn Schofield. Photo courtesy of University of Melbourne.

Ben Campbell

Ben Campbell, one of New Zealand’s up and coming young golfers, is positive about his Wairarapa education.

“I think kids can get a bit lost in the city. I was a big fish in a small pond,” he says.

Having a profile at secondary school meant his teachers at Wairarapa College were aware of the extra demands that golf made on Ben, and were willing to support him, fitting his education around his sport. When Ben had to go away to play golf his teachers would send him off with work to do.

“I had a lot of extra help.”

But being based in Masterton meant Ben had to travel an hour and a half each way to Wellington for his golf lessons. He would leave school just after 3pm and wasn’t home until 8.30pm.

Ben attributes some key life lessons to his provincial education. Like the rest of his family, he went to Opaki School – just north of Masterton – for Years 1 to 6.

“Pet Day, city schools don’t have that. You look after your lamb and teach it to do stuff – it teaches you to have pride in what you do,” Ben says.

“I also think because you’re in a small class, you learn to get on with people. If there’s only 25 or 30 people in your year, you can’t fall out with one person or you’ll fall out with everyone. You learn to get on with everyone.”

Ben Campbell. Photo by Michael Thomas courtesy of Photosport NZ.

Plenty of Choice

One concern many parents have about smaller schools, away from big cities, is a lack of subject choice in secondary school. However, modern technology and willingness to address students’ needs means this isn’t a problem in Wairarapa. We contacted Wairarapa’s secondary schools to see what they offer their students. The results indicate there are plenty of exciting options for secondary school students in the region.


Solway College is a school of only 146 girls from Years 7 to 13. Despite its size, it offers an impressive range of subjects. Students can study one of seven languages – from te reo Maori to Korean. Along with the standards of English, sciences and maths, pupils are also taking subjects as diverse as coding, dance, agricultural science and early childhood education. From the start of this year, Solway now offers an Equestrian Academy, with the dual aims of developing sporting performance and as an entry into the equine industry. Some of the inaugural seven students at the academy are even taking courses as part of NCEA. The school’s location on the edge of Masterton is key – close to rural and semi-rural facilities, vital for the academy to function.


Also making the most of a semi-rural location is South Wairarapa’s Kuranui College which offers an extensive range of subjects, including vocational training with Taratahi Agricultural Training College and UCOL. Since 2006, it has been one of only three schools in New Zealand offering the National Certificate in Aviation. It is also the only school in the country with glider flight training as part of its practical component, in association with Gliding Wairarapa – based less than 4km away. Twenty-five pupils have passed through the course; some have gone on to fly for Air New Zealand, get a commercial helicopter licence, and work in aviation engineering.


As well as offering courses in everything from design to outdoor recreation to history and radio, co-educational state school Makoura College is home to the Services Academy. The academy takes up to 20 students a year who are offered an environment rich in structure, values and life skills through a services-based (Army, Navy, Airforce, Police and Fire Service) programme. The students are still part of the main school, but have some separate classes and wear a different uniform. They attend an initial two-week course with the New Zealand Army in Waiouru, and then a range of other live-in courses through the year. There is also an academic part of the programme allowing students to accumulate credits for NCEA. “It’s about values, community and the culture of the group… and how we can use their [acquired] leadership skills to implement change in the school and the community,” academy director Ben Johnstone says.


Wairarapa’s largest secondary school with a roll of 1062, Masterton’s Wairarapa College also offers a wide range of subjects. With an on-site 24 hectare working sheep farm, agriculture is a key focus. Subjects including psychology, legal studies and languages are offered online. The school has a sporting academy for Years 9 and 10 with the aims of allowing students to develop and excel as all-round athletes, and to create opportunities to learn in a challenging and stimulating environment.


Chanel College is the region’s Catholic secondary school. The school offers its students a “general education” up to Year 11, with all students doing the same seven subjects to that point. According to Grant Miles, the school’s principal, this approach allows students to “change direction with relation to career choices more easily, as they have kept their subject choice more open”. The school offers an impressive range of courses, allowing its pupils to experience careers as diverse as bee-keeping and law and to study everything from tourism to early childhood education. The school is also proud of its recent addition of Maori performing arts as a subject and ongoing success in sports.


On the northern edge of Masterton, integrated boys’ school Rathkeale has rivers, bush and farmland in easy reach and students can catch trout, eels and make huts within the nearly 49 hectare campus. In pre-decimal terms, it means four students for each of the 120 acres and according to Grant Harper, the school’s development manager, “being in the rural Wairarapa hinterland makes for a different tone”. This difference also attracts a significant number of students from overseas who want to sample the kiwi rural lifestyle. As well as international students, each morning around 120 Year 12 and 13 students arrive from Masterton girls’ school, St Matthews, creating a co-ed senior college. This arrangement has been in place since 1988 and the larger number of senior students means subjects as diverse as business studies, history of art and digital technology are on offer. The senior students also join for extracurricular activities like drama and music.