A young woman is painting a beautiful mural of an old Māori man. I don’t recognise him.

“That’s Tamapahore, our great ancestor,” Kathryn Bluett-Atvars informs me later at the nearby Ngā Potiki offices.

I’m mildly embarrassed that I’ve never heard of Tamapahore. I’m not Ngā Potiki – I’m not Māori – but this is my community and I feel like I should be better informed of its history.

Fortunately for me, and perhaps others in the Papamoa region, the Ngā Potiki a Tamapahore Trust takes an inclusive approach to its community – an approach it particularly demonstrates in its work with local schools.

“I’ve always been drawn to the opportunities and privilege of working with students, regardless of their iwi,” says Bluett-Atvars, who is Ngā Potiki’s Education Co-ordinator. Ultimately she is interested in making a difference in Māori kids’ lives: kids like Ricco.

Ricco’s story

Ricco Henare used to be an “unhappy learner”, according to Bluett-Atvars, reflecting on when Ngā Potiki first came into contact with Ricco and his family.

Ricco’s mother, Sacha, agrees.

“Ricco was not interested in learning,” she says. “He took very little responsibility or accountability of his school work; he didn’t try or apply himself; he would not speak up in class in fear of getting the answer wrong; he was unconfident.”

She also noted that he didn’t particularly identify with his Māori heritage.

“He hadn’t really made too much connection to his Māori culture or showed much interest in doing so.”

But fortunately for Ricco, things were about to improve. A programme involving Ngā Potiki, his parents and his school, Golden Sands Primary School, began to connect the dots between his culture and his learning.

Maths became relevant and fun for Ricco. One teacher built skateboarding video footage into maths activities. Another incorporated practical activities involved with building a pātaka. It wasn’t long before Ricco had made impressive leaps of progress with his learning.

What’s more, he became a leader of the school’s Kapa Haka group and his learning mindset and confidence soared. All thanks to a culturally relevant and collaborative intervention, delivered at just the right time.

Iwi-school-whānau collaboration in action

Ricco was one of 20 children in Papamoa to participate in a numeracy project, delivered in partnership between Ngā Potiki and the local schools under an IMER (Iwi-Ministry of Education Relationship) contract. The basic idea was to lift achievement for Māori students through the development of a culturally responsive pathway involving schools and whānau.

The numeracy project was kick-started with an Ignition Hui at Ngā Potiki’s Tahuwhakatiki marae, attended by members of the schools’ senior leadership teams. Schools were then responsible for selecting students for the project – no easy task, given the narrow parameters.

Bluett-Atvars says the evidence showed the small groups work best.

“So we limited the project to around 20 students – four or five in each school – in Years 5 and 6. The goal was we wanted to be confident that children had a changed learning mindset by the time they transitioned to Year 7.”

The main criteria were that students had to be performing below the National Standard, and they – and their families – had to identify as Māori and be proud to be Māori. The parents had to have a willingness to participate.

With the students selected, the project got underway. Three workshops were held each term, led by the schools. Overall there were 24 additional numeracy workshops over 2016 and 2017. Ngā Potiki contracted two expert maths facilitators, Dorothea Collier and Rhian Johnson, to work alongside the cohort of students, parents and teachers.

Each child’s learning progress was supported by an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Ka Hikitia (Māori education strategy) was also implemented so that the learning was scaffolded with language, culture and identity activities; it wasn’t just maths in isolation.

Using Whānau Education Action Plans (WEAPs) they worked with each whānau to establish a clear picture of where the child was and where they were heading. The headings Goals, Reality, Way Forward and Options guided this thinking.

Matt Skilton, principal of Tahatai Coast School – one of the schools involved – believes the WEAP process was a major contributor to the success of the project.

“Through this work we see our students really engaged in learning, as they know mum and dad are not only interested in what they are doing but want to be actively involved in their learning journey. It means so much to the students to have that authentic and genuine audience to share with and support them.”

“These were really powerful, powerful family discussions,” agrees Bluett-Atvars.

Seeing results

By the end of 2017, it was clear the project had been successful. Data showed that 89 per cent of the students had met the National Standard for numeracy. Not only that, but it transpired these students had progressed in reading and writing and were meeting these National Standards as well.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the students had emerged as confident mathematicians with positive learning mindsets.

Mathematics facilitator Rhian Johnson from the University of Waikato noted “a complete change in attitude toward maths from all students”.

“Every time that I meet with the students their confidence and ability to persist with mathematical problems seems to have increased two-fold.

“Most importantly, the perception of themselves as mathematicians and learners of maths has changed.”

Johnson gave the example of working with one of the students in his class. She observed that he was fully engaged, allowed himself to be challenged, persisted through to completion, and even offered to help another student.

“I listened as he said, ‘I am not sure if I am doing it right but let’s try if it works, then we will check with the teacher if we are doing it right’. This summed it all up and he understood the process he needed to take in order to learn something new.”

Matt Skilton agrees.

“Seeing these students grow in confidence through Ngā Potiki, in-school and whānau supports is just awesome and very rewarding. Not only do the programmes strengthen the home and school partnership but they do this with the additional element of having hapū supports included.”

Skilton says Ngā Potiki’s focus on kotahitanga and whānaungatanga helped provide unity and a collective responsibility.

“I particularly like the focus on kotahitanga as you see students respond so positively from the collective interests, efforts and actions from all those involved, especially from their whānau.”

Addressing oral language

Based on the success of the numeracy project, Ngā Potiki launched a literacy programme for another 20 children – this time in Years 1 and 2. As oral language had been identified as a learning challenge across all schools, the decision was made to base the literacy project around an oral language storybook reading tutoring programme, Hei Awhiawhi tamariki ki te panui pukapuka. Kathryn Bluett-Atvars was the first author of this programme.

Ngā Potiki identified that the literacy programme was dependent on local volunteer tutors. To this end they collaborated with whānaunga Māori entity Mangatawa Papamoa Blocks Inc, which has formed a partnership with Generus Group to develop retirement village Pacific Coast Village. Through this new connection they reached out to the village residents, asking for volunteer tutors prepared to work in the schools for a 20-week tutoring timeframe.

The programme had a profound effect on all parties. As with the numeracy project, assessment results at the end of the 20 weeks showed a lift in student achievement, and students gained in confidence. Importantly, next steps were identified for their continued progress.

Teachers have been delighted with the intervention.

“In the reality of everyday classroom life, there is no way I could have given the time or commitment of the same value to these children,” reflected one teacher. “The progress I have seen has been significant, not only on paper, but also through boosting these children’s confidence and helping them to talk tall and feel proud of themselves as learners.”

At the beginning of the programme, volunteers noted that the students were shy, struggled to concentrate, and were often tired, hungry and sick.

After 20 weeks of tutoring, the volunteers saw huge progress.

“My students have improved so much in their oral language confidence, I couldn’t shut them up!” reflected one.

Another noted that their students loved it when they brought their treasures to school to share and talk about.

“My student wouldn’t take his hands off the model plane I had brought. Our discussion centred around which parts fitted where.”

It is clear the village resident volunteers got a lot of personal fulfilment out of their involvement.

“When is the next programme starting?” asked one, at the end of the programme, “It has become my life.”

Building on success

The toughest part is limiting the programmes to such a small group of kids.

Matt Skilton says selecting a limited number of students for intervention programmes is always difficult, and the Ngā Potiki projects are no exception.

“Sadly, students do miss out and it is a shame we are not resourced to be able to provide these programmes for more,” he said, “The students who made the final selection were those who not only required accelerated learning but those who we felt would respond positively to the one-to-one supports and whānau engagement.”

Skilton would love to see more kids involved, although he is mindful of resourcing constraints.

“I see huge value in these programmes and wouldn’t it be great to have more students benefit? The implementation however takes considerable time and effort.”

He says resourcing would need to be increased if more students were involved.

“Mostly this would be for creating more time for further developing whānaungatanga between all parties involved and for providing more training for our amazing volunteer tutors.”

However, the success of the Ngā Potiki intervention programmes has extended beyond the individual students involved.

Skilton says the benefits are “almost endless” as Ngā Potiki provide a wealth of knowledge, support and expertise for his school. They have helped the school enhance its culturally responsive strategies and strengthen its connection with other schools and organisations.

The way the Papamoa schools have engaged with Ngā Potiki reflects researchers’ views on how schools should make connections with Māori communities. In two separate interviews with Kia Eke Panuku, Mere Berryman and Ted Glynn both noted the importance of identifying who you are, of building relational trust, of listening to communities, and responding accordingly.

But in this case, the willingness of the schools to engage is mirrored by that of Ngā Potiki. It takes a truly two-way street to build a genuine partnership.

As such, Ngā Potiki is keen to help build connections beyond the success of its numeracy and literacy programmes.

Their vision, which they share with Mangatawa Papamoa Blocks, is to build inter-generational relationships between residents and students within the community. In addition to possibly helping students with their learning progressions, the collaboration is bound to have wider social benefits. The success of the volunteer tutoring programme for the oral language project was evidence for this.

The boards of Ngā Potiki and Mangatawa Blocks are working together to form a strategic education plan with the principals, deputy principals and board chairs of the schools in the local region.

Bluett-Atvars says they are constantly investigating ways they can help schools with resources. She gives the example of the 10 hectares of land near Te Puke, Otara Maunga, recently returned to Nga Potiki from the Crown.

“Ngā Potiki would love to build an educational facility there for our schools and community to use.”

Ultimately, they are eager to make the local stories and histories accessible and accurate for schools, and for teachers to feel comfortable with approaching them for guidance.

This way, our students – of all ethnicities – needn’t grow up ignorant of who Tamapahore was, like me. Instead, their education will be enriched with a better understanding of, and relationship with, local Māori.

Tamapahore’s mural is complete now; it is beautiful.

Every time I pass by it, I reflect on what an excellent example Ngā Potiki and Mangatawa Papamoa Blocks are setting in their approach to working with their local schools and community. While there are other great iwi-education partnerships happening around New Zealand, there are also regions that could benefit from the sort of collaboration, vision and drive that are displayed here.

For this reason, Bluett-Atvars is keen to see continued support from the Government.

“The question for the new Government and especially Māori MPs now in Parliament is: How can our Māori members of Parliament ensure Ngā Potiki and Mangatawa continue to add value to our Papamoa schools, our students, and whānau, when we know that powerful relationships and connections can impact on student achievement?”


  1. Kia ora, the above article is unbelievably true. I have witnessed the success of our tamariki mokopuna and it is so overwhelming and something to be proud of. I take my hat off to Kathryn Bluett-Atvars, her passion and inspiration and relationship building has certainly shined through. You make Nga Potiki proud. I hope central government reads this article so they can see just how this programme can actually work, as mentioned resourcing these programmes help with the survival of not only of these successful programmes for the survival of our tamariki mokopuna. Nga mihi kia koe e kui Kathryn, many thanks to the Papamoa Community of Schools, Principals, DP’s, Board of Trustees, teachers, adult tutors, parents, specialist teachers whanau and especially to Nga Potiki who were staunch and initiated this programme but most of all to the tamariki so brave and proud.


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