Holistic Education meets the Otorohanga Initiative

By Carl Vincent Chapman

A few years ago I became interested in alternative education for young people. I had become disenchanted with conventional schooling and I believed there must be a better way assist a young person’s self development and self expression.  This year my wife and I relocated from Auckland to the Tasman region for a number of reasons; one being to create, along with others an educational service that would provide for young people ‘a space to discover themselves’.

Through synchronicity or maybe just chance I met with a wonderful bunch of locals; people with a common passion for holistic education, with vision and a no nonsense attitude representing various organisations from the region. They had formed an alliance with the central theme being to address the bullying of youth locally. We gathered at Motueka Marae over the ensuing weeks to formalise a plan and submit an application for funding to the Ministry of Social Development. Ultimately I was ‘volunteered’ to conduct a scoping project to determine the extent of the problem and available resources for young people in the community. In the process of ‘scoping’ I heard about and soon after met the inspirational mayor of Otorohanga Dale Williams. 

It was a Monday morning I was sitting in the reception area of the council chambers in Otorohanga, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation at the prospect of meeting a local legend. A door opened. My attention went to a conversation between a well dressed middle aged man and a dude in shorts tee shirt and sneakers with tattoos on his arms and a baseball cap on his head. He must be the local mechanic I thought. Turned out he was at some point, but was currently serving his term as Otorohanga’s mayor. Dale walked up shook my hand vigorously and bundled me off to the staff room for tea and coffee. Within a few minutes any feelings of discomfort had disappeared and it wasn’t long before I was transfixed; drawn into a story that has transformed that town at a grassroots level. An hour later I left the building hugely inspired and determined to bring Dale to the Tasman Region.

In July this year with the backing of Anne Martin my Supervisor and Te Awhina Marae I organised for Dale Williams to come to Motueka and speak to key stakeholders in the community. To various groups over a ten hour period Dale delivered a message that answered these questions “How can we help young people in our community” and “How can we help employers with young workers”? The seminars began with an employers’ breakfast, morning tea for educators, a lunch for young people and an afternoon tea for government agencies and social workers. Many people were impassioned by the Otorohanga initiative and the compelling story.

 Dale was elected Mayor in 2004. Otorohanga like many other small towns in NZ was experiencing many challenges including unhappy frustrated young people, youth crime, youth unemployment and local businesses searching elsewhere to set up shop after desperately looking for workers in the town to no avail. Add to this; just weeks in to his term as mayor there were to two unrelated youth suicides and the locals stricken with grief were asking questions. At that time Dale did not have the answers.

 Dale and his team decided carry out a stock take of the community; asking questions at the school, career guidance and local businesses. What they found was no transitional support for young people and nothing created in Wellington that worked in their community. They decided to create stuff; working closely with local employers Dale and his team set up-

A school leaver connections programme- a database of agencies employers and providers. Regular contact with leavers making sure that “they know we care about them”; targeted at all kids.
A Trades Centre- teaching young people work readiness, work ethic, time management, tool identification, first aid, literacy, numeracy, drivers licence, employers providing onsite training and guaranteed jobs.
 Established mentors called ‘camp mothers’- employers provided with community owned mentors to manage the employer/young person relationship in and out of the workplace for as long as it takes.
Community Graduation Ceremonies- the community celebrating the achievements of youth and employers

The results speak for themselves-

Single figure registered unemployment for under 25 year olds since November 2006.....consistently lowest in NZ. 96% of all Otorohanga apprentices complete successfully on time.
Stable, profitable local businesses with access to work ready, well prepared and community supported young people
Tidy vibrant community- minimal graffiti vandalism, crime! - “the kids have got more important things to do”
No problems from disconnected, frustrated, unemployed and under-appreciated young people- “...when a young person has a job they have three things: routine, self esteem and income...when you have all of them in your life you’re going to be okay!”

Dale Chairs the Mayor’s Taskforce for Jobs, which is all the mayors in Aotearoa who have committed to the kaupapa: ‘Zero Waste of Youth’, and the vision: That all young people under the age of 25 should be engaged in appropriate education, training, work or positive activities in their communities’. Dale says “It’s not easy but it works. It means communities working together towards a common goal”. Here in the Tasman we followed Dale’s seminars with community meetings and more recently with the creation of a core group. Initially our tasks are to explore the extent of the problem and conduct our own community stock take.

So how does the Otorohanga model fit with my personal vision for young people; holistic education? One thing that resonates with me is mentoring-‘the Camp Mother’. I think there is a yawning gap for this in western culture. Where there used to be village mentors pastoral care and guides for young people there is now unappreciated unheard uninspired confused teenagers. Where is the person to walk the path with them and assist them on life’s journey? Teachers are generally overwhelmed with student numbers and the pressure to deliver the curriculum. Parent’s time can be consumed with ‘making ends meet’. In our initial research albeit mainly anecdotal reports, the indications are there are huge hurdles for young people on the verge of leaving school. The good news is the Tasman region offers very good resources to assist young people into gainful employment. I believe effective mentoring would be ‘the icing on the cake’. Young people need a ‘guiding light’; someone to listen, inspire, encourage and celebrate with them. Are you that person?

Contact me at : Carl Chapman steppingstone4@gmail.com