Like a number of western countries, New Zealand has a high percentage of teenage mothers, many of whom become pregnant whilst they are still of school age. In the outskirts of the capital, Wellington, I visited He Huarahi Tamariki the first institution in the country set up to support such groups and due to its undoubted success has now led to other similar schools being set up nationwide.
It was hard not to be blown away by the welcome I received – with two teachers showing me around despite it being in the school holiday and only days before Christmas itself, as well as the impact the school is so clearly having. Greeting you on your arrival is an honours board detailing the many successes of recent graduates: Masters, Bachelor degrees, employment routes. The list goes on. And, whilst touring the school it is certainly clear that the pastoral needs of the young mothers are paramount and it is also clear this is a rigorous academic environment with the highest expectations.
Speaking to the teachers it is clear that the prospect of an arriving baby can be a major catalyst for many girls to engage more actively in their education, but the story is not quite that simple as whilst the vast majority are particularly motivated and driven – both to pursue their own dreams whilst also caring for their child, it was also outlined to me that there remained others who were less so. Just like any school, it has all ranges. However, it is not unusual for students to return when they are ready to give it another try.
Alternative education programmes often generate debate because of the greater costs needed in order to support starkly different student needs. And whilst the staff acknowledged there was a greater financial cost what was clear to me from my visit to He Huarahi Tamariki was just how well the teachers were catering for their students and how connected the thinking was behind this provision. Students entering this school were particularly transient due to their situations and so were able to commence their studies at different times of the year in order to fit around their pregnancies. Similarly, once they were attending the school with their child – and there was an early childhood education centre on site enabling mums and children to arrive and depart together, there was also the opportunity to breast feed on demand, visit their children during school breaks, along with clear connections to careers advice and other support services including an on-site social worker and a regular doctor and nurse visiting. Everything appeared to be structured so as to enable the parents to thrive and for a strong supportive bond to be created throughout the school. This was seen as particularly important by the Principal, Helen, in order to support the students with the many challenges they were now facing and with varying amounts of support outside school.
Helen indicated that with some students you can look back through their history and see this potential scenario developing; a number of the students prior to their pregnancies had increasingly disengaged with their previous schooling but again, there was no hard or fast rules in such complex situations. What was clear to me though was the strong bonds formed in this school by the students, the family feel it generates as well as the educational opportunities that they are supported and encouraged to pursue are influential in developing the students as learners, mothers and above all people.
‘This school opened up so many other doors and gave me the confidence to go to University. It changed my life.’
– Helen Woolner, former student now studying for her PhD in Chemistry who joined the school at age 16 when pregnant.
Like any successful school, central to this progress is a committed, passionate and talented staff team. Both teachers I met, as well as giving up an afternoon of their holiday to show me around raved about the experience and opportunity that came with working in this environment and with this group of students.
‘It’s a dream working here. I love it. It’s the best job I can ever imagine having.’
– Melissa Carrere
During my visit I spoke at length with the Principal, Helen about the school to understand more about the truly unique situation that develops when you seek to support teenager mothers. Hear her thoughts on the school here:
We also discussed, of course, the many negative stereotypes that surround teenage pregnancies and the impact it has on the students and the schools; viewpoints I had heard from my own times working in education back in the UK. And of course whilst this school rightly showcases the feats of its amazing students there are other young mothers who do not re-enter education after having a baby for a host of different reasons.
My vivid memory arriving back in the centre of the city after my visit was a comment Helen had made to me, which I had underlined in my notes.
‘Why do we have ambitious girls? We are a strengths focused school and all new opportunities flow from this. Some girls have 4 week old babies and are back here, studying.’