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Land issues undermine Te Aute learning legacy

Keith Newman asks if Te Aute College, south of Hastings, can recover its financial, moral and academic mana to equip a new generation of Mãori leaders … or whether it’s an educational moa in the 21st century.

Te Aute College, the historic school that equipped young Mãori men for mainstream leadership roles at the turn of the 20th century, is battling for survival as it weighs up commitments to church and State, the bank, and a vision statement promising to once again change the face of Mãori education.

The school has much to prove as it emerges from a decade of crisis and adjusts to a new student-driven curriculum, a fresh board of trustees, the resignation of principal Piripi Blake and the exit of a Ministry of Education commissioner who’s had oversight for two and a half years.

Dr James Graham

Although Te Aute is again reporting academic achievements well above the national average for Mãori boys and has just logged on to ultra-fast broadband, it still carries a horrendous debt, needs to increase its roll from 83 to around 120 and get multiple stakeholders heading in the same direction.

Invested parties include the Anglican Church; the Crown; land donors Ngai Te Whatuiapiti; the Te Aute Trust Board (TATB); responsible for its assets and those of sister school Hukarere Girls’ College; the Te Aute Board of Trustees; parents; farmers who lease school-owned land; and mortgagee, the BNZ.

Dr James Graham, a former Te Aute dux, educational advisor and member of Te Whatuiapiti hapü, says it’s time everyone agreed on a collective vision for the recovery, management and governance of the school.

He quotes a whakataukí (proverb): “He totara wahirua he rua kai na te ahi — the totara log split in two is food for the fire”. While some people have authority that needs to be recognised, others may need to find “another waka to jump on.”

Piripi Blake

The ancient root of Te Aute’s modern day problems rests in the transference of endowment land, set aside 160 years ago for the long-term support of Te Aute College, to in-perpetuity or ‘Glasgow leases’.

Ngai Te Whatuiapiti chiefs gifted (4,273 acres/ 1,729 ha) and the Crown (4,014 acres/1,624 ha) to entice missionary and fluent Mãori speaker Samuel Williams to Hawke’s Bay in 1853 to build the school at Pukehou and act as peacemaker between settlers and Mãori.

However, in 1916, the TATB; at the insistence of a 1906 Commission of Inquiry, broke the endowment into 23 smaller blocks and leased it to farmers at rates that could only be reviewed every 21 years.

Te Aute College was left with 758 acres (307 ha) for its own purposes and while the value of leased land escalated rapidly over the decades, the revenues never kept pace with market rates. This is at the root of a Treaty of Waitangi claim by the hapü (sub-tribe) who insist their gift has been mismanaged.

Dr Graham says Te Aute should be one of the richest schools in the land, but the management of the leases has made it one of the poorest, often returning less than 5% of the land value.

Mãori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples, another Te Aute old boy and Ngai Te Whatuiapiti descendant, claims the Glasgow leases “are one of the most criminal things invented”, having been used to accommodate colonisation by giving farmers security of tenure.

Any attempt to buy it back would include the cost of expensive improvements, putting it out of Te Aute’s reach. “They made the area rich at the cost of making the school poor.”

Separate to the Treaty claim, Dr Sharples says attorney general Chris Finlayson is reviewing the leases and considering a new endowment to compensate the school.