A heartfelt plea from one of New Zealand’s great principals

Thursday 13th April 2017

Kia ora Former Minister of Education Parata

Happy Retirement

I would like to wish you well for your remaining months in parliament and on into your next phase of your life. As a principal of a school that was the recipient of an adequate slice of funding to build a purpose-built set of facilities for our learners now and into the future I am extremely grateful. It is just a shame that the standard that was set here has not been replicated across the modernisation projects in Christchurch and in the new schools in Rolleston.

I started writing this letter having just left a Family Group Conference (FGC) for a ten-year-old child, and I thought I should share my dismay at the infinitesimal contribution the ministry of education is willing to make to help turn this struggling young child’s life around. I have slept on it and greatly moderated my initial writings.

The facilitator of this well-attended FGC explained the role of her new ministry:

  • To prioritise existing services, resources, and new ways of working to create joint responsibility for our at-risk tamariki.
  • To get practitioners and professionals from health, education, NZ Police, Justice, and the social service sector to work together, to put the needs of children first, and share responsibility.
  • To improve the capability of the children’s workforce to work in a child-centred, trans-disciplinary way in partnership with whānau.

Immediately after the conference had concluded I was informed by Brent Hastie from the ministry team that this child will only be funded for 50 hours of support next term.


Oranga Tamariki is involved due to concerns for the child’s safety in the home because his behaviour pushes his father to the point of wanting to harm him physically. He was removed from the home, term 4 last year, and lived in another city after completing 3 months at Halswell. When he returned in February 2017 he was in his 8th school in 5 years.

This child is a very capable thinker and learner who is currently working well below the government’s standards in both literacy and numeracy. He has been attending Halswell School for the last 4 weeks, mornings only until this week but, in the main, in an out-of-classroom context. I have had a parent (father and former farmer who is between jobs) with no previous experience of supporting children with extremely challenging behaviours, employed to supervise 1-on-1.

The initial period was spent making skateboard ramps, erecting cricket nets, and other tasks related to making a positive contribution to the school and therefore being the recipient of positive feedback from his peers. Three other boys have also worked alongside them, giving positive encouragement and feedback and being good positive role models for him. These boys will be in the same Learning Studio.

The three boys have earned the right to have the choice to work on the ramps and are strong positive y. 8 role models. We developed a collaborative behaviour plan and a process to integrate the child concerned  back into a Learning Studio which started last week , Wednesday – Friday, with 1-on-1 support 9am to 12 noon. He is working with 93 other children mainly y. 7 and 8, but also including the 20 oldest y. 6 children. Although it did not go without incident he has not harmed anyone else and his disruptive outbursts have been at the lower end of ‘his scale’ and largely ignored by our other children, until today.

He continues to exhibit behaviours that will make it difficult if not impossible for him to be re-integrated back into the Learning Centre full-time even with 1-on-1 supervision. Problematic behaviours exhibited have included: talking out of turn, disruptive talking, non-attentiveness, chronic avoidance of learning, disrespecting and rudeness towards teachers/ teacher aide, disobedience, verbal aggression, violating the implicit norms and expectations of the Learning Studio, interfering with teaching activities, harassing other children, verbal insults, non-co-operation, defiance, non-compliance, and hostility.

Obviously, these misbehaviours retard the smoothness and effectiveness of teaching and also impede the learning of the other 90 children in the studio.

The programme we have been running has provided him with an opportunity to get re-established in the school setting without disrupting the learning of others, while giving him total supervision. This has not gone without incident, but nothing as hugely significant as the events of 2016, so we are making progress. His worst days tend to follow on from how he has arrived at school. If he has a negative attitude on arrival, then he struggles to follow instructions and remain focused on the tasks at hand, and then resents the re-direction, but has been begrudgingly complying, though not completely dropping the negative attitude. We have a rewards-based incentive programme in place which he has responded to.

The parent referred to has been employed to work with child for three hours a day, 9am until 12 noon. So far the he has been supported building the scooter ramps, and joining the y. 1 and 2 children at 9am until 10:30, to support the children during Learning through Play.

His presence in Huritini (y. 1 and 2) has been welcomed by my teaching team and while he has had challenges around remembering that it is about helping the younger children and not about him having the best of the activities, we have made significant social progress. For several days we focused on helping him with understanding the concept of ‘sharing’ and then teaching this to the younger children. We had planned to continue this next term, for the child to learn other social skills while helping our y. 1 and 2 with 1-on-1 supervision.

The next major community contribution project would have been making a hen-house and run. He has spent time researching this with the parent helper, developed a design concept, and together they are in the process of ordering material to complete this project.

We have introduced a 9-week-old huntaway puppy into the mix, with plan to having the child spend some time on a ‘station’ watching working dogs at work.

Ideally I would have liked to integrate this child into the y. 6 to 8 (Otumatua) Learning Centre early in the new term. He has been spending intervals in the playground without any significant issues (until today); he has been observed at a distance and is being encouraged by some of our y. 8 Leaders, who are all supportive of him and understanding of their role.

Successfully growing him into a full-time student, in my opinion, will need to be a gradual process. The funding stream that we would need to accomplish this should provide cover for him from 9am to 3pm, at least initially. with his programme being a blend of appropriate classwork and some practical activities building things for our Learning Community. This opportunity has been denied by the ministry.

The parent who was between jobs (Rural Real Estate Agent) had offered to defer starting his new job to provide the child with stability through the next phase. A very generous offer, but I do not have the funding to support that desired approach.

This morning I broke the news to the parent and he has accepted that we will not be able to retain him next term. This is an awful shame as the trusting relationship that had been built up between him and the child will now only result in disappointment and resentment.

The child will only be able to attend for 1 hour a day in term II.

I do not intend to let this matter lie here. I totally appreciate that those who are allocating this resource have a very limited pool of funding to work with and I have no intention of attacking the local ministry officials. I received a call from a ministry official this morning (who had received an earlier version of this email) who regretted to tell me that he was already $90,000 in the red.

The recent article by Te Tai Tokerau principal Pat Newman demonstrates the feeling that is festering in that region. Pat has for a long time been a lone voice in the wilderness. A man who has contributed much to education nationally. Te Tai Tokerau schools’ plight is duplicated across the country and needs to be acknowledged. Katrina Casey has her head in the sand and needs to be told so. In my role as Waitaha Rep on the NZEI Principal’s Council I have the privilege of collaborating with principals from across NZ. At the last Principal’s Council hui the common theme around the table was the increase in problematic children and aggressive parents.

When the ministry dismantled the likes of McKenzie Residential School we were promised a wrap around service for the most significantly challenged children. The most complex behavioural children do not get anything like a wraparound – a band aid at best. Most of these children are destined for a life of incarceration contributed to by education sector neglect which is unfair to it, and hurtful to me.

I have suggested to CPPA, NZEI and NZPF that principals be encouraged to express their outrage on behalf of the neglected large numbers of challenged learners and email Casey with their ‘At Risk Registers’ (behaviour) with value in dollars of support given and shortfall of funding. It is obvious that she is naively unaware of the reality of what is really happening, perhaps the shortfall information sits in local offices – not being requested – therefore she doesn’t know.

Interesting to note that billions of dollars are about to be spent on new prisons to house these neglected children when they become of age, when for a fraction of the cost many of them would have taken a different pathway and been equipped to make a positive contribution to society.

At Halswell we are already investing $123,000 more than SEG, plus 0.4 staffing, in trying to help children reach the government’s national standards, unattainable for many children due to reasons of nature or nurture, but still we must try, so I don’t have funds to prop up the lack of funding for severely disturbed children.

It has taken 10 years, five of compulsory sector neglect, to determine this child’s future. Having been in the system for 43 years, 32 as a principal, teaching special class, streamed extension classes, and the majority of my career in low decile schools on the East Coast, I have seen numerous schemes for managing resources around the most disadvantaged children. But for so many of those children into which I have put my heart and soul, my reward  has been to read about them in the court news sometime later. In my opinion the education system has never been well enough resourced to allow schools to be the change agent that they potentially could be, but the current environment is the worst I’ve seen in 43 years.

Needless to say I will take some time to ponder my next move, but I will move. I consider myself a-political as I have never belonged to a political party. But I plan to make it my personal crusade on behalf of New Zealand’s thousands of neglect children.

Might I also ask that you inform Elizabeth Clapham, case manager of Oranga Tamariki, and the child’s family, that he will only be able to attend one hour a day. I am too embarrassed to relay that news.


Obviously the end of term can be traumatic for children like him. Yesterday he refused to engage in learning activities specifically designed for him, abused my teaching staff and the parent employee, and threw a chair across the Learning Studio. I did ponder exclusion, as then he wouldn’t be our challenge, would he?

Maybe if I join a CoL all of the world’s problems will disappear.


B.R. Topham


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9 Responses to A heartfelt plea from one of New Zealand’s great principals

  1. Vern Stevens says:


  2. Paul says:

    I understand, empathise, and feel like crying reading this but then I too am a principal. Who is to blame? No one individual though clearly many people in positions to solve these problems simply don’t get it or care but the whole neo liberal approach to life in New Zealand that has encouraged and facilitated the disfunctional and inequitable society we now live in. Be sure that those who benefit from the policies of the last thirty years will fight hard to maintain them. Only vote for those who are not neo liberalised for often they simply know no other way and aren’t clever enough to see their indoctrination

  3. Anne Mackintosh says:

    Well done Bruce! We all stand firmly with you as we share the same deep concern and absolute utter frustration. If children are truly “at the heart of the matter” (MOE) then let’s see some timely positive action from the Ministry; putting their money where their collective mouth is! We are all being so creative in our schools in how we strive to meet these extreme needs, often to the disadvantage of others so needy in other ways. These children need so much which we are trying to provide on ever shrinking budgets, the whiff of the whiff of the smell of the oily rag. It’s election year, let’s all stand united together and be of one voice. The government boasts a financial surplus but at what cost? In posting this and behind the scenes, there are many unseen and unheard of corpses and carnage in Education, Health, Police and, no doubt in Oranga Tamariki. Kia Kaha to our profession, stand tall and be counted so we can all continue to say, with our hands on our hearts, that our tamariki are TRULY at the heart of the matter! PLEASE SHARE and get this message out there. It’s election year and we need as many resounding voices as possible for our tamariki and Whanau across Godzone.

  4. John Church says:

    Thank you Bruce for sending this in and thank you Kelvin for maintaining this forum for sharing it. Out there in the real world (which Katrina seems to have spent little time in), there are thousands of stories like this. Hopefully, this post will motivate the sharing of more of these. Obviously, part of the problem is the grossly inadequate funding of an effective education for children with special learning needs. But it is important to recognize that this is only part of the story. Our schools are also being short changed with inadequate preservice education and grossly inadequate professional learning and development provision. As someone who was peripherally involved with the attempt to prevent the closing of McKenzie Residential School, it was heartbreaking to watch the loss of the priceless resource which that school represented. I also argued in private and in public forums that the Wrap Around service would fail because (a) there was little evidence that it had worked anywhere else in the world and (b) the proposal included zero funding for the PLD which each Wrap Around classroom teacher would require in order for the scheme to have the slightest chance of success. Sadly it seems that here too my predictions may be correct.

  5. 111peggyb says:

    A great piece and one that makes my heart bleed! Teachers need to stand together, stop wringing their hands in frustration and defeat [yes I accept that might be a little harsh], and get political.
    Please organise and get ready for the upcoming election! If every teacher, ancillary staff member, support staff member and concerned parent gave their Party Vote to a Party other than National, there would be transformational change in the House.
    Come on professional educators – “If not you – who?”
    We are the masters of our own destiny, not the politicans we elect to WORK FOR US!
    If they have let us down – let us down them.

  6. kellyned says:

    Heart breaking stuff Bruce. Been there – constantly – for so long it seems normal. In my rural setting I find myself holding onto these students so long that it puts my staff (and my) wellbeing at risk because to exclude these students is such a huge negative effect on them. There simply is no ‘school down the road’.
    It is exhausting being the meat in the sandwich between balancing budgets, auditors, student needs, MoE underfunding, in sufficient special supports, government expectations and demands and community and parent demands and expectations.
    Is it sustainable long term?
    I doubt it and know too many principals who have done battle with burnout and depression. Myself included.
    The funding is simply insufficient and too focussed upon the wrong things. What use is being able to read if you can’t manage relationships.
    As a profession we need to keep banging our drum and supporting each other in the battle.

  7. Kelvin says:

    An Auckland reader writes:

    Dear Kelvin

    What an amazing letter. And do you know, there are kids like that in almost every class at our school – that’s the reality of today’s world. I really connected with this –

    ‘Interesting to note that billions of dollars are about to be spent on new prisons to house these neglected children when they become of age, when for a fraction of the cost many of them would have taken a different pathway and been equipped to make a positive contribution to society.’

    I have always believed that small classes would really help with these troubled students, as there is more time to develop relationships, and the environment is likely to be calmer. And that’s a start. But no, instead we obsess about having most of the day boring the kids shitless with tests. We HAVE to work at fences at the top of cliffs rather than clapped out ambulances at the bottom. Can National truly not see that? Do Chris Hipkins and Tracey Martin read your articles? What can we do?

  8. Jo Duston says:

    As a Principal in a school that attracts children with special needs, because of our staff’s ability to cope and understand, I know what you are talking about. In our situation there are agencies that appear in the district on Thursday if you’re lucky that talk but have no solution. Staff are left to come up with solutions supporting each other to cope with children that should not be in an inclusive situation. Children who make it dangerous and traumatising for others to be with them.
    I have fostered these children for many years. I have a family of 5 home of life children (same mother) where one child we have had since 18months old has been severely traumatised by a child in her room to the point that at 10 yrs she seeks to be in my bed each night. This should not be happening. We are subjecting our ‘normal’ children to such traumatising behaviours that their learning is not only being disrupted by having to be evacuated from rooms but also by the emotional stresses that they deal with (or not) on a day to day basis.
    These children ( who we were promised would be adequately funded in the 2000 special ed review) are sapping the funding of all our normal children. For GSE or Learning support or what ever umbrella they want to come under, to say we only contribute is just a laugh. These children still use the loo, art materials etc but also require us to buy a substantial amount of materials to meet their developmental stage that we aren’t funded for. When children who have genetic disorders, anaphylactic shocks for eating wrong foods, sight problems, physical disabilities as well as being non verbal, developmentally delayed, major behaviour problems usually around socially delayed development( 3 in the last year) who are turned down for ORS funding, Who get minimal high health because ‘it is a behavioural thing that they may try to eat others food’ then how does the new Health and safety laws deal with that and how do schools fund it. I tell you it’s withdrawing funds from other normal children or those who would be considered just below where there is no longer help.
    McKenzie and other state funded schools provided children with a way for the children and parents to learn to deal with behaviours and parenting skills for children to be put back into society. It was expensive but was that expense not justified. Children had behaviour modification plans , psychological support, Classes of a size for them to be able to cope with (not 1-28 if you lucky) and parents were guided to help these special children be assimilated back into society. How much more does it cost at the other end when they are in Prison.
    How many times do we as principals come up with ‘Alternative programmes ‘ that our children might be able to get success with. How many caretakers end up ‘helping’ with children that don’t fit the mould. How many SPCEA visits to ‘read to the animals’ occur
    As for a IWS it’s great. You can get TA assistance full time. But what can an untrained do-gooder do ( and believe me I do value my TA’S, provide as much training as is available, make sure they are not velcroed to particular student). IF a kid is going off, who is expected to intervene, to keep others safe, how many hours should anyone be expected to supervise children in drenching rain in the playground. When does health and safety step in for the TA and the child who has removed themselves from the classroom?
    You know I wonder is it worth it. People tell me that that’s what I get the extra money for but it doesn’t seem enough for the hours I spend worrying about my staff, worrying about the children who have the needs, worrying about the kids that miss out because the govt does not provided for the children they promised to support.

  9. Mike Shennen says:

    Sorry Kelvin….you can’t leave quite yet!The troops still need you Where else can Bruce go to be heard these days .This government has got to go!!

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