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Wesley College: Fresh growth from Methodist roots

The role of Wesley College’s famous old boys hints at strong currents that flow through the school: cultural identity, sporting success, and academic achievement. Notable alumni include Jonah Lomu, actor Temuera Morrison, Oscar winner Richard Taylor, former Children’s Commissioner Roger MacClay, and the first prime minister of the Solomon Islands Sir Peter Kenilorea.

Set amidst rolling farmland and perched above well-groomed sports fields, Wesley College has a special place in the life of New Zealand and Te Haahi Weteriana. It is the country’s oldest registered secondary school and celebrated its 160th birthday last year.

Wesley College took its current form through the amalgamation of two schools, one for young Maori and the other for the children of missionaries working in the Pacific. It shifted from Three Kings, Auckland to its current site at Paerata, near Pukekohe, in 1922.

While it is non-sectarian, a key element of the college’s charter is to maintain the ethos of contemporary New Zealand Methodism.

Current principal Ian Faulkner attended Wesley College from 1963 to 1967. He says the ethnic make-up of the school then was predominantly Pakeha, and its strong agricultural programme attracted a significant number of students from farming families.

While the make-up of the student body has changed, the support Ian received from the school remains one of its enduring features.

“I was from a family situation where I could have easily ended up in trouble. I had a solo mum with three children. Wesley provided me a home, stability, and a good education.”

Ian says the ethnic composition of the school is now about 50 percent Maori, and about 35 percent New Zealand-born Tongan and Samoan. About five percent are Pakeha and the rest are international students.

Though girls attended the college in its early years, when it reopened after the Land Wars in became solely a boys’ school. Girls were readmitted in 1985 and now make up about a fifth of the Wesley’s 370 students.

“Wesley College is actually two institutions, the school governed by the Board of Trustees and the hostel, which is a private boarding establishment. About 80 percent of students live in the hostels. The Trust Board subsidises the boarding fees of all students and some are eligible for additional grants,” Ian says.

The Trust Board’s income derives from its investments, which include the dairy farm that neighbours the school and commercial properties such as that on Morrin Road in Panmure. The school also has bequests, and every year the Robert Gibson Memorial Trust donates $45,000 for scholarships.

Most Wesley students have some church affiliation, about two thirds with the wider Methodist family. Ian emphasises the school’s role is not to proselytise or shunt students toward Methodism.

Nevertheless, the school promotes the Methodist ethos, which entails expression of the Christian faith, consideration of the needs of others, respect for the integrity of persons and communities, and oppositions to systems of violence and exclusion.

The school day at Wesley begins with chapel, and Ian says junior hostels hold close of day prayers. Some senior students engage in private devotions and Bible reading individually or in groups.

Along with his administrative duties Ian currently teaches a Life and Faith class for year 13 students.

“In our Life and Faith classes we ground faith in the students’ experience. We avoid traditional Sunday school teaching approaches. We try to provide glimpses or reality as opposed to transmitting theological ideas. It is a big challenge for an adult with different life experiences to relate faith ideas to young folks.”

An important event in the school calendar is the Secondary Schools’ Cultural Festival. A large number of groups participate in the cultural performances, which this year included kapa haka, Tongan, Samoan, and Cook Island style groups.

”Our charter written in 1976 charter says Wesley is a place where all races can learn to live and work together. We prefer to talk in terms of culture and how people choose to identify rather than terms of race.

“At Wesley this entails a sense of sharing and extended family. For example, we have a large Cook Island cultural group but we only have a small number of Cook Island students. The others are people who joined the group to support them and gain experience.”

A tale of two students

Tamati Rakena and Sefesi Lutui personify the diverse backgrounds of the students who attend Wesley College.

Tamati is from Kaikohe, Northland and some five generations ago his ancestor Piripi Rakena attended the college for training as a minister. Tamati can cite a number of his male relatives in successive generations who have attended the school.

In addition to them several of his contemporary cousins, both male and female, have attended or are attending the school. In 2004 his older brother Piripi was head boy. Tamati is active in the school and plays rugby and soccer and participates in kapa haka and waka ama.

Every year the dux of the Wesleyan boys’ school Tupou College in Tonga receives a scholarship to attend year 13 at Wesley College. This year that student is Sefesi Lutui.

Sefesi studies math, accounting and commerce and hopes to pursue further education either in New Zealand or at the University of the South Pacific.

He says it is no problem to communicate in Tongan with NZ-born Tongan students.

Wesley sports top of the heap

Wesley College punches well above its weight when it comes to sport. Not only does it perform exceptionally well, a very large percentage of students participate in sport.

Sport coordinator Mike Todd says Wesley has New Zealand’s best secondary school record in rugby, having won the national title five times – most recently last year. Mike reckons the best team he has yet managed at the school was the 2001 first XV which also won the national championship. A number of players from that team are now Super 12 stars.

“Sport is a good thing for the school. When the sports teams are doing well, the school is doing well. It brings people together.

“We have a high participation rate among our students. We have seven rugby teams for a school of 350 students while in our district there are schools of 2000 pupils with only two teams.

“The challenge is for kids to believe in themselves and realise their full potential. It is important for them to build self-confidence and seize the opportunity they have at Wesley.

“It’s also a challenge is to find a balance between academic and sporting commitments. The structured environment of the school helps. We have compulsory prep times in the evenings, an hour for junior students and an hour and a half for senior students,” Mike says.

Currently members of the rugby first XV are fundraising for a two week trip to Fiji over the winter break where they will play the country’s four top secondary schools. By delivering phonebooks, hay baling, mufti days, and sausage sizzles the players will raise $40,000 of the $50,000 required to fund the trip.

Along with a chance to play rugby, Mike says the trip will serve as an opportunity to cultural exchange. A number of students at Wesley are from Fiji and it is a chance to bring the school to their families.

Matrons are mums away from Mum

Senior matron Joy Johnston says when the nursing team at Wesley College realised students from the islands didn’t like sick bays they changed the concept behind it to that of a farm house kitchen. The dispensary is place students can come to get anything else they need, from a cup of tea to clothing to cheering up.

Joy says all four matrons on the staff live off campus because it is important they bring something of the outside to the campus and don’t become institutionalised.

The dispensary is open from 9am to 9pm though if anyone falls ill or has an accident someone is available to provide treatment around the clock. A doctor visits twice a week, and the dispensary also provides dental checks and treatment, bloods tests, and immunisation vaccines.

“We also have a loan shop where students can get clothing or equipment such as sleeping bags, rain coats or polypro if they are going on activities such as Outward Bound or the Spirit of New Zealand. We stock mouth guards for the sports teams and locks for lockers.

“It’s all very low key. I suppose we are stand in parents but we never forget the students are someone else’s children,” Joy says.