Rebuilding a school's image

July 08, 2019 - 207 views

The first line of the Waitaki Boys' High School song says rather a lot about that venerable educational institution and its history.

"Songs may be sung of the past and its glory" it goes, and they have been singing songs of Waitaki Boys' glory for much of the past 136 years.

It long held exalted status as one of the finest state boys' schools in the country, if not the Commonwealth. When the Duke of York (later King George VI) visited New Zealand in 1927, a major stop in his tour was a visit to Waitaki to open the school's remarkable Hall of Memories, built to honour staff and boys killed in World War 1, and perhaps the only school building of its kind in the country.

Waitaki's bricks and mortar helped make its name. The historic stone buildings in a sprawling campus created a "little England", and the gardens, lawns and playing fields were long the envy of many a rival school.

Waitaki Boys' also had a figure of Edmund Hillary-esque significance, the immortal Frank Milner, a long-serving rector whose relentless drive for all-round excellence helped forge the school's reputation and coined a phrase, "Milner man", still in use today.

In the 1960s, perhaps its zenith, Waitaki Boys' was a genuine national power, churning out a conveyor belt of upstanding young men who would go on to succeed in commerce, politics, science and sport, and boasting the largest school hostel in New Zealand which nudged over 350.

Waitaki Boys' was, then, steeped in tradition and history - but possibly also suffocated by it at times?

For when the school hit a rocky patch in 2014 following the release of a report that said the school was "in crisis" and the subsequent replacement of the board with a commissioner, its own "past and its glory" appeared to act as a very large albatross around its neck.

Seemingly overnight, Waitaki's reputation was shredded. It become the "troubled" school. The role plummeted, and public confidence took a large hit.

That didn't just hurt the school and those who still loved it - a town like Oamaru needs its major schools to thrive, and the fall of Waitaki Boys' was a serious blow to that community and the local economy, especially as many chose to send their boys to schools in other areas.

Happily, it seems Waitaki is on the upward curve again.

Five long years under statutory management - the average is 18 months - are finally over with the election of a board of trustees. As rector Darryl Paterson, a proud ex-Waitakian, pointed out, that is a hugely symbolic moment for a school wishing to prove life is getting back to normal.

The roll remains small, about 420, and the repairing of Waitaki's image will be ongoing, but there are signs that those "troubles" are sliding into the past.

Waitaki Boys' may never regain the lofty heights of the Milner years, or even of the 1990s, when the roll hovered about 700. In some respects, it is just another school in the South, no more or no less distinguished than any other. But if parents and the wider community can be confident it is a good place for young men to get educated, that does not really matter.

The school song's other line that resonates is "strong to endure". Waitaki has come through a period of extreme difficulty, weathered a fierce storm, and taken some bruises. It must not assume all its issues have been solved but it seems to be on the right track.


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