Newspaper Article 1999 – Omahu School steeped in history

It is more than 100 years since Ngati Kahungunu paramount chief Renata Kawepo gifted a piece of his land to the Omahu community for a school. TANIA McCAULEY reports.

Omahu School steeped in history

Omahu Bilingual School has been through three name changes since then and been a part of the lives of many pupils, principals and teachers such as world-famous author Sylvia Ashton-Warner.

During Labour Weekend past and present pupils will gather at the school, in Fernhill, west of Hastings, to reminisce and celebrate its official centenary.

The students at Omahu today learn and play in a very different environment to the first pupils, who had their lessons in the Omahu Anglican church and Omahu marae dining hall nearby.

According to local author Elizabeth Hill in Between the Rivers, Kawepo’s reason for donating the land in 1872 was because he insisted he didn’t want it to be just another “native” school. He wanted to see Maori and European children educated together. What was then called Fernhill School was officially opened in 1899.

By the 1950s it was being called Omahu, although the name did not go up on the school gate until 1980, the year it became the country’s first bilingual school.

There have been other changes too since then – the addition of a kohanga reo, a total immersion class and a new school, Te Arahou, which had its roots in Omahu, established in 1996. The Te Arahou children will join Omahu for the powhiri next Saturday.

Other initiatives started at the school include the Omahu child development programme, which focused on exposing children to activities outside their usual environment, such as gymnastics, judo and skating. It also has a culture group.

Organising the celebrations is something the community has really got involved in, says co-ordinator Hera Marshall, who taught at the school in the 1970s.

Many on the organising committee have some connection to the school.

Carver and yes, another ex-pupil, Kuru Nuku, has made the plaque marking the centenary which will be unveiled during the celebrations, which begin on October 22 with a variety show led by families from different eras performing items from their generation.

The official stuff begins the next morning with a powhiri and plaque presentation. The afternoon is for reminiscing and playing sport before the adults gear up for the ball at Omahu marae, and the kids for a disco.

The celebration wraps up the next day with an inter-denominational thanksgiving service.

In addition committee member Lisa Waapu has been researching the school’s history in preparation for a centennial book which the committee hopes can be launched by Labour Weekend.

Principal since 1997, Ben Mackey, says all the 50 children aged between five and 13 who attend the school now have a family connection somewhere.

Not all live in Omahu; the school bus now goes right into Flaxmere and Hastings.

Mr Mackey has a family connection to the school too. His wife Margaret, a teacher as well, was a student there during Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s era.

The pupils have been practising hard for their part in the welcome next Saturday, says Mackey.

“It will be good to see Omahu the school and Omahu the community together in the same waka.”

Photo caption – RIGHT: Moving into the next century; Omahu principal Ben Mackey with most of today’s students. The school celebrates its centenary at Labour Weekend.

Renowned author holds special place

Sylvia Ashton-Warner holds a special place in Omahu Bilingual School’s history.

She and her husband Keith Henderson, who was principal, taught there in the 1950s and made quite an impression on the children, including Joan Thompson and Jo Livermore, nee Waapu, pictured. The twins made quite an impression on Sylvia too, who mentions them in her book, Teacher.

For those who don’t know the story, Sylvia had quite radical teaching methods for those time, using dance and song to encourage her students to learn not just the basics but things like playing the piano.

She also made up her own reading scheme, discarding the then popular “Janet and John” learn-to-read books for her own, what she considered more relevant books with characters like “Hine and Ihaka”, and “Kuri the dog”.

The knockbacks from the education establishment in New Zealand who wanted them to follow the conventional, structured curriculum eventually forced the Hendersons to the United States, where Sylvia’s teaching methods have become an integral part of the US education system and a movie has been made about her life.

Joan regards Sylvia as a fantastic teacher and credits her with her love of reading. They used to have fancy dress balls or concerts entitled “Babes in the woods”, “Hansel and Gretel” and so on.

There were also galas to raise funds for the school, often selling things the children had made, such as tablecloths and scarves with Maori motifs.

Jo remembers the stylish clothes Sylvia wore, including the artist’s smocks she donned for the art classes, and the dances they were taught.

The Hendersons were keen to get the children to play sport, particularly Sylvia with netball, what we call basketball now.

She was a bit of a “battle axe” on the court, Jo says with a laugh.

The Hendersons were a community-minded couple and it was a great loss when they moved away, she says.

“I think it was her style, and bringing everybody together that made it so close-knit.”

One of the Henderson’s children, Ashton will be at the celebrations.

Organising committee co-ordinator Hera Marshall says Sylvia brought rhythm and movement into the classroom, something the Maori children really responded to and which really appealed to the senses in any child.

“The adults did not understand Sylvia but the children did. She was way before her time.”

Photo captions –

ABOVE: The twins at Omahu School in the 1950s. They are mentioned often in Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s book Teacher.

Left: Twins Josephine Livermore, left. And Joan Thompson, in front of the oldest building at Omahu Bilingual School, reminisce about the time Sylvia Ashton-Warner was their teacher.

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Business / Organisation

Omahu Bilingual School

Format of the original

Newspaper article

Date published

16 October 1999

Creator / Author

  • Tania McCauley
  • Richard Robinson


Hawke's Bay Today


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today


  • Sylvia Ashton-Warner
  • Keith Henderson
  • Elizabeth Hill
  • Renata Kawepo
  • Josephine Livermore, nee Waapu
  • Ben Mackey
  • Margaret Mackey
  • Hera Marshall
  • Kuru Nuku
  • Joan Thompson, nee Waapu
  • Lisa Waapu

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