Sunday, 21 August 2011

Last chance education going under

John Key is about to close Masterton’s Ohorere Student Education and Transition Programme – a programme that takes at-risk students and (with a great deal of success), returns them to mainstream education.
Far from closing Ohorere, we need more of them. It is far wiser to spend $150,000 on a class of young kids in years 5 to 8 than spend 10 times that amount locking them away as adults.
Recently I had the privilege of visiting the programme, which is based in the old trout hatchery in Pownall St, Masterton. It is run under the umbrella of Masterton Primary School largely thanks to the efforts of Chris Webb and the work of Masterton Primary School principal Sue Walters.
Ohorere works with year 5 to year 8 children and their families for two school terms, with the aim of returning these children to mainstream education. If this school did not exist, these children would face being expelled from school and permanently excluded from mainstream education.
I was very impressed at the efforts of the staff and their stories of success, as these dedicated professionals helped give young kids hope and a sense of achievement.
Chris told me about ‘‘Pedro’’ a big boy (not his real name) who had just finished his time at Ohorere and had been living under a bridge in Auckland from six years of age. He was placed with whanau in the Wairarapa and was finding it difficult to adjust back into school. After two terms at Ohorere he was back in a mainstream class and doing well.
Ohorere aims to provide a ‘‘wrap-around service’’, with staff providing links to community and government agency help. What’s more the staff not only become mentors for students, they become friends. Chris commented about how he often goes to watch Pedro’s rugby games even though he has left Ohorere and gone back into the mainstream.
I think staff deserve to feel proud of what they do. This valuable educational tool is currently running on just $150,000 annually. In short, like a number of families in the Wairarapa, it gets by on the smell of an oily rag. As Sue observes, the school really needs an operating grant of $200,000 annually.
Before the last election John Key recognised the importance of Ohorere when, during a flying visit to Masterton, he dropped by and filmed a promotional video there. He spoke about the importance of the school and he told the students how ‘‘he was really proud of them’’. Now, however, as Prime Minister, the photos and smiles have served their purpose and he now presides over an administration that is engaged in cutting funding for Ohorere that will actually see it close.
I think Ohorere is a valuable tool in turning young lives around that not only benefits the students but also society as a whole. For the past 10 years I have worked as a lawyer, predominantly practicing in criminal law. In the course of my job I have had a front row seat for seeing how extraordinarily efficient our criminal justice system and our society is at perpetuating fresh criminals.
To be blunt, prison, as a cure for offending, mostly does not work. There is a considerable risk that a prison sentence might actually make the factors associated with reoffending worse. By aggravating the factors associated with reoffending, prison sentences can prove counter-productive as a contribution to crime reduction and public safety.
This does not mean that I do not believe in prison, far from it. Society does need protection from dangerous people, but before we bang someone away it makes sense to see if we can put steps in place to ensure that individuals don’t offend in the first place.
A common feature among a large number of the criminals I have dealt with is a lack of prosocial peers and limited education, combined with poor literacy and numeracy. This failure at the start sets the course for adulthood.
This is why I can see the immediate value in schools such as Ohorere. The June 2011 ERO report stated that ‘‘it is evident that five out of six of Ohorere’s students improved their learning and behaviour during their [time] in the unit. Moreover the progress these students have made has continued since they re-entered mainstream education’’.
The Wairarapa can feel justly proud of the efforts of Ohorere. As Sue says, Ohorere is the last chance for these kids and it actually works. If this school closes these young people are going to be lost.

Published in the Wairarapa News 24 August 2011

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