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In the heart of Christchurch is a Designated Character high school. What makes it unique? And should there be more like it?
Paddy Grant was a 27-year-old truck driver when he rocked up to Christchurch’s Hagley High School, as it was then known.
It was 1974, the city had just hosted the Commonwealth Games, and Grant was about to make history of his own by enrolling as Hagley’s first adult student and, according to school staff, the first in New Zealand.
Grant, who appears in Frank Film’s Changing South episode on Hagley College, says at the time he was in a job he hated. “I was also a dad - a very proud one - and I felt like I needed a different life.”
He wanted to attend the University of Otago’s medical school but needed a secondary school bursary qualification. Hagley’s principal at the time, Ian Leggat, encouraged Grant’s enrolment, with a few stipulations.
“It was taken I would not be wearing a uniform,” recalls Grant, “and that I could go to the staffroom to smoke a cigarette.”
Today, around 250 learners aged 19 and over study alongside high school-age students.
Current Principal, Mike Fowler, proudly states Hagley has “always been outside the square.”
It’s also one of the most ethnically diverse secondary schools in New Zealand.
Hagley has Ministry of Education ‘Designated Character’ status, awarded to schools which offer unique programmes and courses not available in other schools.
Each year, hundreds of senior students migrate from other high schools to Hagley to complete their secondary schooling. Some of these students have exhausted their education options and Rowan Milburn admits Hagley has been regarded as a place of last resort.
Principal Fowler says for those “who’ve had mixed experiences at previous schools or previous learning, if anything’s going to work for them it’s this place.”
A sentiment supported by a student in Hagley’s Catch-Up College. “If I have any friends that are giving up on school, I tell them, give it a go at Hagley.”
For the vast majority of teen learners, the attraction of Hagley is the individually tailored programmes, and the opportunity to immerse in full-time time courses such as fashion and music.
When the Changing South crew visited, a rainbow flag was flying atop a pole on the main block. It was Pride Week, which members of the school’s LGBTQI+ group were celebrating by wearing rainbow colours.
Though, as Deputy Principal Rowan Milburn admits, “it’s hard to stand out at Hagley. Sometimes you think it’s dress up day, it’s usually not.”
The school has a no-uniform policy, prompted in part by Paddy Grant’s arrival as an adult student, almost forty years ago.
So, how did that decision to go back to school in 1974 work out for Paddy?
Christchurch West High School Drum & Bugle Corps on parade. Ref: 1/2-000426-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22613801