Every day is different at Taieri Beach School and every day one of Liz Bishop’s students says something unexpected that makes her chuckle. 

“That’s my reward for being here – these kids are so open, honest, accepting and have welcomed me to be a valued part of their lives … the students expect you to be part of their lives,” Bishop says. 

“I know all of my 18 students by name and a little bit about their lives and they know me by name and a little bit about me … I have worked at high schools in the past and while I have known some of the students’ names I could never remember them all.”

The principal teacher has only been at the decile five school a short time this year, relieving for Gloria Penrice, principal teacher since 2013, and who is on leave for three terms. 

Bishop knows rural schools well. Not only did she attend one herself – Stirling Primary School in South Otago but she has taught at several during her career dedicated to education. 

Most recently, she served as principal for one year at Omana Christian School in Mosgiel before starting at Taieri Beach School.

Short stints at small schools for educators are not uncommon, Bishop says.  

"There can be quite a high turnover – families might only stay five or six years, or sometimes people come for a couple of years just needing a change of lifestyle or to learn a different style of teaching. 

“You need a special character in this modern world to work in a small school – many new teachers find it exceedingly difficult to deal with all the extra responsibilities you are handed … if you are open to learning small schools are great and you can become familiar with a lot of things.” 

Chequered past 

Taieri Beach School had its humble beginnings in 1862, starting out in a rented house within the small township, originally occupied by Maori but joined later by early European settlers.   

A school house was built in 1879 on Taieri Beach Road, but 73 years later it was burnt to the ground, which meant lessons were held at the church hall during 1952 and 1953. 

The current school - 40km from Dunedin, a 10 minute drive away from nearby town Waihola and a 10 minute walk from the beach – opened in 1954. It boasts a football field, and a community library and pool which school students have full use of. 

Forestry was a big employer of those living at Taieri Beach but there was a natural attrition when many smaller processing plants closed down in the 1990s and early 2000s and people left in search of work, Bishop explains. 

“We’ve always had varying numbers at our school but we have got as high as 35 to 40 students,” she adds. 

Fishermen, life-stylers and families enjoying rural living have made Taieri Mouth their home, surrounded by native bush, walking tracks, and a beautiful white sand beach. 

Small school, big hearts and minds 

Many people ask: “Why on earth would you send your child to a small school in the middle of nowhere?” and Bishop’s reply is always: “Why on earth would you not?” 

Without hesitation, Bishop launches into the multitude of benefits children are exposed to from attending rural schools.

“There is very little that kids miss out on in this 21st broadband, mobile learning community – we have visiting international speakers and teachers as well as police and fire visits where they can receive more personable attention,” Bishop says. 

Students can enjoy more time with their teachers, and there is a communal perspective to learning because all students, from five to 13 are integrated in the same classroom. 

“The older ones learn to care and be responsible for the younger and the young children have role models to look up to.” 

Families become a big part of each student’s life – with parents or grandparents volunteering to help with reading and writing support. 

There are days where Bishop is the only teacher working and requires the children to learn self-sufficiency, which is really evident when they move onto college, usually in Dunedin, she says. 

“Small student numbers mean they have better opportunities for leadership, awards and being selected for teams and peer pressure is not reduced and students are more protected than if they lived in the city.”

If there is something special occurring in the township such as penguins or seals on the beach or fishermen hauling in their nets during the whitebaiting season, the entire school “down tools” and go to investigate as nothing beats learning from real-life experiences.

One challenge for Bishop is keeping a network of other teachers in the wider community, something she has to work hard at doing. 

“I don’t get a lot of time to observe other teachers so I really value the time I do get via Skype and webinars to keep in touch with other professionals. 

“You just have to think on your feet – every day is different. I am so lucky to work here.” 

A protected species 

To Bishop, rural schools are more of a “protected species” rather than an “endangered species”.  

“There are fewer small schools every day. There is a financial figure below which it is uneconomic to keep a school open unless communities put a lot of money into it … Once a school closes the chance of it opening again there is lost and the community loses its sense of identity.”

If a school is closed, the community is forced to merge with a nearby community, and this creates social issues as they work towards building a new identity together.

There are many reasons people decide against sending their children to rural schools, including the idea there is a lack of choice for children. There is also changing perception towards how far is acceptable to commute – people travel long distances to take their children to school these days, Bishop says. 

It would be a real shame if small schools continue to decrease as they are an integral part of rural NZ communities, adding culture, colour and vibrancy to its landscape, Bishop says. 

For Bishop, whose own children are grown and getting on with their own lives, working at Taieri Beach School is like watching her children grow up again right in front of her – at various stages of their lives. 

“It’s wonderful … hopefully both teachers and parents who have young children will consider working or attending a rural school, which have so much to offer.” 

Invaluable resource 

There is no doubt that rural schools are a valuable part of NZ’s education system making up almost 20 per cent of all our schools in this country, Ministry of Education head of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey says. 
 
“That’s 470 schools out of a national total of 2532 that have fewer than 100 students and are in a rural area,” Casey adds. 
 
The number of these schools has declined in the last decade by about 100 schools, partly because of closures, and partly because of re-classifications.
 
“Some schools have closed due to very small and declining rolls. In some cases this is because a lack of young children and pre-schoolers in an area. In other cases improved roads may mean that some families prefer to bypass small school and enrol their children at larger schools in town.” 
 
Meanwhile, other schools have dropped out of the small rural school category because they have been reclassified as urban schools because they are in areas that have become much more densely populated as a result of population growth. 

And still other schools have dropped out of the category because their rolls have grown to more than 100 students, Casey says. 
 
Despite this decline in numbers, rural schools continue to have a large impact on education and will continue to be treasured by communities in small-town NZ – such as Taieri Mouth. 

Factbox

Taieri Beach School Mission – “Achieve Your Best” 

Taieri Beach School take pride in providing quality teaching and learning programmes for all their students according to their mission statement in their unique family school environment.

Taieri Beach School is committed to providing the best possible learning programmes.

The identified needs of the children and their learning is the main focus with all school activities designed to enhance children’s learning, catering to their needs and respecting their dignity.