In the lead up to the 2017 New Zealand election, political candidates of all stripes had been invited to the school to take part in a mock election, to encourage political engagement amongst students.

“I believe that as the future leaders of tomorrow we have a duty to know what is happening today,” prefect Jorja Heta, who helped organise the day, says.

Principal Anne Cooper says she jumped on board with the idea right from the start.

“It’s really important that students are aware [of politics] and are making informed decisions, and students these days are very conscious of a lot of some of the big items like sustainability and the environment, and they’re really aware of their responsibility.

"It’s a given that decisions get made at the highest level and they need to be aware of how to do that,” she says.

She gave the organising students substantial freedom in creating the event and harnessing their political interest and energy, which was appreciated by Heta.

“The staff had complete faith in us and allowed us to harness the vision of what we wanted the layout to look like and fortunately with the support of the school it became a massive success,” Heta explains.

“[Cooper] embraced the idea with open arms and was only concerned that we invited every Whangarei MP candidate, whether or not they chose to accept it was up to them.

"It was important to her that our school did not seem biased or that this did not become a campaign event but rather an educational opportunity, where each party representative spoke about their policies and ambitions to benefit Northland.”

On the day, politicians were invited into the school hall to answer pre-written questions relating to youth issues, including mental health, the gender pay gap and tertiary education.

Heta, in the role of MC, then opened the floor to a general Q&A session.

“I felt it was important to make the event as interactive and engaging as possible.

"The students asked really thought provoking questions from farming to even legalising euthanasia,” Heta explains.

She says the event provided a different sort of education experience for herself and her peers.

“I believe it is a difficult circumstance for a student to understand politics when we’re rarely encouraged to seek more knowledge on this aspect, as there is a misconception that youth are “too young” to make any reasonable decisions on such important matters.

"Some of my peers didn’t even vote this year because they felt they weren’t 'educated enough' to do so.

“However, as a young Maori woman, I sincerely believe that we deserve to have a say over the choices that impact our country regardless of our gender, background or should not be a mere option but a necessity for citizens of all ages to know and understand politics,” she says

Her classmate and fellow election organiser, head girl Summer Campbell, agrees.

“If we can teach math, PE, and sewing but cannot touch on politics then something needs to change,” she says.

“We had students as young as 14 attending. 

"The mock election stimulated conversations around politics and the election that would have otherwise not have happened.”

Similar events were held at other schools throughout the region, and Cooper says there is potential to continue to use the momentum from the mock election in other school activities in the future, especially in sync with national political affairs like discussions around the MMP system or referendums.

 “We like things to be student driven so the next step is talking to them next year about what they think [and want to learn],” she says.

“We don’t have huge numbers in our school who are old enough to vote [now] but in the next three years, by the next election, they will.

"We need to build awareness of the responsibility that voting gives you.”

Cooper adds that this is especially relevant at an all-girls school.

“We fought so hard to get the vote, so make use of it!”

As for other teachers who might be considering a similar event, Cooper says simply, “just do it!”