But if the results of the mostly Māori kids at his Palmerston North school are anything to go by, many would suggest that young Durie was far from delusional.
Manukura, a special character school, was founded by Durie and his wife Yvette McCausland-Durie in 2005.
From humble beginnings, the school with its roll of 95 per cent Māori students, has been making headlines with NCEA and University Entrance results well above those in like schools.
In fact, for UE the decile 5 school ranked as the 23rd best high school in New Zealand in 2021.
This year, the pair are turning their attention to Māori boys’ education, reopening St Stephen’s School, also known as Tīpene, the very school Durie attended as a youth.
Durie sat down with EducationHQ to tell us about why he dares to dream about a better future for Māori boys.
CC: So firstly Nathan, can you take me back to 2005 when you founded Manukura, what drove you to open your own school?
ND: Well a number of things, but I think one of the things we’ve always tried to talk to in terms of staying positive, is really just finding avenues to recognise the potential of our [Māori] kids, as opposed to a system that seems more inclined to want to try and fix their problems. That was a big part of it.
We’ve always had this belief that, like all children, they have potential. I think if we look at the word ‘kura’, for example, it’s been translated to mean ‘school’, but in actual fact it means ‘to polish’, so it’s to unearth these gems inside sometimes what might be rough diamonds or rough stones.
There’s a reason why they chose the word kura or kurina, the role of schools is to unveil these gems that are inside young people. So I guess we wanted to focus more on that, rather than working in a system that continued to fail our kids.
CC: The school has long been celebrated as a success in Māori education, what are some of the achievements at Manukura of which you’re most proud?
ND: I guess we’ve been reflecting a bit as we’re moving into the next part, [so it’s] a timely question. We’ve received lots of accolades and won various competitions and tournaments, and we’ve had NCEA results now that put us amongst the top bracket of schools in the country with a cohort of kids that really, generally fails.
But I think the part that we’re most proud of when we look back now … is the fact that we dared to dream about what an education model could look like for our people, and then we went after it. We had a few trip-ups along the way as well, but I think the part I’m most proud of, is that we actually dared to have a go at doing something.
The fact that we’ve had success might substantiate some of what we’ve done, but actually it’s the endeavour, I think, that I’m really proud of.
CC: Tell me a bit about philosophy behind Manukura. What is it that sets it apart from other schools?
ND: Well, a big part of it is, this is a Hapu initiative from a very small sub-tribe here, where we come from. I suppose the term gets a little bit blasted sometimes, but it’s this idea of actually determining for yourself.
So that was a part of it, and in terms of philosophy, I guess there was always this focus from the outset of focusing on potential, not focusing on problems, and what are some of the aspirations for us as a community? For us as a people? And providing that avenue for young people.
It would be fair to say that we are 20 years better at doing what we do now, almost 20 years later. And so I think the philosophy is to always continue to look forward.
So one of the sayings we have here is ‘kia aorangi ake’, and it’s this idea of continuing to soar to new skies. Even when we achieve something, always looking beyond that, just gives us a new vista to look at, in terms of continually looking forward and continually looking upward.
If I think back to our early origins, the trust board that we had at the time were real visionaries for Māori education, Māori health, Māori people – and I think what they did that was really influential in our evolvement was, not to get bogged down with the day-to-day runnings of a school as such, but rather to keep your head up and keep looking forward to where you want to get to.
Otherwise, you can become very, very good and pat yourself on the back and say, ‘we worked really hard today’, but you've kind of ended up in the same spot. But rather, keep looking forward. And I think that type of leadership, is something that’s really enabled this program to keep moving forward.
“This is an opportunity for the Government to get alongside those of us in all of the different spheres well beyond education, and support us to achieve what we’re wanting to achieve on behalf of the country, not on behalf of Māori exclusively,” Durie says.
CC:Tell me about your plans to reopen St Stephen’s School.
ND: Well, I’ve had this on the horizon for a number of years now, along with a large group of people who have been interested, for their own various reasons.
My bigger driver is more around the space of Māori boys’ education and the horrible state it’s in, in this country. We have very good schools, very well-funded schools who do a not-so-good job in that space.
And so I’m really keen to see whether we can fashion something that works specifically for this cohort. And on the basis of that, I believe what’s good for us will be good for our country.
You can’t have this number in your population who fail so dramatically in the system. It doesn’t need to be [that way].
And so I’m pleased with the improvements that we’ve made in terms of Manukura and the ability to show growth in that space. But I want to do it differently and I want to do it better for boys. So that’s the focus for me.
CC: You attended St Stephen’s/ Tīpene school as a boy, is that right?
I’m an ex-student of Tīpene and I’m proud of my time there. I’ve also been back there on two other occasions working. One when I was at university myself, I worked there part-time and didn’t really have much of an impact in the place at that stage.
And then I went back there as an assistant principal at one stage. And it’d be fair to say as a professional, I was quite frustrated with the place. I could see its potential.
But for a range of different reasons, it was stuck. And I think what we’ve seen in the evolvement of Māori within this country, has been a real desire to drive things and change for ourselves.
So yeah, I was a student and I enjoyed my time there as a student. Looking forward it clearly needs to make a shift to be relevant to the needs and demands of our community and people in the future.
CC: I’ve heard you say that as a student at St Stephen’s you were “delusional enough to believe you could go out into the world and make a change”, can you tell me more about that?
(Laughs), I can’t blame St Stephen’s for my [delusional thinking], but I think what we had was a space which was not exclusively, but predominantly Māori.
And so I guess what we learned, or came to recognise later while we were there, is that sense that being Māori was OK. In fact, it was an advantage.
Coming out into the real world, you can get a little bit of a kick in the teeth sometimes, but I think that, like most kids, it’s not NCEA or trophies or anything like that that defines our people, I think it’s having a level of confidence. So, an assuredness that you as a person are OK.
And I think that is what gives you a level of substance that allows you to move on out into the world and believe that you can be successful.
And there are a number of people who have that opportunity in the school system, but Māori often, are disadvantaged in that space.
But what Tīpene gave us was a sense of, you know, we were successful in that space and we were successful as Māori.
And I think what that enabled us to do when we left, is that we hadn’t been beaten up in the system, and therefore [it] allowed us to move out into the world with a level of assurance and confidence.
And so those are the two big tickets, I think, and I’ve been in this education game for a long time.
All of the skills you acquire along the way do add to your confidence, but I think that just having a level of confidence is really important for young people moving forward.
CC: What are you and Yvette hoping to achieve at the new school?
Well, I guess the ultimate goal for us is not just to open another school, there’s hundreds of schools all over the country.
I guess the question for us is ‘how do we evolve an education system that allows this cohort of people who fail miserably, to excel? What does it look like?’
The fact that they’re there 24/7, in terms of being a boarding school, allows us so much more scope.
There are different challenges with that, but it allows us so much more scope to deliver and fashion an education model that allows this group of people to become real leaders and real drivers within the communities and families that they come from. So that’s what I want to achieve.
That means ticking the box from an educational perspective, because there are demands around that as a supposedly functioning school.
But well beyond that, I think the challenge that sits with us as a people, is how do we ensure that these people who are an essential part of the social and cultural fabric of New Zealand and particularly within the communities that they come from, how is it that they are able to contribute and lead?
Not too much, we just want to excel – and I think if you don’t start with that point, then what’s the purpose? I’m excited about it, I’m enthusiastic, but I’m realistic as well.
So, in the next 12 months, we want to start to recruit and engage with people that are keen on bringing the same sorts of goals and aspirations to fruition.
If we can do that, that would be the biggest starting point, having the right people on board who can commit to that.
CC: If there is one or two things you wish we’d do differently in our collective approach to Māori education in New Zealand, what would it/they be?
ND: Well, the results kind of speak for themselves. I think what we’ve got in this country now is quantifiable evidence that says when Māori take charge of their own opportunities, be that in education or elsewhere, we do a good job. We have a vested interest in it.
And so therefore, if we were going to do things different, how do we then provide opportunities for people who wish to drive these different changes?
And, you know, economically, it makes no sense to just keep putting money in the same dinosaur that’s been failing us for over 100 years, at least in terms of short-term economy.
In terms of long-term investment in the country, you can’t have a population of this country, which is now nearing one million people, you can’t have the failure that education delivers unless there’s an agenda behind it.
And so what would we do different? Just enable opportunity for us to do it. The reality is we’re doing it anyway.
This is an opportunity for the Government to get alongside those of us in all of the different spheres well beyond education, and support us to achieve what we’re wanting to achieve on behalf of the country, not on behalf of Māori exclusively.
Tīpene will be the same, it won’t be a school just for Māori, it’ll be for all people of this country and the Pacific, which has been its history and its origins.
And we want to help bring that to fruition. And I think, therefore, governments have an obligation to enable us to do those things.
CC: Thanks for the chat Nathan. Is there anything else that you wanted to raise before I let you go?
I think, one of the things that has come to my attention over the last bit is that there’s been a question mark, I suppose, with some level of justification, around the place of Māori boarding schools. There’s been hesitation, possibly with some good reason.
And so in the last Government we went back several times to chase opportunity and we were challenged in a number of places and I can live with that to an extent, [but] I guess if it’s not this, the question is, what is the Government doing?
The last government, I didn’t see much more than wanting to build more prisons for our people. And so if we talk about education being the key to growing economies within this country, then I guess the challenge back to governments moving forward is that how do they allow us to drive our own changes?
I was increasingly frustrated over the last few years, not with the fact that they said no to us, but the fact that they didn’t seem to have anything else on offer, other than building more prisons.
If you want to deal with the issues that they talk about as being at the forefront, this idea of only recognising Māori as problems, then you’ll continue to do that part of politicising.
The reality is we could reverse the trend of Māori boys’ education by investing in opportunities like this. And then you could put your hand on your heart and say ‘we did a good job’, or at least we gave it a go.