The 1980s – the forgotten decade that changed NZ forever

On Tuesday 17 May, Charmaine spoke at one of Ika’s Salon evenings…

Laila Harre, the owner of Ika Bar and Grill,  asked Charmaine to describe some of the huge changes in Auckland and Aotearoa in the 1980s, their effect on her personally and politically, and on the students and staff of Auckland Girls’ Grammar School while she was Principal of AGGS.  Laila was a student there herself from 1979 to 1982.

This is what Charmaine intended to say, although, as usual, she deviated quite widely from her speech notes…and told lots more stories.  For a full account of the period, see Charmaine’s book, Learning Our Living (still available from libraries…)

When Laila suggested I talk tonight about the 1980s, I began to reflect not only on what we experienced at the time, but also on what we achieved, what has been forgotten, and what we still need to do, in schools and in society as a whole.

I was appointed Headmistress of Auckland Girls’ Grammar School in 1978, and stayed there for ten years; when I was writing Learning Our Living a decade later, I said this:
The 1980s were a turbulent time for New Zealand in a host of ways- race relations, feminism, the Springbok tour, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, the imposition of monetarist economic policies, the dismantling of much of the welfare state…it’s no wonder our staff, working with young women in the centre of the city where many of these issues were most violently debated, often felt as though we were living in a hurricane…
Now, somewhat sheltered from the hurricane, I’ve tried to organize my thoughts around these main areas of change:
Technology, Employment and Payment, Race Relations, Environment, Democracy..

Communications Technology

When I was in Form 7 at EGGS, my biology teacher , Eleanor Cranwell, told me about a book just translated into English, The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. His description of the emergence of the noosphere made great sense to me – and I’ve been seeing it happen ever since. So for a long time I’d thought about how the sharing of knowledge and skills more effectively could impact on our well-being and on the nature of work and life. It was during the early 1980s that personal computers first became available, and schools had to join the technology race. We managed to provide our students with good equipment from very early in the 1980s – but the gap between those schools which could, and those which couldn’t or didn’t grew greater, and continues to do so. And even though our public libraries make communications technology free and available to anyone, finding and using a library is certainly not possible for all.  Too many young people are still growing up only semi-literate in the main technologies of the 21st century.  Also we see that the noosphere is much like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil imagined in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible – making great evil available, as well as great good – and we have made no progress, I believe, in choosing good rather than bad, or in helping young people to learn to make wise moral decisions – too much emphasis on multiple choice questions and  standardised testing procedures.

Employment and Payment

Just before I moved to AGGS, when I was a Deputy Principal at Rutherford High School, I was involved in establishing a pre-employment programme to encourage more young people to stay on at school – the number of unskilled jobs was already shrinking dramatically, first because of technological changes (no more typist pools, automated production and sorting lines). So very early in my time at AGGS , we began to consider the changing nature of work and its impact on young Maori and Pacific Island girls in particular. Very soon it became obvious that as the nature of work changed, the systems of education , retraining and payment needed to change too. But what actually happened was the creation outside schools of makepiece training programmes leading nowhere, ACCESS, STEPS, YOP, and later TOPS, CTF, TFG, WSDP, to name a few.  So we had to make a better job of preparing young people for a changing world within the school. By the time I left AGGS in 1988 we had developed 14 different pre-employment and transtion education programmes designed to ensure every one of our students could leave to move into a tertiary programme or suitable employment, as well expanding our curriculum to include both Maori and English as both first and second languages, and courses in Mandarin and  Samoan as well as Latin, French and German.  We had technical courses (in wood , metal and technical drawing as well as foods and textiles), horticulture, computer skills, and a range of applied and social science programmes, and different kinds of mathematics, as well as in traditional school subjects.  There is still no national planning to ensure that every young person can continue to learn to keep up with changes in technology and international trade relations.

Race relations

Soon after I arrived in the school, Rosemary, one of the staff, brought a friend to see me one evening. Ama was a member of Polynesian Panthers, and she proceeded to challenge me on all the aspects of institutional racism evident at AGGS. I’d heard some of the challenges in general at the end of the 1970 Women’s Convention in Hamilton at Easter time, 1979, so I’d had to start thinking about the issues – faced with a school that had such a visibly diverse population, and that had some history of Maori involvement , and that had a cultural concert with Maori and Pasifika groups once a year, but was a white grammar school in all other respects.
Then in 1979, a group of Maori students at the University of Auckland interrupted a rehearsal of a mock haka by engineering students preparing for Capping Parade. The tension between the two groups had grown over many years , with the mock haka becoming more and more offensive, and more and more Maori feeling angry. This time, the groups came to blows – a fight erupted, and reached the Herald headlines and TV and radio news.

As a result , the Race Relations Conciliator, Hiwi Tauroa, organized a series of hui around the country to discuss relations between Maori and Pakeha. Senior students and staff from AGGS were closely involved in the discussions, because one hearing was held just up the road at the Race relations office.

Also, we had  our own drama in 1981 when Ripeka Evans spoke to our senior school assembly during Maori Language Week, and upset almost everyone with such statements as, “My heart aches for you, you young black women, you are so beautiful, even though your teachers teach you to hate yourselves and hate each other..”. I tried to explain to staff, and to girls at a series of lunchtime meetings, the meaning of structural racism, which is what Ripeka was talking about, and we began to look really critically at our own internal activities and structures.

Then, also in 1981, came the Springbok tour, which split the nation – our job was to keep a respectful and supportive atmosphere at school for all our students, and to encourage critical thinking and courteous expression of differing views. By and large we managed. I did, however, have to fend off attacks at Board meetings, not for the first time, about our stance on various matters, like giving a staff member leave without pay to go to the protest in Gisborne.

In 1982 the Human Rights Commission produced a book, Race against Time, as a result of the national conversation, and one of our ex-students brought us the film. Other influences during the decade included the extending of the work of the Waitangi Tribunal (1984) to include historical grievances, and many publications showing us our nation differently, such as the bone people (1984), Maori Sovereignty (1984), The New Zealand Wars (1986), and (1987).

Alison Jones, from the University of Auckland, did a research project on student interaction and learning styles in the classroom, resulting in her book At School I Get a Chance, which had a profound effect on our teaching practice. Our staff made a commitment to changes.

And from 1986 on, we developed the wharenui Kahurangi ki Maungawhau, and  established the first Maori immersion class in a state school, Nga Tumanako ki Kahurangi. A long journey, spoken quickly.  We were for the first time on a path which acknowledged our bicultural heritage, and the Treaty of Waitangi; so was the nation as a whole.

Of course, by looking honestly at Maori/Pakeha relationships within the school we had also had to come to grips with our attitudes towards, and provision for, all cultures (32 at the time). We established a comprehensive programme of language teaching across the curriculum, affirming first languages, and teaching English language skills as required for learning purposes. Many teachers learnt to draw on the diverse cultural experiences of the girls as a normal part of subject teaching (like referring to tapa patterns in mathematics, and preservation techniques in different cultures in science).

How far have we gone as a nation down this path?  The experiences of Andrew Judd, the Mayor of New Plymouth, show that some parts of the country have barely started their journey, a generation later.  In Auckland, and some other areas, a kind of partnership emerged between councils and tangata whenua, at least on some issues.  But there are still bigots and the profoundly ignorant who feel threatened by cultural change.  And there is no systematic approach to educating such people, in spite of the many experienced treaty educators available to work with them .  Learning is voluntary for adults- and our schools still fail, far too often, to include our true history as a nation and encourage our young people to move forward in good faith.

The Gender Agenda

Of course issues of human rights and political power were being debated world-wide during the 1970s and 80s, so I was aware of the Civil Rights issue in the USA, and of the rise of feminist concerns. I had subscribed to Broadsheet since its beginning in June 1972, had been to the 1975 and 79 United Women’s Conventions in Wellington and Hamilton, and read widely – most memorably, Shulamith Firestone’s 1970s classic, The Dialectic of Sex: the Case for Feminist Revolution (sometimes under the table during boring bits of a PPTA executive meeting in the mid-70s.)
One of our staff had been an abortion counsellor and part of the Broadsheet collective, a few others had a clear understanding of feminist concepts and commitment to change, and through lively staffroom discussions we all learnt more. One of my challenges came from a young teacher who said she hadn’t decided whether to stay in teaching because schools were “so patriarchal” . I brightly said she could continue to work in girls’ schools. She then described in detail the patriarchal features of AGGS.

But very importantly, during my time at AGGS, I was forced to learn about the appalling treatment suffered by so many of our young women, from all cultures and classes, as part of their daily lives. By the early 1980s, we had an outstanding team of guidance staff who worked with deans, teachers and external social services to support girls and their families, and made sure we all understood what was happening to girls just because they were girls, not boys. Staff, too, began to share some of their stories – I remember an afterschool conversation when 8 out of 9 around the table talked about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse.

Some of our staff (including me, of course) were lesbian – some openly so and some, like me, still closet. We had a tense time in 1979 when a small group from the PTA became very twitchy about changes in the school (they were all women who’d been students at AGGS, and had daughters there – and they all wanted the school to continue as it had been in their time. Even my conservative predecessor had told me that wasn’t possible – and she was retiring early because she didn’t want to be involved in the changes).

One of the very practical teaching challenges we faced squarely at AGGS was the tendency for girls to drop out of mathematics, chemistry and physics, and computer technology far too early. We were fortunate to have good teachers in these subjects and continued to attract more, partly because we read up on in the latest research about gender differences and how to maintain the interest and enthusiasm of girls, and partly through having good role models. Some of our staff in these subjects were the founding group of WIMMSET (Women In Mathematics, Medicine, Science, Engineering, and Technology) an Auckland association established soon after I returned from my Nuffield scholarship in the UK in 1985, where I had been involved in some international workshops on these issues.
I become enraged when I still hear discussions on why we can’t get more women into these fields – 30 years after the research was done and effective strategies developed!!  And it seems as though sexual abuseof children and violence of all kinds against women has increased, along with the inculcation of body-hating in young women so they will spend more money on clothes, cosmetics and body surgery.

Although social attitudes towards gay and lesbian people have improved, we have done little yet to open society to the idea of gender inclusiveness- our narrow binary model of male-female is still overwhelmingly insistent.  But growing numbers of young people are beginning to demand the right to name their gender identities differently…and at least one school – Diocesan School for Girls in Auckland- is open to their needs, it seems.


When I say “we” as I talk about AGGS, I mean students as well as staff. Sharon Hawke, for instance, made a huge contribution to our understanding of Treaty issues when she came as a Form 6 student, direct from the invasion of Takaparawhau (where some of our staff had been protesting too).
In 1982, our school newspaper, Impact, had an article by Laila Harre about the founding of a school Environment Group to take action on environmental matters inside and outside the school, including local and national conservation measures like tree planting, recycling, , saving native forests. The group flourished , moved on to establish a Peace Group too, and persuaded staff and students to vote to declare the school a nuclear-free zone – the first educational institution to do so in NZ, I believe.  Later, we also developed an effective recycling programme, and the school has, since I left, become a leader in this field, achieving a gold award in the enviroschools programme and establishing fine sustainability courses and initiatives.

As a society we no longer ignore the problems of pollution, waste and global warming – but few people actually do anything to reduce their consumption and waste production.  our streets are still littered every day.  and our cars sit on motorways pouring out fumes at peak hours (which in Auckland can be at any time of day).


Under Muldoon and the National party in the 1970s and early 80s, we’d had the Think Big policy beginning to loot the environment, the mining of burial grounds at Maioro, and other disasters. But Muldoon was a fiscal socialist of the old-fashioned kind- all about control from the top of the economy.
After the Labour victory in 1984, we all know now there was a swing towards extreme libertarian economic policy. At first, many of us were unaware of the possible consequences – later, as I’ve described, the disastrous results of economic liberalization without careful education and employment planning became obvious- mass unemployment with no provision for long-term skill retraining or fair income distribution.
And democracy has become poll-worshipping and has continued to be a battleground between rich and poor, those who believe in their own entitlement and those who feel excluded, those who have the time, energy and money to participate in decision-making – and the rest.

So what’s changed? And what could change, given the power of modern communications technology? We need a public and political demand for the education of all young people in the importance of participation – and that can only be done by having effective participation by young people in decision-making in our schools, especially secondary schools, and in community decision-making.

The early success of the Mana-Internet Party in attracting many people previously uninterested in political discussion to huge meetings (like the one Tany a and I attended in Kelston before the last election) shows that there is a will for change. Pity about the mad millionaire, but if we don’t want a to fund change, we have to be prepared to do it ourselves, through Action Station, Scoop and a whole new political movement which works with Greens and Maori Party and bypasses the foolishness of Westminster oppositionary parties. . so we have lots to do, not just in schools, but throughout society, to overcome the negative effects of the 1980s changes, to retrieve what we learnt from that period, and to build on the positive achievements and transformations during that time..

So the 1980s still linger, really, and until we have a national conversation about living differently, the negative results like inequality  will continue and the positive ones like cultural diversity will wax and wane….


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