It was after an inter-school debating competition in 2015 that something clicked for Massey High School principal Glen Denham. A post-comp de-brief at McDonald’s – “I’d love to tell you we went somewhere really healthy to eat!” says Denham – revealed why the Year 10 Massey students hadn’t felt good about their performance at the competition: they felt inferior in their drab uniforms alongside their peers sporting smart blazers and ties. In the words of one of the students: “I felt shit, sir.”

Denham sought to rectify this. Like many of us, he is deeply concerned with how inequitable our education system has become. If putting his kids in kit that made them hold their heads a little higher would help close the gap – even just a smidgen – then it was worth doing.

He shares a brief story that confirms that it has indeed been worth doing. A Year 12 student had been buying shoes in a shop in Henderson and the shop assistant had asked which school he was from and said how smart he looked in his school blazer and tie; the boy shared the compliment with Denham.

“I asked him, ‘How did that make you feel?’” says Denham, “And do you know what his response was? He said,

“Sir, I didn’t feel invisible anymore.”

When the new uniform was first released, Denham received an email that said, “You’re a Westie School, stop trying to be Kings or St Kent’s. Stay in your lane!”

He shared this with his school community, with the response, “I’m not sure what that ‘lane’ is, but…I’m surmising that they feel, that we have a particular role to play in society that precludes our kids from wearing blazers and ties.”

As far as Denham is concerned, the sky is the limit for Massey kids. And he wants to keep them accountable to their aspirations.

It starts at the school gate. Attendance and punctuality is hugely important at Massey. Its attendance rate sits at over 95%, which is impressive by any school’s standards. When he first became principal in 2015, Denham recognised that the school’s many entrance points made it easy for students to drift in and out as and when they pleased. There is now just one entrance, and school leaders greet students as they come in each morning – by 8.29am. The school also has a resilience coach – Denham doesn’t like the term ‘truancy officer’ – and ongoing conversations with families, so that parents are on board.

“If kids aren’t here, we can’t teach them. And the ones who don’t come, are the ones who end up on benefits. And what we want is for our kids to be fiscally independent – not on benefits.”

As they start any given school day, a student might be asked about their current NCEA credit status. If the student doesn’t know, the school takes this seriously. Students must know where they’re heading and what they’re aiming for, says Denham.

“NCEA is a bit like Lego,” he says, “You can spend time building something and not actually make anything.

“It’s unacceptable for kids in Year 13 to have no idea what they’re going to do.”

To this end, Denham thinks there needs to be more collaboration between secondary and tertiary and industry.

“NCEA is hard enough for schools to understand, let alone businesses – so we need their input.”

It’s about giving the kids freedom of choice, he says.

“When they leave school, if they want to go to uni, they can. If they want to run a business, they can.”

If he had one wish for New Zealand education it would be for there to be a careers advisor in every year group, in every school who worked with the students as they progressed through their education.

If he had another wish, it would be for every teacher to engage with a student on their way to class.

“Too many kids are not spoken to. Their parents are working hard. We’ve got to create these opportunities, and especially with our boys. We need our boys to stand up and be articulate.”

It’s clear that Denham cares deeply about his students. He’s positioned his office in the middle of the school and he slides his doors open so that students can come and go. Conversations will often strike up about his grandson, who features in photos in the office.

Denham is adamant that Massey kids should have the same opportunities as his grandson will.

“I love the students, and I tell them that,” he says. “Love looks like this: ‘If you’ve got the wrong shoes on, you need to get home and change them. How far away do you live?’ Love looks like: ‘that’s not the way we do things around here’. Love looks like: ‘you’re amazing, you’re tremendous’.”

“We are unashamedly relentless about getting what our kids need,” he says. “The way out of poverty is education. We must give our kids a chance.”

The teachers share this vision. Alongside the other variables that go into making a positive difference to student outcomes, classroom environment and teaching are at the top of the list.

Denham says a visitor to Massey High School would struggle to tell who is the principal. This is perhaps a little hard to believe – as a previous captain of the New Zealand basketball team, Denham cuts a fairly conspicuous figure. But his point pivots around the distributed leadership model he’s introduced at Massey. By increasing the number of senior leaders from 5 to 15 he is hoping to generate more opportunities for change and improvement, by mobilising leadership expertise at all levels in the school.

“We’ve got great staff here. I look at some of them and I just want to hug them,” he says.

The staff’s efforts don’t go unnoticed. Students get the opportunity to present teachers with certificates to thank them for something they’ve done. Brief video clips are shared of students thanking teachers who have made a difference to them.

Teaching is the best job in the world, says Denham.

“I wouldn’t swap one day of teaching for all my time playing basketball. Teaching is awesome. Teaching is amazing.”

It all appears to be working – the love, the leadership, the accountability, the pride, the shared vision.

The decile 4 school received excellent NCEA results last year, with higher attainment rates than those of high decile schools on average. Over 80% achieved Level 1, compared to the national average for decile 8-10 schools of 79.6%; 91.5% achieved Level 2, compared to 81.9%; and 80.3% achieved Level 3, compared to 76.4%. Only Massey’s University Entrance results were lower, at 50.7% (compared to 65.7%) but this was still higher than the national average (49.4%) and the decile 4-7 average (46.4%). Denham says in the next two years they will have closed the gap completely.

He doesn’t view the school’s success as an indication that it is punching above its weight; the expectation is for the kids to succeed. Decile doesn’t come into it.

“We must close that gap – that’s the key,” says Denham, “We can’t wait for outside agencies or anyone else. I’m not going to moan about it, and sit round and say ‘the lightbulb has gone out, what are we going to do now?’ We’re going to bloody fix it. We’re going to make our own light.”

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