Changing the Kingdom: Where there is a will and a way

It was a hot sultry day in February 2014 when I and my colleague met with a group of school leaders in the beautiful Kingdom of Tonga. Brought together by Rev. Feleti Atiola, Leader of the Wesleyan Church School System, they had asked us to meet to discuss what could be done from a curriculum perspective to increase the successful outcomes of many of their students, the ones that the Rev. Feleti called “those who had been left behind”.

Disengagement was the issue with many alienated from the curriculum offer to them. What could be done?

Winding the film back to 2013: the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) was keen to offer support to NZ agencies that would cooperate with them to offer appropriate support with aid programmes in Pacific countries. MIT was keen as MIT already a presence of a general nature in the South Pacific countries and this seemed to be an opportunity for the progress MIT had made with secondary/tertiary programmes. Was there a role for such a programme in the Pacific?

The short answer was a resounding interest from the Education leaders in Tonga. We had previously conducted seminars about that success in MIT and there seemed to an appetite to explore a development of some sort. The MFAT Partner Project was an opportunity to bid for resources to engage our Pacific colleagues in a secondary/tertiary style programme.

The issues were that too many students were not completing their schooling (early school leavers), many were not proceeding to any training after their schooling but instead were headed towards a NEETs-style of inactivity and perhaps a little mischief,

The bones of a proposal were put to the group. We would assist them to introduce a new programme based around the trades, offering to students the opportunity in Year 12 and 13 to undertake a practical subject or two that had application to the setting in Tonga.

The goal would be that the students would then:  

               emerge as prospective students for the Tonga Institute of Science and Technology (TIST), an             excellent trade training institution in Tonga but one that lacked the pathways from schools;

               return to school re-engaged and ready to complete their secondary schooling – this is aby-   product of secondary/tertiary programmes;

               return to or stay at their village but has skills that would be useful – or skills that would be             very useful in helping those in such communities that look after building and so on.

MFAT accepted the proposal and funded a substantial project for three years. The programme started with curriculum trial MIT put forward in 2014 and in successive years increasing numbers of students opted for the Trades programmes. A Level 2 certificate was developed and placed on the Tonga Qualifications Framework – the Certificate in Technical and Vocational Skills. This is the equivalent of the NZ Level 2 qualifications.

Of course, there were numerous questions to be asked and solutions to be found. Schools equipped themselves in the trades using ingenuity, cleaning up former workshops for their new use and so on. Local communities came forward, tools were sourced from many directions with MIT also contributing. Organisation such as ex-Student Associations, community service groups, and churches were keen to support the programmes.

Now some other pointers to success:

The enrolment at TIST has more than doubled their previous rolls and the tertiary provider has started to establish programmes in some of the schools.

The engagement of students in these school CITVS programmes has grown exponentially.

From the initial enrolment in 2014 of 3 schools and 45 students the Certificate programme has grown, in 2021, to 17 secondary schools on four islands[1] supported by all school-types[2] involving 895 students.  Overall, 3,720 unique students have undertaken the programme and up to and including 2020 1,356 students formally and proudly graduated with the Certificate.

In 2017 MIT maintained the programme while a new 4- year proposal was developed in collaboration with MFAT. The involvement of MFAT is scheduled to finish at the end of 2021.

What learnings can we take out of this project?

That the best projects (and this is one of them) are collaborative and based on need as identified by those who will have to deliver them and buy those who will benefit from them.

That quick hit and run projects are pointless – activity matured over time is activity that is lasting.

The competence of those delivering a project cannot be left to chance – MIT has provided professional development to those who are at the front line.

When distance is involved between the Project Team (Auckland) and the site of delivery (Tonga) you need the very best on-site management. MIT has been blessed by having a top Pacific Trades Training expert who has worked tirelessly over 8 years.

Various overseas aid specialists describe the project as being exceptional in its conception and execution.

Each year there is a graduation for the 303+ (approximately) students graduating. The largest pavilion is bedecked with tapa and vegetation and huge crowds support those graduating. The crowds stop the traffic. The radio station broadcasts the event, television is there to capture to capture it all in a repeated evening screening (and at other odd times over the next week or so. – it is a huge national event.

Each time we return we have a strong feeling of malo au’pito


[1] Tongatapu, ‘Eua, Vava’u, Ha’apai

[2] In the Tongan education system there are seven types of secondary school generally

based around religious groups and the Government. The key groups are: Wesleyan, Catholic, LDS, FCT, Anglican, Seventh Day Adventist, and the Government.

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  1. Christine McGuirk says:

    Sounds as if the scheme is working well and having a huge beneficial effect for the young people involved in Tonga. Excellent.Malo.

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