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Graduation and prize giving week at our colleges is an opportunity to celebrate the success of our young people and the excellence of Nelson secondary schools. It is extra special for me having both a son and daughter completing college this year.

The quality of Nelson schools is part of what makes our community so successful. It is about investing in the knowledge and skills for Nelson’s future.  There is intense world-wide competition for talented business people, medical professionals, scientists etc, and to attract them to Nelson we need schools amongst the very best.

Nelson has a proud heritage of leadership in education. Our early settlers were revolutionary in their goal of schools being free and accessible to all. We should be very proud that Wakefield is home to New Zealand’s oldest primary school (established 1843) and that Nelson College (established 1856) is New Zealand’s oldest secondary school. We were ahead of the times in championing women’s education with the Girls College being established in 1883 and led by Kate Edgar, the first woman in the British Empire to get a university degree.

A rich heritage is not enough to make a great school. I am proud of how both our original colleges have responded to the new challenges of our times like youth mental health, social media and increased cultural diversity. I particularly wish to pay tribute to retiring Nelson College Headmaster Gary O’Shea. The Gibbons Trade Academy, Whare and upgraded Rutherford Boarding House are part of Gary’s strong legacy.

I am equally proud of Waimea and Nayland Colleges led by two of New Zealand’s top secondary school principals, Scott Haines and Daniel Wilson. Waimea College is under pressure from strong roll growth but continues to impress with its academic and sporting achievement. Nayland College was struggling five years ago but is now going from strength to strength.

I confess to a personal soft spot for Garin College. I was responsible for its establishment as Minister of Education. I like Nelson parents having the additional choice of this Catholic integrated school. It is a very successful college excelling in academics and the performing arts.

How do we ensure the future success of our colleges? Firstly, we need to back our Boards and Principals. I worry that Government plans to centralise power with the Ministry of Education will reduce local decision making by Principals and Boards. Secondly, we do need healthy competition between our colleges, by parents having choice about where to enrol. Thirdly, we need to champion the importance of the teaching profession.

My optimism for the future always gets a boost from attending college prizegivings. I provide an Environment Award to all five colleges to recognise top students. Many other organisations also help by rewarding our talented young people. I congratulate the prize winners and wish all senior students well with their NCEA exams. My warmest tribute is to Nelson’s teachers who have given so much to my children and their peers as they now go out and make their way in the world.

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