A retrospective view

The very first seminar I became involved in took place in the mid 1980s when Shirley Millward, then of SPELD, contacted me to ask if I would be interested in helping her organise a residential seminar for teenagers at Auckland University. It was just so long ago that the details are now lost in the smudgy mists of all the intervening years – but I seem to recall that we made some gigantic organisational errors. The first seminar that I have any clear memory of was again for teenagers, took place is August 1987 and revolved around lectures in Health & Fitness, Careers Advice’ and visits to Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World and the Planetarium. In January 1988 I see from my copy of the brochure that we organised workshops in Economics, Russian and Ancient History and there were afternoon trips to Rose Hellaby House Museum and Parakai Hot Pools. The total cost for this five day happening was a princely $130.

The first event for younger students (ten to thirteen year olds) took place, I am somewhat surprised to note, as long ago as August 1988 at Auckland University, was for four days and there was plenty of parking available in Grafton Road student car park! Parents who offered to provide transport for afternoon trips to the Museum, Microworld, and the Mercury Theatre were promised a petrol voucher! Workshops included Biology, Computing, Geology, Japanese, Anthropology and Music. The cost was $110.

In May 1989 another teenage event promised the participants: Pascal Programming, Weaponry, and Physics, followed by Rock Climbing, Orienteering and Abseiling on one of the islands in the gulf then on to Ice Skating at Paradice in West Auckland where we hosted our first broken ankle if my memory serves me well. By August 1990 the cost of our five day teenage seminar had risen to $170 and we were offering Zoology and Political Science. Afternoon activities included an introduction to Yoga and Assertiveness Training. Paradice was still on the agenda and we survived another broken limb, this time a wrist.

It was in early 1990 that Shirley and I decided we should each concentrate on the age group that interested us most – for her it was the teenagers, but I really wanted to extend the opportunity for the younger group and ideally wanted to include those from age eight. My very first solo seminar was in fact aimed specifically at eight to ten year olds in May 1991. It was impossible to get University rooms at that time of year, mostly I believe because I did not book early enough, and so I used the local High School, Selwyn College, as the venue. This was a three day event and the workshops included Mathematics, French, Body Language, Canine Behaviour, Mindstretching, Calligraphy, Music, Logic and Science! The fee was $135 and I see that games of Chess and Monopoly were offered over the lunch break – and oh how difficult it was to prise some of the children away from them and into the afternoon sessions! It was all a little chaotic and I recall one very heated discussion with a parent who said he was a professional dog handler and furthermore his son thought the Canine Behaviour workshops were `rubbish’. Two or three others demanded to know what happened to any profits the course made. One – an accountant – ominously muttered that education should always be free and he hoped for my sake that the profit was kept small. By that stage I most fervently hoped so too! I was in luck as it happened as the charge-out fee proved to be inadequate. Nothing daunted, I see from my records that in September that year I organised a similar course, again at Selwyn College but now Canine Behaviour was put behind us and the workshop range was: Calligraphy, Logic, French, Heiroglyphs, Maths, German and First Aid. The price had now increased to a more realistic $145. However, I lived in fear of complaints from parents who paid up happily enough it seemed at enrolment time, but complained later that holiday workshops for their gifted children ought to be free`because education should be free’. They were mostly impervious to arguments pointing out that they did not expect out of school piano or ballet lessons to be free. Repeatedly I was told that those cultural activities were `quite different’. Part of me was sympathetic but it was simply not possible to provide a free service if I wanted it to be ongoing. Although Selwyn College would, I am sure, have given me rooms free of charge occasionally, I would not be able to rely on their generosity ad infinitum. Potential tutors were generally happy to donate their time and skills on a one-off or even two-off basis, but if I wanted to retain them for the future I had to pay them at a professional rate; and in any event I felt that if they were paid a professional rate I could demand a professional standard of service. I wanted the sessions to run smoothly, the classes to start on time - and five minutes is a long, long time when you are eight years old and waiting for the French teacher who has misjudged travelling distance, and I wanted the tutors to be properly prepared. Advertising costs and resources were also, not going to get any cheaper. I felt that the only cost I could influence dramatically revolved around my own involvement as organiser. If losses were made then I had to absorb them personally. Having made that decision in 1991, this is the way I have continued to work. When enrolments are low, I do not cancel a seminar, but instead simply donate my time, and that of my usually tolerant and understanding family who have over the years been involved in a great deal of the clerical and supervision work. That first year did not bring all bad news because we were able to buy a fax machine for the home office which kept us up with the play as far as communications was concerned.

The organisational learning curve continued to be steep but during 1992 three courses were run, two in January and one in May using both the University and College as venues. Subjects included Ancient History, Maths, Science, French, Russian, Calligraphy, Music, German, Typing, Pitman’s Shorthand, Creative Writing and Dance. Mid year I had the brainwave to issue all students with name tags rather than struggle with their names. I then struggled with insisting that they wore them each day. I rather rashly fell in love with a cheap second hand photocopier which was an expensive mistake and part of the learning curve!

During 1993 I ran two courses in January, one in May, and one in August. Latin, Computer Science, Italian and Japanese were added to the general repertoire. It was during this year that I first decided that in order to further ensure no management hitches and glitches, supervision staff needed to be involved to leave teaching staff totally free of all extraneous duties. The first supervisors were my teenage children and their friends which was not altogether the best decision I could have made. The following year I began to hire University students for these duties. Another 1993 innovation was giving participation certificates to every attending child. During 1994 and 1995 a total of twelve seminars took place, in the January, May and August holidays. Topics such as Cartoon Art and Juggling, History Role Play and Debating began to make appearances in the programme. At the beginning of 1994 I decided to give some students who appeared to have made leaps in understanding, high achievement certificates. Later, I thought that awarding prizes might be fun, too – and the children took to this with great enthusiasm.

In 1996 a major organisational change in the school term times took place. The May and August holidays no longer existed and terms were much shorter and four times a year. Over the next few years two seminars took place during each school holiday period – unless I completely ran out of energy. I was also managing an emergency medical centre and after hours pharmacy during this period and at times my energy levels were low.

It became increasingly difficult to get University rooms other than in January when the change was made to semesters and so most courses now took place at Selwyn College. The content of the workshops altered as students became more demanding of the interactive and less inclined to accept the frankly academic. The popularity of languages all but disappeared but Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy took their place. Jewellery Making, Clock making and all aspects of Design Technology became much sought after and Philosophy first appeared in the junior programme. For a time we were able to offer Robotics which the boys in particular seemed mesmerised by. Rocketry made a dramatic though somewhat expensive appearance but the demand for the workshops was great. We bought twelve new Chess sets, five more copies of Risk and our very first Diplomacy game. By September of 1996 the seminar cost had risen to $215.

1997 saw the beginning of further change. The seminars, variously described as `High Ability Seminars’ , ‘Seminars for Gifted Students’, or simply `Holiday Seminars’ now became `Achieving Potential Seminars’ and have largely retained this title. January had traditionally been our most popular and successful time, particularly in the week before term one of the new school year. In January 1997, however, our numbers were down for the very first time with less than 45 juniors at Selwyn College and only 50 intermediates at the University. The hire of the latter venue was expensive and this downturn was a blow. Numbers for April and July were good, however, though somewhat less so in September. January 1998 saw an even more dramatic downturn with only 27 students enrolled in the junior group and 37 in the older group at the University. I foolishly decided not to cancel any of the workshops which meant that some groups comprised of a mere three participants, I realised in retrospect that a group of three is really no group at all particularly where discussion and bouncing of ideas is integral to the activity. Over the next few years January figures largely followed the same trend although not quite as dramatically.

Further changes were made with regard to supervision in late 2000. The student supervision team were proving to be a less and less successful initiative, particularly if they knew each other well. They tended to spend far too much time talking to each other, planning social events, etc. than interacting with the children as I wanted them to. They were also less aware of potential problems between the children than I had hoped. I decided to offer the positions to parents or teachers attending with children in return for a significant fee reduction. This has worked much better and the places have always been eagerly taken up. These adult supervisors are much more interested in the content of the workshops than the students were – electing mostly to sit in with each group. They are alert to the children’s needs and altogether much more efficient.

Since 2000 the seminar structure and identity has become more defined. Because it is clear that the students really enjoy the Certificate & Awards Ceremony at the end of the last afternoon, last year inscribed seminar medals were awarded for the first time which has been a lot of fun. In recent years some of our most popular workshops have been Russell Greenwood’s `Unexplained’ where an investigation of such mysteries as: What happened to the Marie Celeste?. ….. Who was Jack The Ripper?...... Have children really been raised by wolves? are raised and answers are sought. Paul Willis continues to create magic with his Shakespeare classes – and his scrutiny of the works of JRR Tolkien and the relationship with the New Zealand film industry. The Strategy Games sessions organised by Patrick Harris and Andrew Gibson are always well patronised and Ken Ring’s popularity with Maths and Magic does not diminish. On the other hand, when we introduced Jewellery Design once again early in 2006, it was not received as enthusiastically as the same class, same tutor, eight or nine years ago and Rocketry no longer inspires and excites as it once did.

January continues to be quite unviable for us. Two courses were organised for January 2006 presenting what I considered to be content both broad and exciting but we managed to attract only 40 junior students and a terribly low 18 older ones! However, we bulked out the older group using a number of emergency measures, rather than cancel and we were all able to have a very good time although several of the actual workshops had to be combined. Of course one of the reasons for this decline over the summer may simply be that there is now a lot of choice for all children, highly able or otherwise, at this time of year. Demand for April, July and September courses remains mostly unchanged.

In total I have organised eighty seven Achieving Potential Seminars for students in the approximate age range eight to fourteen years. Recently, following much demand, the ceiling age was raised to fifteen years. Also, Shirley and I worked in conjunction a few years back to offer residential Law and Medical seminars for older teenagers.

Since 1990 overall costs have risen by about four per cent per year. I have gone to considerable lengths to try to ensure that the costs are kept as low as possible but this remains challenging.

Often students apply to local Rotary or Lions groups for funding or partial funding, and in some areas local businesses will sponsor students. In early 1996 we were lucky enough to be granted funds from the Todd Foundation which made it possible to help sixteen students who would otherwise not been able to attend. Whatever the difficulties, however, working on the programmes has been extremely rewarding and undoubtedly will continue to be so.

Jean Hendy-Harris (December 2006)

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