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Crop out left hand side of imageWe stand on a hill­top in Pori­rua East. Around us, emer­ging from the raw­ness of a build­ing site, is a new sub­di­vi­sion: the Aotea Block, where homes can cost up to $800,000. Far below us are the state houses of Can­nons Creek. And Tim Dav­ies-Col­ley says, “It’s stark, isn’t it? It’s decile 10 look­ing down on decile 1, with a gully in between.”

Dav­ies-Col­ley is – or was – a teach­er, and thinks in deciles. The new sub­di­vi­sion is in the zone for the decile 5 school he used to head, Aotea Col­lege. But he left in 2011, con­vinced he could do more about the grow­ing social gulf out­side the classroom than in. “As much as there are teach­ers who are want­ing to make a dif­fer­ence, they can’t make a dif­fer­ence to that many kids,” he says. “And they aren’t able to relate to every kid, and they don’t have the same level of influ­ence [as par­ents and the com­munity], because they are not see­ing them every day.”

The gulf between chil­dren in the Block and the Creek opens up early on. The most import­ant peri­od of brain devel­op­ment, Dav­ies-Col­ley says, is from birth to age three. But many of the Creek kids will miss out on the best pos­sible start, in line with over­seas research show­ing less able rich kids over­tak­ing bright­er poor kids in those early years.

As we drive down from the Block, wind­ing towards Can­nons Creek, the houses around us becom­ing pro­gress­ively smal­ler and more dilap­id­ated, Dav­ies-Col­ley tosses out all kinds of ideas to help bridge the gap. There’s a “habitu­al learn­ing pro­gramme” – “what the latest brain research shows is that… unless you review with­in 24 hours, you have lost 80 per­cent of your new learn­ing” – and a ‘cod­ing dojo’, where kids could learn to build, and pro­gramme, their own computers.

Much of this has to do with the digit­al divide. In a world sup­posedly more con­nec­ted than ever, just one-third of Can­nons Creek house­holds (at the 2006 Census) had com­puters – let alone an Inter­net con­nec­tion. So Dav­ies-Col­ley runs Com­puters in Homes, provid­ing com­puters, and com­puter train­ing, to low-income fam­il­ies. While some people focus on the tech­no­logy, he says, “It’s really about con­fid­ence.” He’s also been push­ing a pro­ject called Can­nons Creek Free Wire­less, which will soon provide 200­–300 homes – and, fund­ing per­mit­ting, whole sub­urbs – with free wi-fi access.

I was, until ten years ago, prob­ably fairly right wing,” Dav­ies-Col­ley says. “Or cer­tainly right of centre. And over the time I spent in some com­munit­ies… I could see it was nev­er a level play­ing field. And that means we have to do some­thing to help people who are in the dips in that play­ing field.”

Per­son­al exper­i­ence has also made him increas­ingly inter­ested in sup­port­ive, bridging approaches. Sev­er­al years ago he lost a leg in a car acci­dent, when anoth­er driver lost con­trol and crashed into him. But through a res­tor­at­ive justice pro­gramme, he learnt that the oth­er driver was “a good kid” who was simply “driv­ing angry” after being let down by his fath­er. “It’s hard [doing res­tor­at­ive justice], but you get to hear the back­ground, you get to fill in the gaps.”

As he’s say­ing this, we arrive on York Place in Can­nons Creek, look­ing back up at the block above. This is the oth­er end of a divided Pori­rua, one that has 30 per­cent of its pop­u­la­tion in deciles 1 and 2, nearly half in deciles nine and 10, and hardly any­one left in the middle.

There are big­ger things at play here than just know­ledge – but it still mat­ters, Dav­ies-Col­ley says. “In a revolu­tion­ary sense, if you look at the Cuban Revolu­tion, one of the reas­ons it was so suc­cess­ful was down to… the eman­cip­at­ory lit­er­acy pro­gramme that was run­ning. It meant that people were learn­ing not just words – they were learn­ing worlds.”

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