Ao Tawhiti

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Ao Tawhiti
Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery Building in May 2019.jpg
Ao Tawhiti building, 3 May 2019.
5 Mollett Street, CHCH Central,
Christchurch, New Zealand
Coordinates43°32′10.06″S 172°38′9.35″E / 43.5361278°S 172.6359306°E / -43.5361278; 172.6359306Coordinates: 43°32′10.06″S 172°38′9.35″E / 43.5361278°S 172.6359306°E / -43.5361278; 172.6359306
TypeState Co-educational Secondary, years 0–13, Designated Special Character school
Ministry of Education Institution no.683
DirectorAnita Yarwood
School roll664[1] (March 2022)
Socio-economic decile7O[2]

Ao Tawhiti or Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery (abbreviated "ATUD") is a state area school in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was established by the merging of two separate Christchurch inner city schools; the primary school Discovery 1 (unofficially Discovery or D1) and the secondary school Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti (better known as Unlimited or UPT for short).

The school is one of eleven schools running under the "Designated Special Character" criteria of the Education Act 1989.[3]

Students are given the flexibility to pick from a variety of interchangeable classes and subjects to design their own customised learning programme, including working on individual projects as an alternative to total classroom learning. They also have the option to learn subjects which are not traditionally taught in New Zealand secondary schools, such as philosophy, video game design, DJing and music production.


Ao Tawhiti was formed in 2014, by the merger of two schools which were each established by the Learning Discovery Trust. Originally they existed as two separate entities, known as Discovery 1 (primary) and Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti (secondary).

Early origins[edit]

Under the direction and leadership of John Clough, the Alpha Learning Programme explored innovative and progressive learning theory in education for two years from 1993 onwards. In late 1998 (following the creation of a trial 'Learning Lab' at Elmwood School) an application to construct a new school based on this education theory was lodged before the then Minister of Education Wyatt Creech. The Ministry acknowledged the special character and granted it a special character designation.[4]

Discovery and Unlimited[edit]

Discovery 1 was established in 2001, followed by Unlimited in 2003. Both had been formed by Christchurch-based Learning Discovery Trust.

Unlimited 2003–2011[edit]

Unlimited 'Southern Star' building to the mid-left and Northern Tower to the right, a thoroughfare for students, intersecting on High Street and Cashel (2010)

Unlimited started with just 40 students (dubbed the "foundation forty") as well as 7 staff. It opened in January 2003 at its site on Cashel Street.[4] Unlimited was originally based on the first floor of the Southern Star House building (which housed shops on the ground floor) and later occupied the second floor as well.

Ao Tawhiti claim that in 2003 a New Zealand business magazine named 'Unlimited' allegedly challenged the Unlimited school in relation to their name. The school claims it responded by renaming Unlimited to Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti, although few details about the case are given.[4]

In 2004, the construction of the Hallensteins Building (known as "Northern Tower" by those at the school) was established across from Unlimited's original premises on the corner of Cashel Street and High Street. It was built to help facilitate the growing number of students, which was upwards of 200 at the time.[4] Students and staff moved into the building in 2005. Unlimited also expanded into the basement of The Crossing building that year, next door to the Southern Star Building.[4]

Unlimited's presence in the city centre was a core aspect of the school's student culture and philosophy to learning. The Hallensteins Building was important in the development of this culture.

Unlimited reached a maximum MOE roll of 400 students by 2008.[4]

Discovery 2001–2011[edit]

Discovery was first based above a restaurant named 'The Loaded Hog' on Manchester Street. It began its first term with thirty students and eight staff. The following year the school increased by fifty new students.[4]

During the later years of the schools operation, Discovery 1 was based on the upper levels of The Crossing on the corner of Colombo Street and Cashel Street. It was accessible through the bus exchange and an adjacent multi-level car park. Although located on the same streets, students had no academic contact and were largely separated from Unlimited students due to the location of Discovery within the building, and limited accessibility. Despite this, the schools were often seen as sister schools as it was common for Discovery 1 students to move on to Unlimited, or have older siblings attending Unlimited. They would also share space if buildings were under maintenance or development so many staff and students were familiar to one another.

February 2011 Christchurch earthquake[edit]

Students in the Southern Star building during orientation week in 2011, pre-earthquake.

Some students, staff and visitors were present in the Unlimited buildings during the 6.3 magnitude earthquake on 22 February 2011. A number of people, particularly students, were not present that day or had left the school the hour before the quake, due to many staff attending a paid union meeting in the Christchurch Town Hall.

Discovery 1 was operating normally that day and had a regular attendance. At the time of the earthquake the school was on its lunch break and had a number of staff out, as well as a small group students on an unsupervised trust licence trip. The smaller number of staff in the building left the top floor absent of staff which lead to the students on that level waiting under tables for a number of minutes. The school grouped in the schools third floor assembly area. As they were there, a parent attempting to enter the school alerted several police officers on Colombo Street to the presence of the school and together entered the building to evacuate the school. The school then followed a predetermined plan to evacuate to Christchurch Botanic Gardens where parents would collect children. The small group of students on the unsupervised trust licence trip followed the same plan, eventually reuniting with the rest of the school.

The Hallensteins Building (dubbed the "Northern Tower") had already suffered minor damage in the 2010 Canterbury earthquake but was safe to use through to February 2011. After the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the building was said to be structurally safe, but was demolished in 2012 allegedly at the will of the owners.[5]

The Southern Star Building was severely damaged, losing some of its front facade, as well as having a partially collapsed ceiling on the second floor. The building was demolished by 2013.[5]

Unlimited also occupied a basement area below The Crossing food court building which housed music rooms, a dance floor, and a woodwork area. In 2012 as part of the UC Quakebox project, an Unlimited staff member who was present on the day of the earthquake recounted entering the basement to check if any students were trapped after power had been lost, to find the area was flooding from burst pipes and the floor had become unstable.[6] The basement area was closed following the events, and buildings which were connected to this section of The Crossing were de-constructed and rebuilt upon in the following years.

Before demolition work began on the Unlimited buildings, John Mather (then the school director) announced that the school Board of Trustees had decided the school would not return to the site. Mather announced the school would consider rebuilding in the city in the future. Mather would retire from the role before rebuild plans were established.


Temporary Unlimited campus at the University of Canterbury, June 2015.

Staff at Unlimited were presented with a Christchurch Earthquake Award in 2012 (one of 140 awarded to individuals and organisations nominated by the public) for the evacuation of hundreds of students from the city location, which was surrounded by damaged buildings and rubble, including the damaged façade of the Southern Star building itself.[7][8]

Because the schools were situated in the central business district (in what became the "red zone", an area made inaccessible to the public during demolition works) and due to the importance of the city environment to the style of learning and the student community, students at Unlimited and Discovery were significantly displaced. Unlimited and Discovery 1 were relocated to the Halswell Residential College campus in Aidanfield. Unlimited remained there throughout 2011 and 2012, while Discovery 1 continued to operate from the site.

In April 2011, singer-songwriter Imogen Heap visited Christchurch to play a benefit show for the school. It was her only performance in the country that year, and all proceeds went towards the future costs of rebuilding the school.[9]

In January 2013, Unlimited relocated to the premises of the former Christchurch Teachers' College in Parkstone Avenue, Ilam, which is now part of the University of Canterbury.[10] They were located at the Wairarapa Block of the Dovedale Campus. The move was first announced in 2011 by John Mather (then director) who cited the lack of suitable spaces at the Halswell site. Mather retired from the role shortly after, where the school was then co-directed by deputy director Tanja Grzeta and Alastair Wells (formerly a senior lecturer at Auckland University).[11]

Ao Tawhiti merger[edit]

On 26 March 2013, Minister of Education Hekia Parata wrote to Unlimited and Discovery 1 with confirmation of a proposed merger between the schools. The decision was made as an outcome of the Ministry of Education's "Shaping Education" consultation.[12] In November 2013, Steven Mustor was appointed the director of the merged school. He had previously worked as a learning advisor at Unlimited for seven years leading up to the 2011 earthquake.[13]

By January 2014, both schools would be merged into a single school for years 1 to 13 students. The school was temporarily named Unlimited Discovery Merged School. An elected board governed the school within three months after the process was completed.[12]

In early March 2014 it was announced that the Board of Trustees had settled on a new name for the school, Ao Tawhiti, with the motto "Unlimited discovery".[14] On 15 April 2014, the Ministry of Education confirmed the name of the school as "Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery".[15] From 2015 onwards, the school was split into two campuses bearing the names of each former school respectively, and continued to operate from the Dovedale campus following the merger, until 12 April 2019.[16]

Rebuild (2017–2019)[edit]

Ao Tawhiti building during construction, February 2019.

Plans for the school to the return to the Christchurch CBD by 2017 were delayed, in part due to difficulties in securing land. The school had hoped to rebuild on High Street on the site of the former Holiday Inn building,[17] then owned by Carter Group, but negotiations fell through. A spokesperson for the school board described the setback as "devastating".[18]

On 24 August 2016, Nikki Kaye, then Associate Minister of Education announced that the revised site for Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery was to be 177 St Asaph Street. Building work began in late 2017, and cost approximately thirty-million New Zealand dollars. In early 2019, Ao Tawhiti had received strong interest as it neared the completion of its new building; applicants were placed in a ballot system due to high demand for places. The school planned to start with 570 students and increase to 670 by 2021.[19]

Students and staff farewelled the Dovedale campus days before the first term of the year ended on 12 April 2019, marking the last day at the temporary site.[16] The Dovedale campus provided the school with on site facilities it didn't have prior. This saw a large rise in the participation of sports within the school. The school fielded teams in sports neither Unlimited or Discovery had prior. Lunchtime summer volleyball in the schools quad became a yearly regular, with students and staff participating. "Juniors vs Seniors" and "Students vs Staff" football games became annual events with much of the school participating or watching. Ao Tawhiti reopened at the St Asaph street address on 29 April 2019, following the public school holiday, although students did not return until several days after.[20][21]

Building design[edit]

The Ao Tawhiti building was designed by Stephenson & Turner Architects, and developed with Lewis Bradford, Aurecon, Tokin & Taylor, Beca and Aecom, Masterguard, and project managed by The Building Intelligence Group. It spans over 2200-square-metres and four-storeys with 5800-square-metres of space, designed to have a number of flexible spaces with interchangeable uses to serve up to 670 students. The ground floor is configured for technology and drama, with science and music facilities configurations on the first and second floors respectively. The technology and drama spaces are visible from street level, with the drama space doubling as a breakout space to the adjacent Mollett Street. The top floor houses a gymnasium and commercial grade kitchen. Each floor above ground level has a large north facing balcony. The building features a central atrium that provides space for assembly and performances.[22][23]

Distinctive elements[edit]

  • Students can follow their own pathways of learning. The school uses the term "self directed learning" to distinguish between learning taking place in a class and learning driven or directed by the student outside of a classroom setting. Often called inquiry learning, this means that students can opt to work outside of classes and courses on their own passions and interests, drawing on resources and experts as needed. In practice the amount of time given over to this individual, and often independent, style of learning varies according to the interests and maturity of each student.
  • Teachers at the school are known as Learning Advisors. They are responsible for running classes as well as running individual homebases, where they support each student. Each year, students are allowed to select their preferred homebase, which is distinguished largely by the learning advisor who runs it.
  • One of the school's guiding principles is "everyone's a teacher, everyone's a learner", which removes some arbitrary hierarchy and contributes to the model of mutual respect between staff and students.
  • The school year at Ao Tawhiti is divided into four terms. Students take courses in subjects for the duration of a term, or can enroll for longer periods up to a full academic year.
  • Students are vertically grouped in homebases (similar to form classes). Years 7–13 homebases have up to 16 students in them and Years 1–6 homebases have up to 21 students.
  • Teacher facilitated courses are offered for Year 1 – 6 children in all of the main subject domains. In addition, children are encouraged to carry out their own inquiries and to lead or opt into workshops or projects that are either initiated by themselves, other children, parents or teachers. From year 7 to year 13 a number of structured courses are offered and facilitated by teachers, and many of the courses contribute to achievement on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework such as NCEA. Classes are open to students of any age and students can work at whichever level of the curriculum that best serves their needs. Each student has an allocated weekly one-to-one time with their Learning Advisor. Mentoring is offered on some days in the morning and again in the afternoon. This time allows students to meet with subject teachers to get support on course based learning, independent based learning, and other curriculum opportunities not currently available in classes.
  • The school is resourced with high-end information and communications technology (ICT), all students have the opportunity to gain qualifications in the New Zealand National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA). There are a range of secondary school subjects on offer including English, Mathematics, Science, Social Sciences, Computing, Drama, Dance, and Physical and Outdoor education. In addition to these subjects, Ao Tawhiti offers a range of courses that are not normally provided at secondary schools. These include DJ performance and music production, Holistic programmes, Philosophy, Psychology and Videogame design.

Courses provided by outside providers are also offered, for example Ao Tawhiti offers students the ability to participate in courses taught by Yoobee School of Design, ARA and The University of Canterbury. The school also runs a programme in cooperation with the Canterbury Ballet School.


2007 Stewart Fountain protests[edit]

On 13 August 2007, thirteen students from Unlimited were arrested for trespassing, after staging multiple protests on the 'Stewart Fountain', a public water feature dedicated to Sir Robertson Stewart situated near the school. The students criticised the council for moving in to demolish the fountain after Stewart had died earlier that day.[24]

Police reportedly decided to forcibly remove protesters, who attempted to stay the night staging a "noisy" protest and refusing to leave. Throughout the day, as many as thirty students at any one time had occupied the area.[24]

Of the thirteen who were arrested, nine were released for being under seventeen and were dealt with by Youth Aid.[24]

Vince Dobbs, who was the Unlimited director at the time, said the protest during school hours was safe and sensible, and that the students who were arrested during the later protests were "outside of school hours, and there as individuals."[24]

Notable students[edit]


  1. ^ "New Zealand Schools Directory". New Zealand Ministry of Education. Retrieved 23 April 2022.
  2. ^ "Decile Change 2014 to 2015 for State & State Integrated Schools". Ministry of Education. 29 November 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2015.
  3. ^ Ministry of Education (29 November 2013). "Becoming a section 156 designated character school".
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Special Character Timeline". Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery. 14 May 2014. Archived from the original on 13 January 2020. Retrieved 9 August 2020.
  5. ^ a b "Another one bites the dust". The Press. 22 June 2012. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
  6. ^ "Video of Errol Hitt's earthquake story | UC QuakeStudies". Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  7. ^ "Our heroes: Earthquake awards". Stuff. Retrieved 27 February 2019.
  8. ^ "Quake: Full list of Earthquake Award recipients". 22 February 2012. Retrieved 27 February 2019.
  9. ^ ANDERSON, VICKI. "Lesson in acoustic generosity". Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  10. ^ Mann, Charley (14 November 2012). "Unlimited to move to uni campus". The Press. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
  11. ^ Law, Tina. "Unlimited school to move to university". The Press. Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  12. ^ a b "D1 & UPT Merger Information". D1UPT Merger. Archived from the original on 31 December 2013.
  13. ^ "Board of Trustees". Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery. 4 June 2014. Retrieved 5 March 2019.
  14. ^ "Naming the Merged School" Archived 7 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Ao Tawhiti Board Meeting Minutes, 13 December 2013. Retrieved 5 April 2014.
  15. ^ "School Mergers, Closures and New Schools – 2014". Ministry of Education. Retrieved 28 May 2014.[permanent dead link]
  16. ^ a b "Ao Tawhiti Alumni (Facebook)". 12 April 2019. Archived from the original on 12 April 2019. Retrieved 9 August 2020.
  17. ^ "Urban Christchurch school returns to the CBD". Stuff. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  18. ^ O'Callaghan, Jody; McDonald, Liz (17 February 2016). "New central Christchurch site for merger school Ao Tawhiti falls through". Stuff. Retrieved 9 June 2019.
  19. ^ Redmond, Adele. "New central Christchurch school Unlimited already putting pupils on ballot". Stuff. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  20. ^ "Kay's Newsletter Friday 5th April – Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery". 13 April 2019. Archived from the original on 13 April 2019. Retrieved 9 August 2020.
  21. ^ "Newsletter – Sunday 28 April 2019 – Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery". 28 April 2019. Archived from the original on 28 April 2019. Retrieved 9 August 2020.
  22. ^ "Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery School in the CBD". The Building Intelligence Group. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  23. ^ O'Callaghan, Jody. "Christchurch to have NZ's first 'metro school' when Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery opens in 2019". Stuff. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  24. ^ a b c d "13 teenagers arrested in Christchurch protest". 31 January 2009.
  25. ^ "Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery Newsletter 27th August 2021". Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery. 27 August 2021.
  26. ^ "Elevating te reo Māori". Education Gazette. 31 August 2021.
  27. ^ "Christchurch teen elevating te reo Māori usage - one floor at a time". Stuff NZ. 15 June 2021.
  28. ^ "Te Reo Māori revamp coming to lifts in Government buildings thanks to Christchurch schoolgirl". Fair Go TVNZ. 11 November 2019.
  29. ^ "New Zealand Society". 2022.

External links[edit]