Martin McAllen has just taken the helm of the city’s biggest school. Zaryd Wilson speaks with Whanganui High School’s new principal.

He hasn’t hung it in his office yet but a Masters in educational leadership with first class honours is not a bad qualification to take into your first job leading a school.

That and leadership experience at one of the country’s biggest and sometimes challenging schools means Martin McAllen brings both practical and academic experience to Whanganui High School.

McAllen is an English teacher and former head of department but his most recent role was deputy principal of Manurewa High School where he spent the past four years.

“I was just at the stage where I was starting to look at principal positions so really, really happy,” McAllen says.

“It was really fortunate because I know Whanganui through family connections and I used to come here quite often when I was younger and the school really appealed to me.”

A former representative runner, McAllen recalls races around Rotokawau Virginia Lake and Cooks Gardens in his school days.

“[Whanganui] offers so many of the things that I’m interested in in terms of the sporting activities, the cultural activities, the artistic activities and it’s got the beach and the river and everything.”

But it’s the job he’s really here for.

McAllen takes over a school with a roll of about 1500 which in a city of just over 40,000 is an important position.

“I think larger schools generally are better,” McAllen says.

“Just in terms of the subjects that are able to be offered and just the dynamic in terms of so many students at each year level, specialist teachers, cultural activities, sporting activities and academic pursuits.”

The father of two was drawn into a career in education by a love of working with teenagers.

“They’re at an age where there’s all sorts of possibilities and [I enjoy] the motivational side of things in terms of igniting an interest or a passion for a particular learning area and then setting up ways that they can really develop that fully.”

His role at Manurewa High School was perhaps the prefect training ground for this.

“For a lot of the Manurewa students, they were under quite a lot of pressure,” McAllen says.

“Not all of them – there’s always a range in any school – but a lot where you might have 15 people in a two or three-bedroom house and under sometime quite severe economic pressure and all sorts of social pressures. And certainly quite a few of our senior students working quite late to help their family.”

But while Manurewa is the largest decile 1 school in the country it has managed to become one of only two schools in South Auckland on a five-year cycle of Education Review Office reports.

In other words, it needed minimum checking up on.

“Building strong connections with students is important,” he says. “There should always be a few adults who teenagers can connect with on the school grounds.

“It’s a little bit difficult sometimes for some teenager to have goals and aims but it’s about showing the end, that this is where you want to be when you leave school, this is the occupation you want to be in and really helping with the steps to get there.”

He says that is about allowing teachers some individual creativity and two-way learning between teachers and students.

“I’m big on building up the capacity and capability off staff members,” McAllen says.

“Because you’ve got some really skilled people who have got years of knowledge doing things and I think people really appreciate the chance to show their initiative rather than somebody sort of sitting on top of them all the time.”

It was McAllen’s interest in this area which pushed him into his Masters study which he completed in 2013.

“It’s about having an interest in learning to. A teacher shouldn’t just have their degree and then stop their own learning.”

McAllen says it’s too early for him to lay down goals or signal big changes under his leadership of Whanganui High School, except that: “I’d like the school to be really strongly represented in the community because this is a large school anywhere in the country.

“So, working with the community as a whole but also be clearly identified as a strong part of a community.”