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With whistle in hand Precious Raupita-Tango displays maturity beyond her eleven years.

It’s one thing to umpire a game of netball in an objective and rational manner, but to do so while reffing your peers, is an even bigger test of character.

“We went to a course at the netball courts and they taught us the rules, I then had a trial and I passed that,” she says shyly.

Precious is paid $10 a game, sometimes more depending on the workload.

But she doesn’t spend that money like you might think a pre-adolescent would.

“We can use it to help my mum pay bills that she needs to for the school and the community,” says Raupita-Tango.

This is a reality many students at Auckland’s Pt England School face.

Nestled among state houses in the so called ‘leafy eastern suburbs’, it’s a decile 1a school. The lowest on the scale which measures the socio-economic status of the surrounding community, relative to other schools throughout the country. 

“It’s really hard. Sport isn't cheap most of the time,” admits Auckland Netball’s Head of Operations Jacqui Foote.

Even just to register a primary school netball team it costs $507 dollars. On top of that schools also need to provide uniforms, equipment, managers, and coaches.

“They have got 15 teams and for a lower decile school that is amazing,” Foote says.

But, they only have one fit-for-purpose court. All 15 teams sharing the space with a schedule drawn up by the school’s long-time sports co-ordinator Sally Va’afusuaga.

At one end of that court a hoop sits at a 90 degree angle to the shooting circle.

Even Maria Folau would have trouble getting the ball in. 

Next door there is another court, but it has no hoops and the asphalt is as smooth as a black mountain run. 

A drain sits smack in the middle of it. 

“They are really good at dodging that,” jokes Va’afusuaga.

“We do the best with what we have got, but obviously if we can try to get more netball courts or equipment it will support all the teams better.”

After more than a decade at Pt England School Va’afusuaga knows that’s easier said than done. 

It took several years just for the school to be able to afford to appoint her full-time as a sports co-ordinator. But she wears many more hats than that.

"As you know education is the key to life and I think with sport and netball, it adds value to their life and if I can help encourage and inspire them to have a healthy and active lifestyle hopefully, it becomes a habit and they can extend that into their own families,” she says.

And ask anyone and they’ll tell you how valued she is, not just at the school, but to the wider community she cares so deeply about.

"It wouldn't happen without her… to pastorally care for coaches, managers, transporters all sorts of people. It’s not just the organisation involved, it is the love and care that goes with it,” says school Principal Russell Burt.

“This type of thing is achievable if you put your mind to it, but without a Sally I am not really sure how you do it," he adds.

Va’afusuaga’s main goal is to ensure anyone who wants to play netball, can, regardless of their financial situation. 

So, at Pt England School they do things a little differently.

“There is a deadline to pay the netball fees, but if those deadlines are not met, then the school still pays for the fees straight up and we allow the parents to pay that back to the school overtime.

"That's one way to make sure they don't miss out, is by extending that payment period. Ii know it doesn't work for every school community, but I think that has helped our kids not miss out,” she says with just a hint of pride.

The students, who know much more about the financial struggles of their families than any ten or eleven year-old should, agree the payment system does help.

“Seventy dollars is quite expensive, but we can come in each week and just pay our fees off like five dollars or 10 dollars.”

But by paying the fees up front, there’s very little money left in the sports budget for equipment or uniforms. 

Up until this year, some children were playing in uniforms that were twenty years old.

Va’afusuaga’s creative ability put paid to that. 

She often searches through lost property or happily accepts second hand equipment offered up by others to piece together the required equipment.

"She does come and ask us, and if we are able to help, we absolutely do. But she is very resource savvy, she puts in a lot of work,” says Foote. 

“We gave Sally a box of balls, she only thought she was coming down to pick up used balls, she opened up and her face was priceless she was just absolutely blown away,” continues Foote.

So, if Pt England School, on their limited budget, can make sports accessible to one and all then why are we seeing such a drop off in teenagers playing competitively?

Sport New Zealand’s most recent report pointed towards early specialisation, alongside cost, as one of the main barriers stopping kids from continuing in their chosen field.

It prompted our five main sporting bodies to sign a statement of intent to try and improve experiences in youth sport, and bring the focus back on fun.

“I like playing with my friends on the court and supporting them,” one Point England student said.

“We have a great time, we work together and be kind and be strong and never give up,” said another.

Yet the figures are hard to ignore.

Participation peaks between 12 and 14 years, before dropping off significantly between the ages of 15 and 17. 

But Principal Russell Burt who’s been at the school for more than twenty years, believes enjoyment isn’t the problem.

“I think when we were younger, lots and lots of people volunteered not just in sports teams and different codes, but scouts and brownies and all those sorts of things too. I think there is a drop off of attendance not because there is a shortage of children or a lack of appetite, it is simply having enough people to run the programmes, helping people to get there safely and home again.”

That’s where Va’afusuaga comes in.

By working so closely with the community, she get’s buy in. 

One grandma, she tells me, bakes enough cookies for every netball playing student to ensure they all have something to eat on game day. Gigi, as she’s affectionately known, has been doing that for six years.

“Like the proverb or the saying goes, it takes a village and it’s really true.

"I know it's a cliché but the 15 teams we had this year weren’t possible without 23 staff members, that involves classroom teachers, administration staff, support teachers who coach and manage.

"Wrapped around that we have other staff members who help us with transport, or sponsor fees or they turn up- and cheer the kids on.”

Sally also takes time to write a blog, complete with match reports, photos and notices so parents are kept up to date. 

It can be a vicious circle for parents. Work demands are increasing, meaning less time for volunteering and escalating the need for paid managers and coaches. 

That in turn, puts the price up.

“I think that is one of the bigger barriers, a lot of parents nowadays are too busy and have a lot of time constraints set against them, so their volunteer time is cut.

"They think it is too hard to do trainings or get to games,” says Foote who spends a lot of time analysing the netball programmes of schools in the Auckland area. 

“We look on Pt England as almost an example to other schools who struggle to say hey you can get involved with sport,” she adds.

Pt England has over 100 volunteers across a variety of extra-curricular activities.

A self-created luxury afforded to a school which doesn’t have many.






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