Queen's Birthday Honours 2016: Dame Karen Sewell

The former chief executive of the Ministry of Education never for a moment thought she would be awarded a Queen’s Birthday Honour for services to education.

“I just feel overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe it at first – I had to reread the letter about two or three times,” Dame Karen Sewell laughs.

The educator was knighted in the honours list, being made a Dame Companion of the NZ Order of Merit.

“It’s a great honour and a recognition of the importance and value of education,” she says.

Dame Karen retired in 2011 but has kept herself busy since then. She is the chairwoman of Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu, this country’s largest school (formerly known as the Correspondence School), and says moving the curriculum to be in line with the digital age has been “very interesting.”

She was also a representative for the minister in Christchurch during the early rebuild stages in 2013 after the devastating earthquakes.

“Working with teachers, principals and boards during that time was incredible, it was very hard for them. I was constantly amazed by their resilience and determination,” she says.

“Their houses were damaged, their kids were at schools that may have been closing, yet they continued to deliver for the kids in their schools. It was amazing.”

Dame Sewell has been chief executive at the Education Review Office and was the acting chief executive of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. During her tenure, she oversaw the introduction of a new curriculum in 2007, something she says was a career highlight.

Earlier she taught at schools in the UK and in New Zealand including Onslow College in Wellington and Green Bay High School in Auckland where she was principal for 12 years in a controversial tenure in which she was strongly criticised for  what were seen as liberal views. She held a teaching fellowship at Victoria University, a Nuffield Bursary at the University of London and has also been an inspector of secondary schools.

“I always seem to have plenty to do since retirement. But now I wake up in the morning and can hear the news at 5am or 6am and know it doesn’t have to define my day," she says.

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.