The Christchurch conundrum

December 2012


Facebook       Tweet

Mixed reactions emerge as Christchurch communities take part in consultation about the proposed education renewal plan.

‘Consultation’ is a loaded word. It embodies free-flowing communication, the listening of ideas, a positive step in moving plans forward to achieve the best outcome. Yet, among the principals Education Review contacted, there is a sense of futility – the feeling that despite the chance to discuss options, the chance for “consultation”, the outcome is likely to be far from what many are hoping for.

The great billion dollar Christchurch education renewal plan is in a phase of what the Ministry interestingly describes as, “genuine consultation”, in which the plans to ‘restore, consolidate, and rejuvenate’ Christchurch schools are being discussed before final plans are confirmed.

Of the 215 schools in greater Christchurch, 42 have firm proposals for a change of status, from closure, to merger, to shared governance, or to complete rebuild. Of the 173 schools not affected by these firm proposals, 40 would now begin repairs. The ‘firm proposals’ includes the closure of 13 state primary and intermediate schools and the merger of 18 schools into nine.

Of the 13 schools set to close, two have sought voluntary closure, five have rolls of fewer than 50, and some have sustained earthquake damage and/or are in a cluster that has a range of other options. It has also been proposed that one new facility be established in Aranui to replace three primary schools, one intermediate school, and one secondary school, and that three schools on Banks Peninsula should be brought under the umbrella of the local area school but remain on their existing sites.

Education Minister Hekia Parata says all of these proposals are made in the context of a land and building assessment, movement of people, educational achievement, both pre-quake and post-quake, diversity of provision across the network, and a system-wide lift in achievement.

The uproar at the initial announcement has continued to simmer in many communities throughout the consultation period.

It is difficult to determine the true mood and feelings among Christchurch school principals in this period.

Many principals Education Review spoke to were reluctant to talk publicly about their situation. Several wanted to, yet said communication with their communities and even their own staff needed to be approved by the Ministry during the consultation period.

Other principals, whose schools were likely to fare positively from the renewal plan with a rebuild, did not feel comfortable expressing their pleasure when neighbouring schools were set to close. One said it would feel “morally inappropriate” to do so, such was his sympathy for the plight of other schools.

While it is frustrating not to be able to extract the silver linings from the situation, the reaction is indicative of the seriousness facing Christchurch schools.

It is a seriousness shared, deeply, by the Ministry, in their attempts to pave the best possible path for future Christchurch education in the face of devastation, budget, and changing demographics. It is an unenviable task. The Ministry’s recent attempts to widen the channels of communication with Cantabrians about the fate of their schools have been appreciated, even if the proposals still firmly on the table remain unpopular in many cases.

Principals speak out

Richard Paton, Principal, Chisnallwood Intermediate School

“To say the recent weeks have been challenging is an understatement of gigantic proportions.Although an important part of the end solution lies in the provision of buildings and land, the pathway of decision making at community level is one riddled with unpredictable curves and twists driven by history, emotion, and identity.

“For Chisnallwood and the Aranui cluster, the issues are compounded by thelarge geographic nature of the clustered communitiesand the diversity that lies within.

“This situation is in anybody’s terms complex because so much of what happens also depends on what is accepted and agreed on in neighbouring clusters.

“An increased timeframe of a further three months, however, will hopefully allow for a more global view to be considered where the wider implications, particularly for all communities, can be factored in to final recommendations.

“In real terms, the time involved as principals and boards work through the endless meetings and discussions, as well as trying to gain community voice and opinion through the range of tools available,is huge. Add to this the unenviable pressure and stress that goes with the responsibility of being the community’s voice and advocate, as well as an intense media focus on any decisions and directions, and the reality of the situation becomes clearly evident.

“Being thrust into a situation like this it is natural that there is a period where emotions run high, however gradually the awareness that this is a process that must now be worked becomes apparent.It is this process that we are now clearly within.

“Community voice professionally sought through facilitators is starting to show some consistency in direction, which in time, we hope will lead to community and cluster proposals that will point the direction for the next 50 years. However, there is still a long way to go until we reach that point.

“Amidst this the unknowns of land geotech reports could mean that for some the consultation process itself is meaningless if schools are unable to remain on the very land they are fighting for.

“In a situation like this, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and there will always be things that can be done better or differently from schoolor Ministry levels.

“What has, however, been helpful in recent weeks has been a more freeing of information and an improvement in communication from Ministry to those of us “in the trenches” and for that we are grateful.”

John Laurenson, Headmaster, Shirley Boys’ High School

“A year ago, we were told that we had an opportunity to make submissions aimed at changing the way education in New Zealand is to be delivered. Imagine my delight when I read, like so many readers, the Ministry plans for education in Christchurch, which seemed to reflect many of the best ideas that were submitted by the people of our city.

“My delight turned to chagrin, however, when the process for achieving those laudable goals for education Christchurch was unveiled. The worth of desirable goals (such as integrating early childhood, primary, and secondary education, such as single governance models, such as sharing of community and local school facilities) was lost because of a lack of understanding of Christchurch, because of poor planning,and worst of all, because of the appallingly insensitive and ignorant way change was initiated.

“Things went sideways! The Ministry process for rebuilding educational infrastructure in the city seemed to be based on the belief that progress could only be achieved through the total obliteration of the most successful organisations in the seaside part of the city.

“Let me be frank. Such a process is simply not going to work; there is no polite way to describe a plan that is clearly the product of fevered imagination, personal bias, and zero understanding of the people who have lived in the earthquake-ravaged part of the city for the last two years.

“A better way forward is needed to restore some semblance of humanity to the mess that was created. What is now required is a willingness to allow the people who are most affected to produce a solution. We already have great goals, but the achievement of these goals needs to be based on cooperation between all those affected, a cooperative process that satisfies the need for desirable educational outcomes and (for treasury), minimises expense.

“Now I believe that all that is required for this to happen is for central government to accept that we in the periphery, if presented with the problem, and the facts surrounding the problem, can come up with our own solutions, solutions that involve outcomes that are workable, financially responsible, and educationally desirable. I believe central authority cannot do this because it wields blunt tools. I believe we can successfully sort out our own destiny.

“It is time for government to have faith in the people it leads! Time for government to give us time and responsibility to sort out the mess we did not create but are willing and able to deal with.”