Ministry's apology "meaningless" unless followed by real change

2017

 

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Canterbury principals say the Ministry of Education's apology following the damning Ombudsman report remains "meaningless" until they see "positive action and real change".

Following the release of a scathing Ombudsman report, the Ministry has apologised to Canterbury schools and communities for the way it handled school closures and mergers following the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes.

In September 2012, the Ministry proposed to close 13 Canterbury schools and merge 18 others, to the shock of the community who expected more consultation before anything was announced.

The report identified flaws in the way the ministry worked with the community during the reorganisation of Canterbury schools, and recommended it collaborates with the education sector to develop a process for any future closures or mergers.

Canterbury Primary Principals' Association president Marg Trotter says the findings mirror precisely the concerns that every Canterbury principal has held from the day the ‘bombshell’ was dropped in September 2012.

"We were braced for bad news," says Trotter, "but affected school leaders were completely blindsided by the then Minister of Education, Hekia Parata. Schools were literally labelled with different coloured stickers as they arrived, which they later learned indicated survival, closure or merger. Principals could not fathom the scale, scope, and complete absence of consistency in the decision making. There were schools slated for closure that had suffered no damage, had lost no students, and were totally unprepared for such devastating news.
"The period that followed was no better. Schools that could mobilise their communities and use other influences fared better. In some cases they saved their schools from closure using what felt like political influence," says Trotter.

In the Ministry's apology, chief executive Iona Holsted said that even though the Ministry's intentions were good, the people of Canterbury "deserved better".

"We let them down and we are sorry. We know this undermined trust and confidence in us, as the Ombudsman's school closures report confirms.

"We apologise for any distress that this caused parents, students, teachers, leaders and their communities.

"We didn't set out to mislead or to keep people in the dark, but the result was that we weren't as transparent as we should have been."

NZEI Te Riu Roa has offered to immediately start working with the Education Ministry to plan a new process for school closures and mergers.

"The school closure process was a completely avoidable additional tragedy inflicted on the children of Canterbury, their families, and their schools," said president Lynda Stuart said.

"We warned the Ministry and the Government at the time to listen to children and listen to principals about what their community needed. But they were run rough shod over in the rush to complete the apparently pre-determined plans.

"We welcome the opportunity to work with the Ministry to ensure that schools, children and communities are listened to properly to avoid such a fiasco in the future."

President of the New Zealand Principals' Federation, Whetu Cormick, says there is much to be learned from the "dreadfully unfair process" by which the Ombudsman states schools and communities were given inaccurate and insufficient information.
"We have seen too many examples over the past decade of sham consultation on legislation changes and new policy implementation where public commentary has been completely ignored.
"We look forward to a future in which we can engage meaningfully in genuine partnership with the Minister and her Ministry staff, beginning with the development of an area strategy for future closures and mergers which will include and value the voice of the profession and their school communities," says Cormick.

Deputy State Services Commissioner Debbie Power said she commends the Education Ministry for recognising they got their processes wrong and making the apology.

The full report is available at www.ombudsman.parliament.nz.


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