Education Ministry 'acted wrongly' on info requests

TINA LAW
Last updated 05:00 19/12/2012
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Education Minister Hekia Parata

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The Ombudsman has slated the Ministry of Education's handling of information requests on Christchurch school closures.

Opposition parties and a teachers' union are calling for the ministry to stop its consultation on the closures and start again.

In a report released yesterday, Ombudsman David McGee found the ministry "acted wrongly" in the way it dealt with requests for information on proposals to close or merge 39 schools.

Many schools and parents asked for more details about the plans through the Official Information Act (OIA) but were frustrated by delays and stalling tactics.

"Schools and parents should not have to ferret out information by making official information requests," McGee said.

He found the ministry wrongly advised the Christchurch City Council on how to reply to a request for information and, when the council challenged the advice, failed to acknowledge it was wrong.

The ministry was also wrong to advise two principals to withdraw their official information requests in order to receive a better response.

"Any suggestion that a government agency must bypass the Official Information Act in order to allow a more efficient provision of information is unacceptable," he said.

Ouruhia Model School parent Matt Cox, who filed the OIA request the ministry misadvised the council on, said he was pleased he had been vindicated and that the ministry had been exposed for actively trying to withhold information.

McGee said another investigation early next year would look at whether the ministry's processes for disclosure of information were adequate to ensure effective and sufficient public consultation on school closures generally.

New Zealand Educational Institute national president Ian Leckie said the ministry needed to restart its consultation on Christchurch school closures.

"It's very clear that the ministry has got the process totally wrong. It has completely botched its handling of Christchurch," he said.

Labour associate education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the information problems had led to a culture of secrecy and suspicion about the education rebuild.

"[Education Minister] Hekia Parata's handling of this process has been a debacle from start to finish. The people of Christchurch deserve better," he said.

A spokesman said the ministry was taking steps to provide further OIA training for its Christchurch staff and was reviewing its processes.

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"We have reminded all staff about the guidelines for OIA requests and are looking at whether those guidelines might need to be clearer concerning transfers of requests," he said.

"We appreciate the significance of closure and merger proposals for schools and their communities and have a process to ensure full and effective consultation."

The report said Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem would investigate concerns that the public sector was not managing requests for information under the OIA properly.

- The Press

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