OPINION: If saving Wanganui Collegiate is a priority for the cash-strapped Government, the education system must be in very fine health indeed.
At a time when schools across the country have to ask parents to help fund vital learning tools, National has found more than $3 million a year to prop up an institution that is not needed.
Falling rolls meant Wanganui Collegiate was expected to close at the end of last year, but it was thrown a lifeline when the Government agreed to let it integrate into the state system.
When Education Minister Hekia Parata announced the decision in November, she noted that, as one of New Zealand's oldest schools, Wanganui Collegiate held an "iconic place" in the nation's education history.
There is no denying the college has done a superb job in educating its pupils, with a 96 per cent pass rate for NCEA level 2 in 2011.
What Ms Parata failed to mention was that the school's integration flew in the face of sound advice from the Education Ministry and Treasury.
That advice pointed out that there were already more than 1400 unfilled places in secondary schools across the Whanganui-Rangitikei region, a figure that was expected to rise by 50 each year for the next decade.
It also said Wanganui Collegiate did little to help the Government achieve the important goal of boosting education outcomes of Maori and Pasifika pupils and those from low-income families.
In other words, from the taxpayers' point of view, Wanganui Collegiate was what Finance Minister Bill English would describe as "nice to have".
Saving it was not necessary to ensure sufficient classroom space in the area, and the increase in state funding from around $800,000 to more than $3m could have been put to better use elsewhere.
There is a place for private schools in the New Zealand education system. They offer an environment that differs from that available in the state sector, and provide parents with choices.
However, those who opt to send their children to such schools should not expect others to pay for the privilege.
Despite Ms Parata's claim that the integration of Wanganui Collegiate will give more children an opportunity to attend, the compulsory $2760 fee for 2013 will be too much for most parents.
The further $8140 in donations and voluntary fees means it will remain out of reach for the vast majority.
Meanwhile, the more than $3m the Government will pay to keep it open is money that cannot go towards improving literacy and numeracy for the thousands of pupils who lack the basic skills needed for a good education.
It is also funding that could have gone towards the Government's aim for 85 per cent of 18-year-olds to have NCEA level 2 or its equivalent by 2017.
Parents who have been asked to shell out to help fund computers at their schools will be wondering why the Government considers keeping open one that is not required is a higher priority for its limited resources.
Christchurch parents going through the painful experience of forced school mergers and closures due to falling rolls will be asking why the places they send their kids to be educated were considered less worthy of saving.
- © Fairfax NZ News