Editorial: Lessons from the school shake-up

Last updated 05:00 20/02/2013

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OPINION: As ye sow, so shall ye reap. The tears that accompanied Monday's announcement that seven Christchurch schools are to close and another 12 are to merge were inevitable. The bitter recriminations that followed were not.

Schools are the focal point of communities. They are places where friendships are made and memories created. Closure is always sad. To have it forced on communities by a natural disaster that has wreaked havoc in surrounding neighbourhoods is even sadder. It is no wonder, parents, pupils and teachers are distressed.

However, the anger which accompanied Education Minister Hekia Parata's announcement was avoidable. Parents are not fools. While they might want the schools they attended to continue indefinitely, they do not want them to do so if it is at the expense of their children's education. The magnitude 6.3 earthquake which turned Christchurch on its head almost two years ago has changed more than the city's physical landscape.

Not only have school buildings and playgrounds been twisted out of shape, patterns of living have been bent beyond recognition as well. Families have moved, some to other parts of the city, some out of Christchurch altogether.

Greater Christchurch, which before the February 22, 2011, earthquake had 5000 school vacancies, now has 9300.

The question for the education minister and education officials after the quake was simple: spend money fixing classrooms that are surplus to requirements or spend money educating children. The answer should have been obvious. Focus on the children.

However, it has been unnecessarily complicated by ministry and ministerial bungling. The ministry's first cut at restructuring Christchurch schools looked like it was devised on a Wellington whiteboard without reference to the situation on the ground.

Its unveiling was, if anything, more disastrous. Principals were summoned to a meeting and given colour-coded badges which, the wearers quickly worked out, indicated the fate of their schools.

In the aftermath of the unveiling, the minister made commitments to some schools that change would not occur for several years. Principals, teachers and parents made decisions based on her word.

Those commitments have now been broken as the minister seeks to provide certainty to parents and get on with what needs to be done. A fresh sense of grievance has been created.

The lessons for future policy-makers are many. Take advantage of local knowledge, consult widely and do not give undertakings that cannot be honoured.

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In the final wash-up fewer schools will now be closed and merged; fewer pupils will have their education disrupted and Christchurch will get some state-of-the-art new schools in areas where they are most needed.

That is not a bad thing. However, what should have been a good news story has been tainted by the high-handed manner of the minister and her ministry and the subsequent scramble of both to make amends.

- The Dominion Post

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