Principals in tears as ministry swings axe

CHARLEY MANN, FRANCESCA LEE, GEORGINA STYLIANOU, SAM SACHDEVA AND ANNA TURNER
Last updated 05:00 14/09/2012
Daniel Tobin

Shirley Boys' High School principal John Laurenson reacts to the Government announcement of a possible merger with Christchurch Boys' High School.

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Principals were reduced to tears as their jobs, schools and communities were put on the chopping block.

In an announcement marred by confusion, the Education Ministry said 13 Christchurch schools would close and 18 could merge. Five Aranui schools will also combine into an education "cluster".

Read the proposal summary document here.

In total, 36 principals now have the daunting task of co-ordinating possible mergers or closures, supporting staff, pupils and the wider community, all while their own jobs are on the line.

Unions are deeply concerned about a teacher drain as experienced staff leave the city because of the changes.

New Zealand Educational Institute president Ian Leckie said the announcement went "far further than we would normally have expected" and put a "significant number of jobs at risk. "We are really concerned about the experienced teaching work force in Christchurch leaving. That is a loss to the region."

Cathedral Grammar school headmaster Paul Kennedy, who has served on the New Zealand Principals' Federation (NZPF) executive committee, said he saw some "very upset" principals after the announcement.

"Men and women are in tears at the possibility of losing their jobs, their schools and communities".

Confirmed closures force 13 principals out of a job.

A further 18, at the helm of schools facing possible mergers, were also thrown into uncertainty.

When a merger went ahead, the job of principal would be advertised nationally, he said.

"In theory" newly merged schools did not have to employ a principal from the former schools.

"At least one principal is going to lose their job, possibly both are going to lose their job."

The NZPF has provided two support workers for Christchurch principals since the September 2010 earthquake.

Leckie was also concerned about the impact "massive" changes will have on families.

"Schools are the focal point of their communities," he said. "Schools are identified by the names of their community. Families now have to gravitate, take their children to other places, create new identities.

"This is going to affect families in a major way, this is going to affect parents in a major way, just like it is going to affect teachers and children."

Hornby Primary School principal Gary Roberts said he had staff text him during the announcement "wanting to know what is happening".

"They are very anxious, as our community and parents are."

Hornby Primary was not affected by the announcement.

Hornby High principal Richard Edmundson said "something had to happen, there is no doubt about that".

"It's going to take a while to absorb it. There are lots of people wanting to know lots of things."

IT'S AN ATTACK, SAYS PRINCIPAL

The proposed closure of a Hornby school is an "attack" on intermediate education in Christchurch, a principal says.

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After an announcement by Government yesterday, Branston Intermediate could be earmarked for closure in January 2014. Principal Jennifer O'Leary said she had not expected such a decision.

She thought the Education Ministry would propose adding year 7 and 8 classes to Hornby High School.

She said the closures were an "attack" on intermediate schools as there were only 10 in Christchurch and three, Linwood, Manning and Branston, could be closing, while Chisnallwood Intermediate might become part of an Aranui education cluster.

The Branston community and pupils would be devastated by the closure, she said.

"Three of our teachers went to this school. Hornby's a village. Families stay here. They come here and live here and stay here. It's such a community school."

She was concerned about the school's staff and what would happen to the school's Maori-English units.

Parent Thea Turner, whose son, Luke Turner-Robinson is in year 7, said the proposed closures made her "cross".

"Where are the kids supposed to go? Haven't we been through enough? Half the kids are on medication because of the earthquakes," she said.

Another parent, Melissa Straker, has a son in year 8 and her niece is in year 7.

"It's quite surprising," she said. "I was a pupil here as well.

"It's a bit sad. My brother also went here. It will break up the community and make it harder for all the people to find a new school, especially the ones that walk or bike."

Shirley Intermediate principal Geoff Siave said staff were "stunned" by the announcement of the school's closure.

He said the school lost about 100 pupils after the earthquakes but the roll had "remained steady since then".

"We were definitely not expecting to be closed so it's come out of the blue for us and it's sad, it's really sad."

Siave said intermediate schools earmarked for closure would "just naturally implode".

"No parent is going to enrol their child in an intermediate school that they know is closing so already we're looking at losing half our pupil population next year alone.

"I need to look after my staff, maintain the quality of teaching and keep looking after the children because they've been heroes since the quakes . . . everyone has gone through so much and now we have to go through this."

PRINCIPAL RIPS INTO MINISTRY OVER 'MERGER'

Shirley Boys' High School principal John Laurenson has dismissed a proposal to merge the school with Christchurch Boys' High School as "absurd nonsense".

Education Minister Hekia Parata yesterday announced a major overhaul of education in Christchurch. One idea was the proposed merger of the two schools. However, the ministry has since backtracked and now says it is waiting on geotechnical reports, which were unlikely to be ready until next year.

Laurenson said Christchurch Boys' High School was simply not equipped to cope with the influx of students.

"We are not going to merge for the most practical reason. I have 1300 students in the school, I think Trevor McIntyre at Christchurch Boys' will have something similar."

"To simply say that Shirley closes and suddenly Christchurch Boys' High School is equipped to double in size is absurd. They don't have the land, they don't have the infrastructure. It's nonsense."

Laurenson attended a meeting yesterday held by the ministry and said a summary sheet released by them was "grossly misleading".

"It appeared to tell the community that Shirley Boys' High School was going to close and be merged with Christchurch Boys' High School."

Laurenson said he was "very cross" with yesterday's events. The announcement had only managed to "deeply hurt my community and my people".

"That simple misinformation that came out has been quite devastating.

"What has happened is an example of NCEA Level One not achieved - the information that went out is misleading and it's been picked up by media people and suddenly it's viral. We're now telling the community 'relax all is well and the ministry is busy retracting a vague statement'."

Laurenson said the ministry's media person had spoken with him and other principals and accepted it had been misleading.

"This has been really hurtful. I want Hekia Parata and John Key and the people in the media and area of responsibility to actually understand the community in Christchurch I'm part of is bleeding. It's not in Wellington or Auckland, it's in eastern Christchurch and it is bleeding.

"So when you get something like this - I think that's appalling. I think it's insensitive. I don't want any apologies for it, I just want them to know how difficult it is to hold things together."

Laurenson said the school would "definitely not be closing".

"Their proposals, and there are a number of them, contain a number of eventualities . . . To have as an option merge the two, it's not an option. You can't merge the two."

He had called an emergency meeting to discuss the matter with staff and would address students today.

"Now I've got to take a whole bunch of traumatised boys and say: 'Listen guys, you've still got a school and it's going to be here for a long time yet.'

"The only question that exists is are we going to be rebuilt on our site or do we have to find a new site to be rebuilt. We don't know that because the land report is not available yet."

MIXED EMOTIONS AT LYTTELTON

Lyttelton will rally behind a merger of its two primary schools, despite concerns about the proposal, parents say.

Lyttelton Main and Lyttelton West schools are set to merge on Lyttelton Main's grounds as part of an education shakeup in Canterbury.

The schools surveyed parents on a possible merger last year, and most were opposed.

Parents at the two schools yesterday had mixed emotions about the Government's announcement.

Martin McFetridge, who has two sons at Lyttelton Main, said there could be some positives from the move. "It doesn't bother me too much. We're not a very big community, so we're small enough - and big enough - to have one bigger school."

While both schools had their own histories, the community needed to be pragmatic about the post-earthquake reality.

"I'd rather combine two schools and have one than lose both and have to travel over the hill," McFetridge said.

Laura Hopper, who has a daughter at Lyttelton Main, said she was "on the fence" about the merger. "It's good to have an option, but we do need to do what's best for Lyttelton."

At Lyttelton West, parent Erica Viedma said she was "shocked" by the announcement.

"We only voted last year and decided we didn't want to merge, so I assumed that was pretty much the end of it."

Viedma, who has one son at the school and another at kindergarten, said the proposal would be a blow to some residents.

"We escaped damage from the earthquake, so for this to be the thing that hits us the most is pretty shocking," she said.

Tessa Bowden, who has two girls at Lyttelton West, was saddened rather than surprised at the news. "I love this little school and we've got a really good community here."

She said the community would make sure there were some positives from the decision.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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