OPINION: Thank you to each and every school community for their work during the consultation period.
I understand that change is hard, anywhere. I also appreciate that in a community that has withstood so much, for so long, asking for further change is even harder.
So thank you to all the parents, children, trustees, principals, teachers and supporters who have nevertheless accepted the challenge and seen the opportunity for something better in education in greater Christchurch.
It is clear that the 2 1/2 months consultation period has been put to good use by school communities. Last week the Ministry of Education received submissions from all 31 schools proposed for merger or closure, plus two from Aranui schools, who had been given until March 7 next year to return their submissions. Thank you.
The Ministry, in particular its staff in Christchurch, who also were affected by the earthquakes, has worked closely with schools during the consultation period - meeting regularly to ensure everyone had the most accurate and up-to-date information, answering questions, and providing support.
Understanding the particular difficulties of this consultation process schools were provided with extra support during this period - including funding for an independent facilitator to undertake consultation and prepare the submission on behalf of the board of trustees, provision for a relief teacher one day a week to free up the principal or another staff member, and a teachers-only day, giving teachers the opportunity to discuss the proposals themselves.
During the consultation period I visited 36 of the 37 schools affected by the proposals. I would like to thank those schools' communities for their engagement, generosity of spirit, and commitment to their children's educational future.
Each and every visit was memorable, from the intelligent, thoughtful questions of students at Aranui High School, to the eagerness of Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti to get going, to the obvious oneness of Te Whanau Tahi, to the engaged post-pet day parents at Duvauchelle, to the warmth of the welcome on a cold morning at Gilberthorpe, to the support of teachers and principals of surrounding schools at Shirley Intermediate, to the whole of school calisthenics at Kendal, and the rousing performance of Chisnallwood Intermediate's orchestra, to the oh-so-delightful bilingual tour of Woolston School with three student guides. Kia ora to you all - I got a real sense of each community and their hopes and plans for their children's education.
Once again, thanks to the parents, students, members of the profession, and wider school community members who took the time to meet with me.
I understand that this is tough. It is emotional. And, to some, it just seems unfair after having been through so much already. I get that.
I get that schools have been hubs for communities since the first earthquake, and have been a reliable constant in a world of uncertainty, particularly for youngsters.
But given the extent of the damage, the population change and movement, and the opportunity to have something better, it cannot be simply a matter of returning to what was.
Before the earthquakes the greater Christchurch schooling network had about 5000 more places than there were students. As of July 2012, around 4300 students had not re-enrolled - meaning there are now 9300 places available in the existing network in greater Christchurch.
That's equivalent to the entire number of students in Gisborne.
It is not sensible for us to rebuild every school affected by the earthquakes to have them sitting half-empty. It is also not realistic for us to retain every single school in greater Christchurch when there are not enough children - even allowing for the growth we know will come.
We have had to think about the whole school network in greater Christchurch. While boards of trustees and principals will be focused on what makes their schools special, I am required to have a duty of care for all schools.
We now have a chance to build modern schools in better locations with great new facilities. This is about giving the children of Christchurch something better.
Throughout my visits in Christchurch it was clear that people want certainty. They want to know what the state of their child's school is in order to move forward and get on with their lives.
And I think they deserve something better.
That's what our Government wants for Christchurch.
We have committed up to $1 billion to rebuilding the education sector over the next 10 years. I cannot reiterate enough it is not simply about putting back what was there, but focusing on what can be done to achieve better outcomes for children.
We want to get this right.
We have set up a dedicated taskforce within the Ministry of Education to help support schools, and appointed former Christchurch Boys' High School Headmaster Trevor McIntyre, as an executive advisor.
We have established three advisory boards, made up of representatives from education and community organisations, and have appointed former Secretary for Education, Karen Sewell, as a special advisor to me.
All of these people will continue to work with school communities to ensure their views are represented and we have children's best interests at heart.
With the submissions now in, the Ministry of Education will analyse them and present a report to me in the New Year.
Over Christmas I will personally read every submission and will give full consideration to the views of each community.
I know there are some tough decisions to make and I promise you that they won't be taken lightly.
We have an opportunity here to create modern 21st-century learning environments that support the best outcomes for your children. Let's do that together.
I wish you all a safe, refreshing, and enjoyable summer break. Nga mihi o te wa.
- The Press