Schools 'bedrocks of communities'

Last updated 08:58 18/02/2013

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OPINION: Interim decisions on the future of 31 Christchurch schools will be announced today. Auckland educationalist Peter O'Connor says Christchurch schools were already New Zealand's best even before the shake-up.

In the weeks following the February 22, 2011 earthquake, as part of a Unesco-funded project, I worked alongside teachers and children as they returned to schools.

Many teachers were struggling at the time with their own personal tragedies and yet they were at school, day after day, caring for other people's children.

I witnessed at first hand the incredible determination and care of teachers, principals, front-office staff and grounds staff to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

I watched teachers and children hug and cry together, I watched as they picked each other up and started all over again, and again.

As the Ministry of Education prepares to announce its plans for education in Christchurch, we should first acknowledge one thing. Schools are the bedrocks of communities across the city. Christchurch schools are already places where the vast majority of children feel safe, feel cared for and loved.

They are places deeply connected into the communities they serve. They are places where the teachers are world-class.Christchurch teachers walk the extra mile for their children; they are the envy of the world. And they even do really well in the only game that seems to count for the education bureaucrats. They continue to do well in literacy and numeracy and in 2011 and 2012 they had bumper success years in NCEA.

I've been back into Christchurch schools often in the past two years, researching and working alongside teachers and children. It has been an enormous privilege. I have seen how good education can be. I have witnessed schools as rocks, as refuges in a world still shaking beneath children's feet.

The rhetoric that schools could and should be centres of the communities they serve has been realised throughout the city. For many children and many parents, school has been the one constant, a place where they knew they were safe, where things would continue.

Although the future was uncertain everywhere else, at school the future still remained a possibility.

I have spent considerable time talking to principals and teachers about how they have managed since September 2010. Several principals have told me how they have truly learnt the importance of loving and caring for the children and the community they work in.

They talk about how the school has become the centre of the new normality for many, has become the place where the community has begun to rebuild.

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I've wept with teachers as they have told their stories of the past few years. Not one of them has recognised, let alone spoken of, their own bravery.

I've talked to children, too, who have told me about how much they love their schools, how much they have found a sense of security and warmth in coming to school.

These schools were awash with tears as stories were told of what has happened. In the coming weeks and months many of these same schools will become places of resentment and seething anger.

The terrible bungle which has been the restructuring of education across the city has caused justified anger, but only in the same way that the Novopay debacle is a sideshow in comparison to the very serious neo-liberal threats facing education.

Teachers fear that the Ministry of Education has forgotten the wider roles schools play in communities. It seems as if the ministry doesn't get the idea that schools are more than learning factories, that schools serve more purposes than training for the 21st century economy.

Christchurch teachers and parents know they are places where, especially after a natural disaster, communities go for shelter, to re-assert themselves, to redefine their futures, where children feel a place they belong in a world where everything else has changed.

School is where young people learn to become part of a democracy, learn what it is to be a citizen, a member of a community. They become connected to where they come from and build a sense of who they might become.

These things can't be measured on a balance sheet and so therefore they don't seem to count. In impoverished communities in particular, schools are the glue that hold people together.The response to the ministry's plans spring, then, from a sense of betrayal that will only build as decisions are made which threaten everything that has been achieved in the past two years.

For the rejuvenation the Ministry of Education has been talking about for Christchurch schooling has already happened before their very eyes, they just can't see it. Christchurch teachers deserve so much better.

Christchurch deserves so much better.And the children who have had enough of disasters already in the past two years deserve so much better.

Associate Professor Peter O'Connor from the School of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland has led several Unesco-funded projects into schools since the February 2011 earthquakes.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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