Ombudsman launches probe into school closures

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 15:25 26/03/2013
Hekia Parata
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Fairfax NZ
DECISION MAKING: Education Minister Hekia Parata.

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The ombudsman has launched an inquiry into how the Ministry of Education handles school closures and mergers, but Education Minister Hekia Parata's actions will not be covered by the probe.

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem said the investigation arose out of an Ombudsman's inquiry last year into how the Ministry handled information requests about proposed closures and mergers in Christchurch.

During that probe there were complaints about the consultation process as a whole.

The Education Act requires the Minister of Education to consult prior to closing or merging schools and the ministry plays a key part in assisting the Minister with those consultations.

But the inquiry will focus on the actions of the Ministry of Education only and not Parata herself "as the actions of the Minister are not subject to oversight under the Ombudsmen Act".

Dame Beverley would look in detail at a number of closure and merger consultations carried out in recent years, including the process underway in Christchurch.

"I will assess whether the consultation processes operate in a manner that adequately ensures fair and meaningful participation by affected parties and, if they do not, how they could be improved", she said.

It is expected that the investigation will be completed in the second half of this year.

Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said he was pleased the investigation had been launched.

It was likely to find the information was faulty, that the process was faulty and the decisions the minister made as a result were likely to be challenged.

"The ombudsman would do a really good job if they manage to get to the bottom of that."

He said Parata needed to take on board the feedback from the people of Christchurch.

"This process has been a total shambles from start to finish, the schools have no confidence in the decisions that have been made, they have no confidence in the process and I suspect it is highly likely now that these decisions will be challenged."

There were more closure and merger decisions in the future in Christchurch so it was important to get the process right for those.

Parata said she believed the ministry had done a reasonable job but there is always room for improvement.

"We have worked really hard to get our processes right."

The Government had resourced the process exceptionally well and steps taken included doubled the time available, responding to requests and she had visited schools twice.

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The process would not be put on hold because the ministry had followed the act, Parata said.

"We will stay with the timeline we have advised, because I have equal requests for certainty."

She said she had confidence in the ministry.

- Stuff

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