Changes to Education Act will reduce consultation on school closure
Proposed changes to the Education Act will reduce the amount of consultation needed before a school is closed.
A final select committee report on the Education (Update) Amendment Bill presented on Monday included a clause to "limit" the legal requirement to consult schools whose rolls "might be affected by a school closure or merger".
This would only happen if their boards of trustees had "already been consulted as part of a review of the provision of schooling in a particular area". This process is often called an area strategy.
A submission on the bill from the Office of the Ombudsman also raised concerns about the proposal to give the Minister for Education "absolute discretion" to close or merge schools.
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The submission said multiple amendments that afford "absolute discretion decision making powers" to the minister "appear to be designed to avoid judicial review" over school closures, among other proposals.
"We acknowledge the goals of the Government in seeking certainty in decision making," it read.
"However the need for certainty needs to be balanced against the requirement for administrative fairness . . . particularly given the far reaching impact that Ministerial decisions on schooling have on the community (Christchurch school closures being a salient example)."
Under the current law, any closures or mergers proposed in an area strategy must proceed to consultation with the boards of any schools likely to be affected, Ministry of Education deputy secretary for sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said.
"The bill allows for the second round of consultation not to proceed."
Labour Party education spokesman Chris Hipkins said he could "only reach the conclusion that National wants to close more schools" from its desire to reduce consultation.
He said that would free up funding for online education through the establishment of Communities of Online Learning (COOLs), but Education Minister Hekia Parata said COOLs were designed to "supplement and complement" schools rather than replace them.
Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said the proposal was "unfair" on communities like Canterbury that had experienced many "painful" closures in recent years.
"This is just for the convenience of the Government."
She highlighted Christchurch's Phillipstown School, which was closed in 2014 despite a High Court ruling that doing so would be "unlawful" because the financial information Parata relied on was misleading.
Assuming reviews about schooling would meet legal requirements for consultation was insufficient because "the review could have happened two years ago with totally different people involved", Delahunty said.
Post Primary Teachers' Association president Jack Boyle said "the over-involvement of party-political decision making in education is a problem".
"It looks like Parata is trying to make sure that the Government can move swiftly to merge or close schools if it wishes, and to do so without the same checks and balances that are in place now."
In its submission on the bill, the association suggested an independent body should control the process of closures and mergers.
"We would hate to see a lack of proper consultation with communities but streamlining might be less of an issue if communities were empowered to have their say. That said, consultation needs to be genuine and not coming from a pre-determined position," Boyle said.
Canterbury West Coast Secondary Principals' Association president Phil Holstein said collaboration with schools and their boards was necessary whenever a closure or merger was proposed.
The important thing was "how that works in action", he said.
"People won't like the end decision sometimes, but as long as it's done fairly and transparently everyone can sleep a bit easier."