Ministry of Education apologises to Canterbury schools after scathing Ombudsman report

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says there was a fundamental lack of transparency in the ministry's approach. (Freeville ...
IAIN McGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says there was a fundamental lack of transparency in the ministry's approach. (Freeville School, file photo)

A scathing Ombudsman report has slammed the Ministry of Education for its handling of Canterbury school mergers and closures after the 2011 earthquakes.

The report, released on Wednesday, found significant flaws in the way the ministry engaged with school communities and recommended it work with the education sector to develop a process for closing or merging schools in future.

Principals and political figures had been calling for the ministry and ex-Education Minister Hekia Parata to apologise over how Canterbury's schools' shake-up was handled. No apologies were offered until Wednesday, but the ministry had previously conceded it did not get the process right.

The Ombudsman's report recommends the ministry work with the education sector to develop process for closing or merging ...
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

The Ombudsman's report recommends the ministry work with the education sector to develop process for closing or merging individual schools or groups of schools. (Wainoni school, file photo)

The ministry's proposal to close 13 Canterbury schools and merge 18 others, announced in September 2012, shocked many in the community who expected further engagement before specific plans were made.

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The schools to close or merge were given no warning of what was to come. 

At the announcement, principals were given coloured tags to wear on their chests. They later learned the colours represented their school's fate.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said while ministry staff faced "unprecedented challenges" in reorganising Canterbury schools following the earthquakes, there was a fundamental lack of transparency in its approach and schools were left feeling "blindsided".

"Essentially, while schools and communities were engaging in what they thought was a genuine discussion about broad future visions for schooling in Canterbury, the ministry was progressing a business case with detailed plans for individual schools."

A Christchurch Primary Principals' Association inquiry into the schools' shake-up made similar findings in 2016.

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Ministry chief executive Iona Holsted the scale of damage and disruption to schools meant it was an "extraordinary situation" and, while the ministry's intentions were good, she acknowledged it should have done a better job.

"They deserved better. We let them down and we are sorry. We know this undermined trust and confidence in us, as the Ombudsman's school closures report confirms.

"We didn't set out to mislead or to keep people in the dark, but the result was that we weren't as transparent as we should have been."

Holsted said the ministry had done a lot of work to put things right since the initial announcement.

"We now engage with schools earlier in the process and provide them with the information they need as early as we can."

New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) president Lynda Stuart said the report reflected what the situation was for communities and schools at the time. 

"I think that disappointment, that hurt, that soul wound for many of those schools and their communities at that time was absolutely unnecessary."

NZEI had warned the ministry to listen to children and principals about what they needed, but they were "run roughshod over in the rush to complete the apparently pre-determined plans", she said.

Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said the ministry needed to sit down with the schools affected by the process and ask them what the consequences had been.

She said she did not know whether all the mergers had benefited students. 

WHAT'S HAPPENED SINCE THE 2012 ANNOUNCEMENT?

The principal of one Christchurch school shut down after the city's education shake-up in 2012 says he hopes the "flawed process" will never be repeated.

To date, nine Christchurch schools have closed, including Linwood Intermediate, Richmond School, Greenpark School and Manning Intermediate.  

Fifteen others have merged into six. This year, Aranui High, Aranui School, Avondale School and Wainoni School became Haeata Community Campus. Central New Brighton School, North New Brighton School, and Freeville School became Rawhiti School in 2016

Phillipstown School, which merged with Woolston School to form Te Waka Unua School in 2015, fought hard to avoid the merger. 

Despite protests, a 550-signature petition, and 18 months of legal battles which went to the High Court, the merger was forced through. 

Former Phillipstown School principal Tony Simpson said the Ombudsman's findings, released on Wednesday, gave him a "feeling of hope that this will never be repeated again".

"The destruction of communities, the destruction and distress and disruption caused to people's lives, namely children, parents, teachers, community groups . . . just so many people were affected by this flawed process."

He said he hoped local communities would play a "significant part" in future decision-making about local schooling.  

Halswell Primary School principal Bruce Topham said the ministry's apology was "long overdue".

"Some of those communities were small and quite fragile, and a number of them were suffering because of the earthquakes, so for them it was like a double-whammy."

Topham attended the closure announcement in 2012.

"There was a whole lot of grown-ups crying, not for their personal loss but because they felt they had let their community down," he said.

"That was horrendous, it didn't need to be like that."

THE OMBUDSMAN'S KEY FINDINGS:
- There were significant gaps and flaws in the ministry's engagement and communication with schools and communities.
- The mismanaged process caused further stress to already traumatised communities, causing a major loss of trust between the ministry and schools.
- There was a fundamental lack of transparency in the ministry's approach.
- The September 2012 announcement was poorly handled.

KEY RECOMMENDATIONS:
- The ministry publish a written apology in The Press newspaper to the schools and communities affected.
- The ministry work with education leaders to develop a strong process for future engagement on school closures and mergers.

 - Stuff

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