Editorial: Closures but no cigar

Last updated 05:00 20/02/2013

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OPINION: It is possible to do the right thing badly, though it's a rare feat to do it quite as badly as Education Minister Hekia Parata's initial handling of Christchurch school closures.

The Canterbury earthquakes damaged buildings and led to population movements, making it reasonable that some schools close and others merge. There were already 5000 places available in schools in greater Christchurch before the quakes and afterwards there were 9300.

Nobody denies a recalibration was needed, bringing with it a measure of pain and distress. But the degree of unavoidable upset was nowhere near the the pitch of anger and distress as Canterbury families and communities recognised that the authorities had seized an opportunity to add some gratuitous shaking up beyond the changes rendered strictly necessary.

The brutal seeing-to was based on too-often-dodgy data and impelled with a sense of momentum that treated consultation as a tiresome charade.

The seismic public uprising was such that the minister's own standing, wobbly as it was in light of the Novopay debacle, fell away even more.

After something closer to true consultation the diminished minister has decided that about a third of the proposed changes should not go ahead. Nobody's calling that a 66 per cent pass for the initial exercise. It gives an insight into how much the Ministry of Education's can-do approach to reform got in the way of a should-do, let alone need-to one.

Twelve schools proposed for closure or merger have convinced the powers-that-be-listening-this-time that they should remain open. Seven others are still slated to close and among these reproach is particularly high regarding the planned closure by next January, when schools say they had been given assurances children could stay until 2015. Untidy, indeed.

The changes displace 4 per cent of Christchurch's student population. That figure may seem small but in real terms it's 3800 children and we don't yet know how many teachers.

Whether it's the best call is unclear. Whether it's a better call than was made last time is plain. It is.

Some, even among her critics, have said on Ms Parata's behalf that she could hardly win this time around. She stands open to ridicule for another backtrack, but had she held firm she would have been similarly lambasted for her intransigence. That observation is trivially true. Backtracking was the right call politically as well as socially because the first exercise was so badly botched and the community's capacity for resistance loftily underestimated.

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A stinging criticism of the revised plan is that it does not wait for the results of the upcoming Census, and all that lovely data that will eventually emerge. True, though Cantabrians are the ones best placed to determine the extent to which the Government is right to say that are wearied by the years of uncertainty and have been aching for resolutions.

Quite apart from the possibility of aggrieved schools seeking a judicial review - not an especially promising avenue since it tests matters of strict legality rather than wisdom or fairness - Ms Parata faces other, considerable pressures beyond the prospect of a vote of no confidence at an upcoming rally. The New Zealand Educational Institute openly doubts that the ministry has the capacity to make the proposed changes by next January. If the institute is right the eruption of anger will be so volcanic that the minister, whoever that may be by then, should be found crouched under their desk, arms around their head.

- The Southland Times

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