Closing Chch schools 'anti-recovery'

Last updated 05:01 11/03/2013
Richmond primary school
Fairfax NZ

TOUGH CALL: Education Minister Hekia Parata at Richmond Primary School in 2012.

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The Education Ministry justifies its school closures under the guise of encouraging 21st century learning, but at Richmond School this is already happening.

Who would want to go to Richmond School? It's small, it's old, it has had a bad reputation in the past and it is surrounded by red zoned property. These reasons are some of the very reasons we chose this school for our son.

We are Cantabrians born and bred, but were residing overseas when the big quakes of 2010 and 2011 happened. In October of 2011, we returned to Christchurch so my husband could work on the rebuild and our pre-school aged children could attend school in Christchurch and get the best educational foundation to start what we hoped would be a lifetime of learning.

We were lucky enough to rent a relatively new town house with minimal earthquake damage at a reasonable rental rate in Richmond. After investigating the schooling options in the area, we settled on Richmond School.

Our son started school in April 2012 and from then on there were a number of new entrants that saw the modest roll rise steadily. A number of the new entrants were from families such as ours; people who moved Christchurch to work on the rebuild. Some were from the North Island, some returning to Christchurch after an initial escape after the earthquakes, and some who had moved from neighbouring suburbs.

The school still had a small roll and only three classrooms, but the individualised attention from the teachers and the whanau feeling about the school made us feel confident about our choice of school for our son.

Being an older school too, the large mature trees and huge green space also added to the rich learning environment. Some of the other schools in the area we looked at looked like concrete jungles.

We soon saw how the small roll was a further advantage as it allowed unfettered access to ICT equipment which is yet another avenue to encouraging 21st century learning. Richmond School had worked hard on extensive fundraising to provide iPods, iPads, laptops and desktop computers for each child to assist in their learning, as well as to introduce the use of this technology and its benefits. Many of the students at Richmond School are from families where this type of equipment is not readily available in their homes. The use of these learning tools in school provides an invaluable introduction to technology that is already an integral part of many workplaces today.

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We also saw first hand how current principal Jacqualene Maindonald, ably assisted by senior teacher Sharon Stiffe, had turned the culture of the school around based on cornerstone values and new curriculum planning.

Our son's teacher is a very special person, who was personally affected by the September quake, when her house in Brooklands was literally torn in two and was subsequently red zoned. I mention this only to draw attention to the fact that the impact of these closures not only touches the students and parents like myself but also teachers, principals, support staff and caretakers who will inevitably lose their jobs and who have already been displaced or affected by the earthquakes.

The closure of Richmond School and the six other schools are anti-recovery as not only do the job losses impact us as citizens of Christchurch, not only do we lose the heart of our community which is our school, but it also provides a further disincentive for people to move back to or even stay in Christchurch.

With the predicted building boom that the National Government is very quick to keep publicising, why would anyone with a family want to move here so that their children can be part of an educational experiment of supersized schools? So they can pay exorbitant rental rates for sub-standard accommodation?

There also has been a lot in the media lately concerning the issue of equity amongst students and how this can affect educational outcomes, particularly amongst Maori and Pacific Island students. The equity issue can only be amplified in larger school as more of the haves mix with the have-nots will disengage these already at-risk learners.

This is something that Hekia Parata says she wants to address in the Education Renewal literature. In a small school such as Richmond, the equity issues are minimised as the majority of students are from the local area, which is a low decile community. As Richmond as a suburb is a culturally diverse area with a large number of Pacific Island, Maori and immigrant families the equity issue becomes almost non-existent as many families are in the same boat. 

Another issue that has had a lot of media attention also is nutrition in low decile students. Richmond School is a partner school of the Kids First charity that provides a range of healthy snacks and foods that are frequently distributed among the students. The school is also part of the fruit in schools programme and I know that my son in particular is especially fond of being able to partake in many different kinds of fruit each day. There is also the breakfast club and the Fonterra milk programme that benefits the kids by fuelling their learning and their play.

When Parata visited Richmond School in an attempt smooth over public relations after her bungled initial announcement, I asked a question at the beginning of the meeting, referencing the Education Ministrydocument entitled Rationale for Change for Richmond School, in particular the quote that states "safe and inspiring learning environments are key to meeting the New Zealand Property vision for greater Christchurch schools".

The answer that both she gave mainly addressed engineering and geotechnical issues. Whilst I appreciate that these issues are of importance, (and are of minimal issue in the buildings and land at Richmond School) what I was alluding to, and was hoping that she might have observed for herself, is that we believe that our school is already the type of school that the ministry describes in both the rationale document and the Education Renewal literature.

Richmond School is a school that is not only striving to encourage better educational outcomes, it already is providing better educational outcomes as evidenced by ERO reports and by the progress that I see my son making every day.

Many of the ideals that the Education Ministry is envisioning for Christchurch schools are already in practice at Richmond School. All except a huge supersized roll which was once a strength and now has put the school on the chopping block.

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