OPINION: The Secretary for Education, Lesley Longstone, responds to a Press editorial of last Saturday.
Last week, the Ministry of Education met principals and leaders of 215 schools to outline what proposals for the renewal of education in greater Christchurch would mean for schools, their staff, pupils and communities.
Following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the ministry and the Christchurch education community were faced with the immense challenge of how we would put education and schooling back on its feet.
The $1 billion, 10-year strategy outlined last week by ministers provides for huge investment for schools and will allow young people and their teachers across greater Christchurch access to 21st- century learning environments.
With great changes, both in the physical environment and where people were living, it was inevitable some communities would be facing change.
As you would expect, the self-governing school leaders were brought together by the ministry to hear the proposals first and to hear them at the same time. They then had the opportunity to talk to their staff and communities that afternoon.
It was proposed that 173 schools would be supported to continue, while 40 would be renovated. It was also proposed that 13 primary and intermediate schools be closed, of which two had already volunteered to close. It was proposed that 18 primary schools be merged into nine.
One new school would be built at Aranui, to replace three primary schools, one intermediate school and one secondary school; and three schools on Banks Peninsula would come under the umbrella of the local area school, but would stay on their existing sites.
That left three secondary schools - Avonside Girls' High, Shirley Boys' High and Christchurch Girls' High - and two primary schools - Redcliffs and Kaiapoi Borough - for which the ministry did not yet have enough geotechnical information to make a recommendation. For these schools, some options for discussion were listed.
At the end of the briefings, it was the ministry's intention that principals and board chairs would be in a position to communicate the proposals directly to their staff and parent communities. At the same time media at the venue were given information about the proposals under a strict embargo of 4pm, which meant they were not to publish or broadcast it before then. The journalists also had a media conference with the Ministers of Education and Earthquake Recovery and myself at 12.30pm, to give them a chance to ask questions about the proposals and clarify any matters.
It was explained to all the media present that the embargo was to allow school leaders to talk to their school communities first.
But by the time school leaders were walking out of their meeting, the proposals had already been reported on some media websites. Their right to tell their own schools had been taken away by some media who were in a race to be first with the news, although some media did understand why the embargo was put in place and respected it. I apologise to the people personally affected by these proposals who learned of them through the media. It was not what we wanted.
It's important for me to emphasise that the proposals are just that - proposals. They are based on extensive and detailed analysis of population shifts, geotechnical data and other social and logistical factors. Some schools would be happy with the proposals - others were going to be disappointed. It was never going to be possible to keep everything as it was before the earthquakes. Greater Christchurch has changed, children no longer live in the same places in the same concentrations as they did, and school buildings and the land they are on, for which the ministry is responsible, are in some cases no longer safe.
The ministry worked to find a fair and equitable way of announcing its proposals to everyone. For news of this nature, letters or phone calls were not right and we needed to be able to talk to those involved in person.
We fully appreciate in this age of social media that news spreads rapidly and that is always going to be a challenge in these sorts of situations.
But when some media break an embargo and ignore why it was put in place it is something they need to be held to account for by those wondering why they were not given the time and respect they had asked for.
Over the next 10 days we have 24 meetings scheduled with school and early childhood education groups. The ministry will continue listening to schools and their communities as we work our way through these proposals and will be keeping all the communication channels open.
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