Post-quake school communities deserve better

GERARD DIREEN
Last updated 07:18 13/11/2012
Gerard Direen
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
NEW PRINCIPAL: Linwood Avenue School head Gerard Direen

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OPINION: Linwood Avenue School's new principal GERARD DIREEN says many of the school communities involved in the Christchurch education shake-up would have greater confidence if those leading had performed their roles better.

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Since September 2010, we've learned to value more than ever those things that bring us together, that foster a sense of belonging and certainty. The schools I've visited and worked in across Christchurch are doing just that.

Working for the Education Review Office during 2011 and 2012, I saw schools successfully respond to the consequences of the earthquakes. Despite portaloos, broken buildings, site-sharing and personal challenges, staff members, parents and children have worked successfully together. Flexibility and innovation have been widespread. National standards have been implemented and 2011 NCEA results were above expectations.

On October 15, I began as principal of Linwood Avenue School, a school with a proud history of student achievement and progress in learning. But I've had little time for teaching and learning so far. Instead, I've been meeting with various people to discuss the school's future, government policy and the changing face of Christchurch. My diary is peppered with meetings held by the Education Ministry, community and principals' groups and the minister. Now we are working on our submission regarding the proposed merger with Bromley School.

In my view, policymakers have combined some necessary changes with unnecessary proposals that struggle to fit even their own criteria.

At Linwood Avenue School we've been told by the ministry that it's not about the state of our land or building repairs.

Our current roll is about 320, well above 2011 levels, and projected to also grow in 2013. Yet, we're told it's necessary to close us down in order to address the impact of the earthquakes.

To make things more confusing the ministry mistakes us for an intermediate school, and tells us that Bromley School will now be merging with Linwood North School and not us.

The misleading language surrounding these proposals doesn't help. For instance, they're going to "rejuvenate" Linwood Avenue School, (seen by ERO mid-2012 as a high performing school), by closing it down! We're going to foster the "innovation" that's been acknowledged by the ministry over time at Linwood Avenue, by closing it down. We're going to deliver opportunity to the children and families of Linwood Avenue by shutting a school that successfully integrates with the heart of the community.

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The Education Ministry is not one of our better performing ministries, according to external review reports. Perhaps it's time to address some of those shortcomings in order to improve education.

The focus on clusters and networks has quite deliberately minimised the impact of these proposals on school communities.

Many school communities would have greater confidence in this process if those leading had performed their roles to a higher level.

When I asked some of our students what I should say about our school, the most common response was, it's special, it's amazing and it doesn't need to be changed. When we asked our parents what they thought about the ministry's proposal, 99 per cent said they disagree with it and want their school to stay right where it is. Pretty clear messages. We know we'll continue to develop and innovate because that's what this school does well.

The stress on individuals, families and relationships across Christchurch is widely reported. Our teachers and our various support staff deal with this reality every week. In a context of crisis, unexpected changes and disruption, schools have been places of certainty and routine. Why would anyone knowingly disrupt an essential part of our children's lives in this context?

Communities are being tempted with the promise of 21st century schools.

After working for ERO over recent years, I can put your mind at rest. They're out there already. They first appeared about 2000. Some are made of wood and were built in the 1950s, and some are not. If you hear anyone tell you the date a school was built determines the outcomes for your kids, then pray that they never get the chance to lead a school. Modern learning environments can be fantastic places, but so can teaching and learning in any room.

The technology of 1952 or 1992 helped motivate and enhance learning for kids then, and so do the technologies of today. Twenty- first century technologies have been in our schools for more than 10 years. At Linwood Avenue we've got iPods and iPads and interactive boards and curious learners. However, technology itself doesn't produce better learning. Better use of these technologies by leaders and teachers improves learning. What engages students is as complex and diverse as the students themselves.

American philosopher H L Mencken wrote that, "For every complex problem there's a simple answer, and it's wrong." If closing about 40 schools and creating some bigger ones is meant to improve outcomes for Christchurch children then it's an inadequate response. If it's only about land and buildings then it's flawed. If it's about population change then it's premature.

After three weeks in this job, it's clear to me that there needs to be a more balanced and better-informed approach to enhancing and improving schooling across Christchurch.

The children and communities of this post-earthquake city deserve nothing less.

Before taking over as principal of Linwood Avenue School, Gerard Direen worked for the Education Review Office, had been principal of Weedons Primary School and taught in schools across Christchurch and Dunedin. He was awarded a research fellowship in 2005 to study school change and has been a member of Education Ministry advisory panels.

- The Press

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