Timing of school closures couldn't be worse

COLIN ESPINER
Last updated 14:59 19/02/2013

The secret to great comedy, they say, is timing, and if "they" are right, then this Government is not very funny. 

With Friday looming as the second anniversary of the most devastating of the Christchurch earthquakes, Education Minister Hekia Parata's school closures announcement could not have come at a worse time.

I don't think anyone who wasn't in the city on that day can truly appreciate the impact it had on the people of Christchurch, and continues to have to this day. Certainly Hekia Parata doesn't.

I accept that in the wake of the quakes some decisions about the future of schooling in Christchurch needed to be made. Actually I think everyone accepts that.

I also accept that some of those decisions won't be popular, but needed to be made. As John Key said yesterday, "the Government needs to address this issue for the long-term good of the community''.

But there are ways and means of doing something that isn't going to be pleasant. Dentists use anaesthetic before drilling a hole in your tooth. And they warn you beforehand.

The manner in which this Government has approached the issue of Christchurch's post-quake schooling has been woeful. Actually, that's being too kind. It's been careless, haphazard, unfeeling and downright incompetent.

It began last September in Lincoln, where principals were told of the Government's plans to close and merge some schools via coloured name tags, depending on whether their school was to be "restored'' (kept open) "consolidated'' (merged) or "rejuvenated'' (closed).

That would have to go down as one of Ministry of Education's most shameful moments - and it's had a few.

Back then, you'll remember, the proposal was to close 13 schools and merge another 25. It came as a bolt from the blue for all of the schools concerned, all of which had been struggling to put the terrible events of 2011 behind them.

Following an outcry, the Government (supposedly) went back to the drawing board. And yesterday it announced (hurrah!) that it had listened to the community, and now only seven schools will close and a further 12 are to merge. 

This is a very old political trick. When you want to make an unpopular change, it's customary to announce something much worse than you intend, sit back and wait for the reaction, and then propose what you originally intended as a compromise. Your opponents claim victory and everyone's happy. 

But are they? Actually, it's not true to say only seven schools will close. Merging 12 schools into six creates another six closures, unless my maths is even worse than I feared. Tell Phillipstown School that it's not really going to close, it's merely merging with Woolston.

The National Bank recently "merged'' with ANZ, but funnily enough I can't seem to find any more National Bank branches. 

The emotional and physical toll on students, staff, and parents from this upheaval can only be wondered at. It had better be worth it. 

And that's the question: Is it worth it? For an essentially conservative administration that hasn't exactly made a habit of taking risks, John Key's government is taking an awfully big punt on this one. Particularly in the middle of the Novopay fiasco. 

As a former education reporter at The Press in Christchurch, I witnessed at close hand what happened the last time National got seriously offside with the education sector. It ended with marches, strikes, a lot of very bad publicity, and then minister Lockwood Smith escaping out a classroom window. 

A Labour education minister, Trevor Mallard, wasn't spared either when he embarked on a school closure programme in the early 2000s, despite being a former teacher himself. That programme was quietly shelved. 

Hekia Parata hasn't quite reached the levels of unpopularity old Lockie managed in the 90s, but she's displaying a similarly high-handed attitude. It's as if National's antipathy toward the teacher unions is so deeply ingrained that it simply keeps forgetting that behind teachers stand parents. 

And while National wrote off the votes of the teacher unions long ago, it can't afford to ignore the parents, already fatigued and fed up at the constant upheaval the earthquakes have brought to their lives.

Parata's attempt to placate people by claiming the changes affect just 1 per cent of Christchurch's school-age children doesn't make it right. Or fair. 

I'm not saying changes in the makeup of Christchurch's school aren't needed post-quake. As Key has pointed out, people have moved suburbs or moved away. The land some of the schools sit on is unsafe or requires expensive remediation. 

But the way the Government has gone about this is akin to the proverbial bull in the china shop. And Christchurch has had quite enough breakages, thank you very much. 

It's also ironic that the changes are being rammed through in a great hurry, when most other arms of government seem to be taking an age to do anything to get Christchurch back on its feet. 

Teachers will again take to the streets in Christchurch this afternoon to vent their displeasure, and while there will be a certain amount of self-interest (some are likely to lose their jobs, after all) the danger for the Government is that the fiasco will act as a lightning rod for wider discontent with its post-quake performance. 

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