Schools shake-up news fills Press mail boxes

Last updated 05:00 22/09/2012

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OPINION: The mail boxes and email inboxes at The Press have been unusually full in the last week and a half. The Ministry of Education's and minister Hekia Parata's proposed changes to the landscape of Canterbury schools has motivated people to write to us in numbers not seen on any issue since the earthquakes. Not even last summer's vexed question of the Christchurch City Council chief executive's pay rise - arguably a lightning rod for dissatisfaction over local government issues in general - has motivated people to write in such numbers.

Some of them are published on the opposite page. Although they cover most of that page, they may not seem a great number in the scheme of things, and the Government no doubt can dismiss the writers as a non-representative group of no great consequence. But we know from long experience that people are not easily moved to write to us. There is a group of more-or-less regular correspondents, but generally people only write when something moves them enough to take time out of their routine, to put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard, and make a public declaration of what they think. One always suspects that behind every letter writer there are others, not quite moved to write, thinking the same thing.

Two features stand out about this week's mailbag. One is that the ratio of letters against and for the Government's proposals for schools is running at about 50 to 1. The other is that the writers have written with unusual passion about what schools mean to them and their children, especially in the way that teachers and principals have helped children cope with the initial fear and continuing uncertainty of the earthquakes.

The notion of certainty and uncertainty featured in Parata's argument when she defended the Government's handling of the issue. She said: "I expected that people would get upset, but we had to give certainty and that is what we have done." She rightly points out that dozens of community meetings will provide opportunity for communication and engagement.

That process, though, will be enhanced if the Government drops the patronising tone it has so far adopted towards our communities. We are not schoolchildren ourselves; we do not need lectures and we don't need bureaucratic flim-flam. We don't need a minister reminding Christchurch people that they have been under "intolerable stress". We don't need her to tell us about living with uncertainty when we are still suspicious of the very ground we walk upon.

And how has the minister removed uncertainty, when the parents of Burnham School and Chisnallwood Intermediate - among so many others - have more doubts and worries about the future of their children's schooling than they did two weeks ago?

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The demographic landscape of Christchurch is changing. No-one is arguing that schools need a shake-up and that, reluctantly, we must accept that some might have to close or merge. What is in question is the way that the Government is going about things. What's needed now is hard information about how and why decisions are being made about our schools. Some of the figures which have come to light so far have not been encouraging. The ministry told The Press this week that Woolston School's roll was 220; its principal said it was 265 and growing. Other principals also reported that the information the ministry had about their schools was incorrect. Unless the ministry or Parata can give an absolute assurance that the process is based on sound data, the whole review process must be open to question.

One of the affecting letters received this week was an open letter to Prime Minister John Key from Burnham School mother Adelle Scott, published opposite. She writes: "Have our children not been through enough without taking away the one consistent thing in their lives?" Scott reports she voted for Key's Government twice before, because she believed he would do the right thing for the country, but the Government is now not doing the right thing in her view. Sooner or later the Government will need to consider how its actions will affect its support at the ballot box.

- The Press

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