OPINION: The big reduction in the number of schools being forced to close or merge, announced by Education Minister Hekia Parata yesterday, is more than welcome.
It ends the anxiety of the many Christchurch people who faced their most cherished community asset being torn from them or drastically altered, reduces pupil and parent fears and gives teachers more certainty about their jobs.
The Government should be congratulated for at last properly consulting people about the plan and for taking heed of concerns. Even greater congratulations should go to the schools, parents and supporters for gathering the facts and ensuring that the Government took them aboard. This was a demonstration of people power at its constructive best.
But the congratulations should not divert reflection on the incompetence of the reform process, and the resulting lack of faith in the intention of the Government to provide a school system suitable for post-quake Christchurch. We, and the Government, need to learn from those failings if another city is to avoid suffering from such a botched project.
The core issue is faulty information used to justify the changes, and it is an issue inadvertently demonstrated by the prime minister.
Last year, when defending the closure of schools, John Key asked a question that did not need an answer. Did we want to keep schools like Burnside - borer-ridden and a relic of the 1960s - or have schools fit for the 21st century? Yesterday, his minister of education said that Burnside would remain open because she has now discovered that it is fit for purpose.
The incident would be trivial did it not exemplify the misinformation that has underlain the reform of Christchurch state education from its start in September last year. The shock then of the announced closures was great, but principals were quick to gather their wits and find mistakes in the justifications provided - mistakes involving things like the extent of damage to classrooms, roll sizes and the number of buildings at schools.
The intervening consultation has garnered new facts sufficient to drastically change the number of schools closing or merging - a reduction of about a third - which leads to the conclusion that the original proposal was ill-founded.
That is extraordinary, given the radicalness of the September plan and its cost in human terms. Thirteen schools were to be closed and 26 merged. All of those schools were the focus of communities' lives, the pride of parents and the happy learning place of pupils. The resulting anger and distress were understandable.
Now it emerges that much of that outpouring was avoidable had the Ministry of Education built its plans on sure facts and consulted more effectively before the wholesale announcement. Had it done so, the first plan would have been something like that now proposed and would not have hit the city like a load of lead. People would have been much more accepting of change because they would have been informed about its need and contributed to its detail.
Such consultation has now taken place, but issues still exist. How sound is the demographic data driving the change? Are the schools affected satisfied that they have been fairly listened to?
Those issues aside, it is time to end the upset and concentrate on the proposed school structure. It promises to fit the city for the new age of education.
That, at least, is the promise.
- The Press