What is the hidden education agenda?

KATHARINE SHAW
Last updated 08:41 26/09/2012
Schoolchildren
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ
MESSAGE TO MPS: Schoolchildren sign a 15-metre banner to be presented to Parliament along with the Vote Canterbury Kids online petition during a protest against planned school closures and mergers in Christchurch.

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OPINION: The Government, not wanting to waste a good crisis, has decided to have a stocktake of schooling in the greater Christchurch area, and has found at least 30 schools surplus to requirements.

Overall, 19 per cent of all schools will be changed in some way, under its proposals. This is dressed up as an earthquake-related emergency, but the plans for closing, merging and relocating individual schools don't make sense, unless you consider what the Government is trying to achieve under the radar.

The reasons for this 'renewal' programme are many; managing earthquake repairs, disposing of poorly constructed, deteriorating property, and a tidying up of small schools and intermediates.

Then there is the mystifying relocation of selected schools.

I believe this is to fit in with phase two of further restructuring; the invisible parts of a national policy of standardising schools that will gradually be revealed during the next 10 years.

The Government is also heralding its generosity in building new schools in Pegasus, Halswell and Rolleston. This is only claiming credit for an investment well overdue, and planned for many years.

A hard look at the ministry's website elicits some useful information, but also raises more questions than it answers. It gives the striking impression that thinking about Christchurch's "new" clusters pre-dated the earthquakes.

The minister states there has been information gathering since September 2010, yet there was earlier preparation for a network review of Christchurch, which never eventuated. The new plan is a network review by stealth, overwhelmingly similar to what took place around New Zealand from 2000 to 2004.

The minister's insistence that these changes apply to the long-term provision of education across the network, and that change must occur, is overwhelmingly similar to language from network reviews in the past.

Remember how, in the most recent Southland restructuring, 11 Invercargill schools closed, including all the intermediates. The final changes were announced in May 2004 and in place by February 2005.

The citywide distress was so great that teachers, school boards and civic leaders begged the Government to halt the process, and threatened legal action and civil disobedience.

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Then there is the interesting way information is used. The principals of several schools have commented on inaccurate information from the ministry, but data is also used selectively.

The ministry has chosen the March rolls for this project, but has always used July rolls on another property website. The general trend of roll growth in primary schools through the year explains why principals are reporting higher numbers than the ministry gives them credit for.

The arrangement of many learning clusters remains equally obscure, given their variable size, shape, and composition.

Decisions are based on a seemingly scientific algorithm of dollars of repairs required per pupil per school, plus population projections (uncertain without a recent census), land damage (not all information available yet), and educational data.

Post-earthquakes, the costs of Christchurch repairs and rebuilds have increased exponentially - and remain fluid - so schools are potentially being closed on the basis of escalating cost estimates.

While not to detract from the plight of severely damaged schools, these are not always the same schools being targeted. Some very battered schools are surviving, while schools with less damage face closure.

Too often there is a wide gulf between a school's reports of relatively minor damage and the substantially higher ministry property assessments.

Affected schools are rushing to get their own building reports, but there is no guarantee the ministry will accept alternative figures.

To build up the ministry's closure case, there has been misleading reporting of student attainment data; it is often outdated, distorted, or totally wrong. It seems remarkably coincidental that the Education Review Office is so busily reporting on Christchurch schools, particularly the endangered ones. The ministry then offers solutions, based on predetermined assumptions.

Collaboration sounds laudable, but may also be code for sharing facilities between several schools, not necessarily on the same site.

Then the plan points to larger schools - likely to mean a standard size of 400-500 pupils per primary school - to give maximum efficiency for capital cost.

Moreover, there will be a standardised approach to building design. The website states that the rebuilding plan is aligned with other Government changes, suggesting ongoing reforms, such as sharing backroom functions, will take place.

The Government has taken the perceived enthusiasm for innovation to embark on further economies of scale, with the Aranui amalgamation of five schools, and a shared site at Linwood College. A year 1-13 school configuration could promote relationships and sharing of expertise. Perhaps as importantly, it would ensure a consistent roll and smooth supply of learners, addressing supply and demand.

Restructuring will ensure all schools meet national standards , with increased homogeneity in size and decile rating, providing a consistent 'product'.

Because schools are now considered fully interchangeable - no school is unique - relocation of buildings or pupils is straightforward.

Arguably, it is imperative for the Government to get maximum bang for its buck in an adverse global situation. The cost, however, will be in a dramatic and permanent change to the educational landscape.

It is also debatable whether this rationalisation will help the under-performing 'tail' of students, even though education and skills are an identified priority to raise New Zealand's poor labour productivity.

So are school closures that bad for the students? There is a surprising dearth of hard evidence.

An ERO review of the Wainuiomata school amalgamations of 2000-01 found that economic, rather than educational, sustainability was achieved although, seven years later, another review found there was a 'significant improvement' in NCEA results.

The ERO review of the 2003-04 Invercargill network review reported some eventual benefits, but also several years of marked instability where schools were distracted from concentrating on student outcomes.

Seven vulnerable schools were still at risk, three years on.

Historically, forced mergers have gone badly, and the ERO reported that even a "successfully" merged school in Timaru struggled to integrate two disparate groups.

An independent report on network reviews, commissioned by the ministry, was critical of both process and outcomes and yet never shown to the minister.

Research has overwhelmingly shown that school closures are most traumatic when imposed on communities, a process described as 'amputation without anaesthetic' by Catherine Savage in a doctoral thesis in 2005.

Unfortunately, the schools most easily picked off are small with a strong sense of community, or lower decile or 'magnet' schools, where students are struggling with many psychosocial stressors, and a variety of learning needs. These are the very students who find it hardest to fit into a higher decile or larger school, and who end up disengaged.

What is particularly fascinating in Christchurch is the sheer range and diversity of schools affected by the master plan. No-one seems exempt.

So we have a perfect storm or, rather, disaster upon disaster.

There is an underperforming Education Ministry, evidenced by a formal review of the ministry last year, which rated it the lowest of 10 government departments.

This review called for substantial changes to ministry practices and cast doubt on its ability to deliver on new Government initiatives.

Add to that a physically ravaged environment, a stressed and fragile community, ongoing population flux, and the biggest single restructuring of a school network in the country.

Ironies abound - the minister has recently proposed the closure of McKenzie Residential School, but how will Canterbury's distracted and shell-shocked education sector provide a wrap around service for McKenzie's highly complex, troubled students?

Then there is 'consultation', when the minister has already kickstarted a legal process for several schools scheduled to close in January 2013.

She has reassured us, but we know that, in the history of school closures, the process has rarely been overturned.

To maximise success, the Education Act has quietly been changed by an Education Order made under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act, expiring in April 2013.

This order allows such helpful variations as changes in enrolment zones, alters the meaning of a half-day to allow site sharing, specifies earthquakes as a reason for statutory intervention and gives the ability to force relocations of schools in case school boards are 'unco- operative'.

It is impossible not to feel alarmed at the size, scale and timing of the proposed changes, or escape the conclusion there is another agenda operating.

Without immediate and radical change to the renewal plan, the cure will soon be revealed as much worse than the disease.

* Katharine Shaw was formerly on the board of trustees of Aorangi School, which was closed in 2010. She has four children, who she says have had variable experiences in the education system. She helped to prepare the unsuccessful court bid to keep Aorangi School open.

- The Press

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