By Chris Hipkins
Schools in Christchurch have every reason to be worried. Over the past few months Hekia Parata, the Minister of Education, has been consulting on proposals to merge or close a significant number of them, citing earthquake damage as the catalyst for change, but in reality her proposals extend far wider than just earthquake recovery.
Schools with minimal or even no damage have been earmarked for closure, assessments of damage have been notoriously unreliable, and enrolment projections for each school seem to have been plucked out of thin air and often have little relation to what's actually been happening on the ground.
School boards of trustees have been given three months to consult with their communities. That consultation ends on 7 December. The Minister seems unconcerned that the consultation period included school holidays, senior student exams, and the enrolment period for next year. Pleas by the schools for extensions of time have fallen on deaf ears.
If Hekia Parata follows the same approach to this consultation as she did when deciding the fate of the country's four residential special schools, the consultation will amount to little more than a token gesture anyway.
In that case, the Minister announced a proposal that would see two of the four schools closed, with the remaining two becoming coeducational and a new 'wrap around' service being introduced for those students who would remain in their existing schools. This new 'wrap around' service just happened to cost a third of the cost of supporting a child in a special residential school, but the Minister claims cost wasn't a factor of course.
After a few months of what she called 'genuine consultation' and despite strong submissions being presented against the proposal, Hekia Parata announced this week that she is going to go ahead and do what she planned to do all along anyway.
Parents, teachers and students in Christchurch have every right to be worried they will end up experiencing the same treatment. If past form is anything to go by, the Minister has already made her mind up and decided their fate. The current consultation she is engaged in is designed to satisfy her legal obligation to consult, nothing more, nothing less.
The National government have totally botched this whole process. Nobody doubts that change is needed in Christchurch. School leaders I’ve spoken to are disappointed the process has gone off the rails. What started out as an opportunity for exciting change and innovation has turned into a struggle for survival.
If Hekia Parata was wise, she would listen carefully to what the schools have to say, slow the process down, and go back to the drawing board on some of the harsher aspects of her plans. I won’t be holding my breath though.
Chris Hipkins is Labour’s Associate Education spokesperson