Editorial: School policy should be about needs, not theories

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Education Minister, Hekia Parata. Photo / Getty Images
Education Minister, Hekia Parata. Photo / Getty Images

Of all the decisions fumbled by Education Minister Hekia Parata last year, the post-earthquake plan for Christchurch was perhaps the worst. It was not a decision like class sizes that could be blamed on budget demands and, unlike Novopay, it was not at heart a technical decision that a minister lacks the expertise to question. The Christchurch plan was an indulgence of educational theory that a minister with political judgment would have quickly reined in.

The outcry that greeted the announcement of the plan in September made its revision inevitable. The revised version appeared yesterday. Instead of closures and mergers of schools across the city the closures now appear to be confined to areas worst hit by the earthquakes or where rolls had been in steepest decline.

While there is anguish in any school that has to close - and the date has been set sooner for them under the revised plan - some of them had to go.

The city's schools had a combined capacity for about 5000 more pupils than attended them before the earthquakes and its school-age population had dropped by a further 4300 by July last year.

Now, six schools marked for closure in September have been granted a reprieve. Three of the intended mergers will not proceed and six mergers will go ahead as planned. Nearly all of them are in the eastern suburbs - New Brighton, Burwood and Woolston - and in Lyttelton, with mergers of five Aranui schools still under discussion. These are areas where damage or liquefaction was most evident and the population is unlikely to recover to pre-quake levels.

If the original plan had been confined to those sorts of areas it would probably not have incurred the wrath and derision it received. But somewhere in the higher echelons of education, the earthquake was seen as an opportunity to redesign schooling as we have known it in this country. The whole of Christchurch was to be a template for "something different and innovative to support improved outcomes in education".

The ministry's document talked of "shared campuses" for everything from early childhood to tertiary education, and educational institutions that would comprise not just schools but "dental clinics, doctors' surgeries, mental health and other support services such as counsellors, social workers and therapists".

To this end, the planners hoped to knock down and rebuild much more public property than had suffered serious damage. They talked about many school buildings in the region being "aged, not fully weathertight, not well suited to modern teaching and learning practices and most were not designed with physically disabled learners in mind".

The fury in communities that had already suffered too much upheaval has not only saved taxpayers much unnecessary expense but has given the whole country due warning of education's next fad.

Yesterday's announcement was again accompanied by a ministry paper on "future directions". It has grouped all Christchurch schools into "learning community clusters" comprising early childhood centres as well as primary and secondary schools, state-owned or integrated Catholic schools.

"It is not feasible to simply repair existing buildings," it says, "Instead we have an opportunity to provide new and improved facilities that will shape education, improve the options and outcomes for learners and support greater diversity and choice."

None of that is necessary for Christchurch or the rest of the country. The ministry needs to clear its head, concentrate on what has to be closed, merged or rebuilt, and get on with it.

- NZ Herald

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