Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Donation to fund school's digital devices clears way for sale of sensitive land

Schools are struggling to get students the digital devices they need for learning. Photo / iStock
Schools are struggling to get students the digital devices they need for learning. Photo / iStock

A school bought tablets and laptops after it was given $100,000 by an overseas company to clear the way for the purchase of sensitive land.

Wakatipu High School received the donation - spent on devices for its students and training for staff - under a deal approved by the Overseas Investment Office in January.

Glenorchy Homestead Limited offered the money as part of its application to purchase 19ha of property at 761 Malaghans Rd, Arrowtown.

The property was valued at $2.7 million and was to be used as a home when the applicants - Singapore residents David Chuang and Lim Mee Len - visit New Zealand.

A letter from Wakatipu High School principal Steve Hall to the OIO, obtained and released by Labour, outlines how the money will be spent.

The school - like many others in New Zealand - had implemented a "bring your own device" or BYOD policy, meaning all its students are required to bring an appropriate electronic device each day for use in lessons.

Mr Hall's letter states that devices that meet the recommended specifications cost at least $500, and of the 850 students at the school:

• 5 per cent would need 100 per cent assistance to buy a device

• 10 per cent would need 60 per cent assistance

• 15 per cent would need 40 per cent assistance

Accordingly, the total funding needed was about $72,600. A further $30,000 would be used to train staff in BYOD lessons, the letter said.

Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the fact a decile 10 school like Wakatipu had a large number of students that couldn't afford electronic devices demonstrated the pressure many families would be under.

"When even decile 10 schools are putting their hand up and saying, 'we are struggling to get kids the digital devices they need for their learning', that's something the Government should take notice of."

With back-to-school advertisements now featuring laptops and iPads as prominently as other stationery items, Mr Hipkins said the Government needed to offer more support.

Ahead of the last election, Labour policy was to spend about $109 million over three years to ensure all students from Year 5 to 13 had their own personal tablet or netbook by 2017.

For schools that opt in, parents would pay about $3.50 a week to pay off the cost of the device and the Government would put in $100 kick-start payments.

"We are a long way from the day when 1B5 exercise books and some pencils were what kids needed to go off to school. We are now talking about hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars worth of kit they are expected to show up with," Mr Hipkins said.

Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye said schools choose if and how they provide electronic devices, and were best placed to make these decisions.

A Ministry of Education sponsored survey of Digital Technologies in New Zealand Schools in 2014 found that only 2 per cent of schools surveyed said all of the digital devices used in their school were personally owned.

Ms Kaye said the Government had invested more than $200 million in the N4L Managed network, which provides participating schools with fast, reliable internet complete with uncapped data.

"It's important to note that while schools can ask parents to buy a digital device for the children to use at school, they can't require them to, as the Education Act provides New Zealand students with the right to a free education."

Mr Hipkins said the donation aspect of the approval was "very worrying".

"That the OIO should be using the sale of sensitive land as a lure to attract money that makes up for Government under-investment in public services."

- NZ Herald

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