Vicki Carpenter asks what the boards of two dilapidated schools have been doing about basic maintenance.
Inadequate and unsafe facilities for learning are failing hundreds of students; their academic achievement is being severely compromised.
The situation in Northland College (decile 1) at Kaikohe, and Clayton Park School (decile 2) at Manurewa, is not good enough. According to recent Herald reports, Clayton Park School has closed four classrooms because of mould, and other classrooms (presumably still being used as teaching spaces) are damp and leaking, with fungi growing in ceilings and walls.
The Northland College principal described the conditions in his school as unsafe, with water leaks, mould and asbestos problems. Both schools have concerns for student and teacher health. Coughing and wheezing are evident, and respiratory illnesses are an ongoing problem.
In Clayton Park the issues have been going on "for at least 10 years" while in Northland College the Education Review Office (ERO) labelled the buildings "inadequate" and "no longer safe" in its 2012 report. The Ministry of Education "hopes" to have new classrooms ready for Northland College by 2017 which means the appalling conditions will continue for at least two more years.
Some children in both schools will spend their entire schooling in unsafe and unhealthy environments.
How would it feel to attend a school like Northland College or Clayton Park? Being in either school, every week day, is likely to mean often being cold, and uncomfortable. Some children and teachers will have developed mould allergies, and their immune systems will be working overtime to combat toxicity.
The tamariki, who sadly are likely to be amongst the 1 in 5 children already living their lives in poverty, will be doing their best. Despite such deplorable circumstances, I imagine that the professionals in both schools will be working extremely hard to provide optimum learning experiences. And whanau are likely to be very supportive of their schools.
Most students of education and the social sciences know of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In his model essential layers, necessary before progression can be made to learning through education, esteem and self-actualisation, are biological (sleep, food), physiological (air, shelter, warmth) and safety (protection from the elements). He, with common sense, tells us all schools should be healthy, warm and welcoming places, with conditions that are ripe for learning.
One has to wonder who is responsible for the apparent duck shovelling of responsibility which has brought about today's dire situation. Since Tomorrows Schools in 1989, governments' educational emphasis has been on devolution, autonomy and competition. Such policies appear to work admirably well for middle class and wealthy communities, but not so well when communities are economically poor and lack enough (free) professional expertise for boards of trustees to call on.
In theory, the responsibility (and funding) for school buildings and maintenance passed to boards of trustees. The principal is a de facto member of the board.
It is hard for me to get my head around the fact that boards and principals have let their circumstances deteriorate for so long. Why wasn't health and safety prioritised in school budgets? Were those boards of trustees, and the principals in particular, so afraid of challenging the Ministry of Education that they were prepared to allow the health of the children they are responsible for to suffer?
Aside from the "in-your-face" evidence of appalling conditions, the ERO reports also note building concerns. And then there is the Ministry of Education itself. It has known of the problems in these schools for many years, and it appears to have kept the issues mainly in the too hard basket.
As the Northland College principal suggests, bureaucracy is hopelessly slow. Approaching the media seems to bring some action, but such a step should not be necessary.
I sense that parents, caregivers (and perhaps policy makers) would not allow this to happen in high decile schools in Grey Lynn, Takapuna or Kerikeri. Yet in low decile schools in economically poorer communities, populated mainly by Maori and Pasifika children, the powers that be in the education system and the wider New Zealand population appear able to turn a blind eye. This is shameful.
To deal with the deplorable situation the Ministry of Education must become more proactive, and be held to account with health and safety issues. The ministry property team may need to have a greater and more proactive role in some schools.
The ministry must accept the bulk of the responsibility " and move from its snail-paced reflection and deferred action to immediately address the problems.
The structure of the education system is failing hundreds of our very precious young people. These tamariki may well reach their potential but in doing so they will face struggles others can't imagine.
• Dr Vicki Carpenter is a senior research fellow in the faculty of education and social work and the University of Auckland.