''Basically an aftershock of the earthquake.''
That is how University of Canterbury acting
pro-vice-chancellor (education) Prof Niki Davis described the
shake-up of education in Christchurch.
That, for better and for worse, sums up the impact.
The quakes irrevocably changed Christchurch in all sorts of
ways, and education has not been excluded.
For a start, population patterns have changed, notably in the
east. Many streets, where once children lived and played, are
abandoned. Other areas are growing. There was no way the
status quo could, or should, remain.
Inevitably, this means understandable heartbreak for many.
Because schools are so central to a child's life and because
families and communities invest such loyalty in them,
disruption is especially hard to take. As the principal of
Phillipstown Primary School - which is set to merge with
another school on another site - said, school can be a safe,
secure, nurturing place. Schools are far more than just
buildings where pupils are taught.
That social and emotional connection is part of the reason
why the announcement last year on planned closures from
Education Minister Hekia Parata received widespread
condemnation. Vehement opposition was to be expected whatever
was proposed, but that first stage was inept, with mistakes
on basics like roll numbers and the condition of buildings,
as well as bungling with the timing of the announcement
This time, the approach has been measured and cautious. There
has been plenty of build-up, careful planning and lots of
consultation. In fact, proposals have been scaled back to the
degree that the suspicion is raised that changes might not,
in the long run, be as radical as they perhaps need to be.
Strong Christchurch support for the Government was crucial to
its success in the last election and, after the mess of the
last announcement, it had much ground to make up.
When you examine the numbers, the scope is not as great as it
might have been (it should be noted this week's announcement
was of interim decisions, with a chance for more responses
until March 28 and final decisions by late May). The closure
of seven schools affects 607 children.
Twelve schools are to merge into six. Twelve keep their
individual identity after originally being cited for merger,
eight schools are being rebuilt and relocated, and five new
schools will be built. Another five schools in Aranui may
also be combined to form a new Year 1-13 campus, although the
complexities of this has prompted further consultation.
Another two schools closed voluntarily. Of the 215 schools in
greater Christchurch, 177 are unaffected.
The reduced numbers will not, of course, stop an outcry, as
evidenced, for instance, by school reorganisations on the
Taieri and in South Dunedin. Labour in power became wary of
community resistance to compulsory closures and mergers and
National will be the same. Interestingly, however, many
Taieri families would not want to return to the former school
structure. Mergers in South Dunedin need to be more settled
before the same can be said there. One suspects, though, that
in time Christchurch will adjust positively.
Labour and the Greens are awkwardly placed with the latest
proposals. Labour says the plan to bring forward school
closures from 2015 is wrong, and the Greens say decisions
should be left until after proper census data is collected.
But, while it is true schools were earlier told they would
have more time, decisive action is needed. Parents, teachers
and pupils, surrounded by so much uncertainty, need clear
direction. And schools scheduled to close in three years'
time would likely have become lame ducks, with falling morale
and diving rolls. The people of Christchurch have had far too
much of not knowing what is happening to their lives, their
homes and their future.
Education, which will see $1 billion spent on new or rebuilt
schools, is but one area undergoing seismic shifts in
Christchurch. Between 2010 and 2012, rolls fells by 4500
pupils (8.1%), with some areas well above that average.
Change had to come and, whatever the short-term agony, will
have to be embraced. There may be some tweaks, possibly even
bigger modifications, to the plans announced this week - but
Christchurch must eventually make the most of the chance to
improve its schools.