Friday, September 14, 2012
Christchurch Suffers Schooling Shock
Schools are the hubs of their communities, they are an obvious gathering point for families and tend to have a lot of community input in terms of fundraising and cultural and sporting activities. Many schools have been in operation for generations and there is an emotional attachment to them because they are the environment where lifelong friendships are formed and they contribute to a person's most important early experiences.
Many schools have had large investments of community money to assist in providing facilities not covered by government funds. The value of a school is often reflected in school reunions where generations come together to share memories and appreciate the changes to the facilities over time. Secondary schools have their honour boards with the long lists of past duxes and the photos of successful past students. Schools also have important roles in times of emergency, most are civil defense bases and many have been used as shelter or a coordination centre in the event of a disaster.
For many, schools provide an extension of their homes, a safe and familiar place where much of their childhood and youth is spent. For some, schools provide security, support and stability that wasn't always present in their own homes. The ongoing physical presence of a school provides a form of emotional security, when most of the world is in constant change, the local school can provide a sense of permanency.
When a school closes an important physical link to the past ends and the heart of a community stops beating. The closing of any school is a sad event. It is a time when history stops and the community realizes that, for their school, there will be no more pet shows, school concerts, prize giving ceremonies or sporting competitions.
In 2004 Invercargill went through one of the largest Government initiated schooling reviews, resulting in a number of merged schools and the effective demise of city's intermediate schools and middle school. The reorganisation went against the wishes of parents to retain the intermediate schools, pitted secondary schools against primary and the more affluent communities used their influence to retain all the primary schools in the higher decile area of the city. Many schools that had existed in the town's early history suddenly ceased to exist and most year 7 and 8 children had to attend a secondary school.
The many mergers created difficulties for any community that had lost their school and were moved into another, and where name changes and combined boards were used to artificially make it into a "new" school. Eight years later school communities are just beginning to settle and new school cultures are finally being established.
The physical effects of the reorganisation are still visible as most of the abandoned schools still remain, sitting empty, unkempt and forlorn and still costing the Ministry in basic maintenance and surveillance. Interestingly the initial reason for the Invercargill schooling review was a decline in population and although it may have been a reasonable assumption that this would be a continuing reality, the opposite has happened. Many of the merged schools now have roles of 300 or more pupils and many teachers feel that the helpful family atmosphere that existed in some of the smaller, lower decile schools has been lost.
Sadly schooling reorganisations are largely driven by fiscal considerations, if they were led by community aspirations or professional evidence they would probably be managed quite differently. Invercargill's intermediates and middle school were well regarded and supported by the local community as useful environments for adolescent children (which Clarence Beeby had recognized over eighty years ago when he first established them). It is my opinion (supported by a recent ERO report) that secondary and primary schools often struggle with years 7-10 and that they would be best catered for in school environments that reflect their developmental stage.
It is my experience of what Invercargill went through that allows me to have some empathy for what Christchurch is now about to experience, only we did not have the stressful effects of a natural disaster to deal with as well. Christchurch is being told that hard decisions need to be made and the schooling plan had to be a largely bureaucratic decision to remove the emotional bias that would inevitably occur if it was left for the local community to manage. While there is some truth in this, I do wonder how much professional and community considerations affected the pivotal draft plan.
Given the debacle around Shirley Boys High School and what occurred in Invercargill, I see further stress being placed on Christchurch that could be avoided until the population stabilizes and communities have a chance to rebuild and reestablish themselves. There will be some expense in maintaining under utilized schools but there will also also be gains in mental health, community resilience and maintaining teacher and school capacity for the inevitable recovery. Now is not the time to close schools and experiment with unproven Charter Schools, the people of Christchurch have suffered enough.