This post is for the tamariki /children of Philipstown school in Christchurch New Zealand and a small thanks to Tony Simpson, a local principal who has worked so hard to support his community and students through a very fraught process of school closure and merger that involved up to 31 schools at in a wider process of major replanning soon after the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011.
If New Zealand education officials and the government is to learn anything from this process, we must learn never to repeat this style of consultation.
In a period of disaster, best practice for recovery reminds us that children and their communities need continuity of schools post disaster. Community schools provide support for local families and help avoid natural disasters spiraling into social collapse. A local school is one of the key elements of any community's resilience.
No one doubts that if buildings were unsafe they had to be closed after the quakes, and there is opportunity for long term reorganization of schools post disaster. But the 2-3 years immediately after such a large crisis was never going to be the right time to begin a discussion about major reorganisation, when local families were still reeling from 59 quakes at magnitude 5 or more.
I was contacted by the Principal and Board chair when they first heard they faced possible closure or merger.This school has a 130 year history. I have written about this previously.
The reasons for rushing this decision after the quakes were never made clear and I am still unsure of them myself. It did not seem to be an issue of building safety and not enough financial information was provided to respond to. A court case which the school successfully won, challenged the way consultation was handled and noted that the community did not have enough information and the significance of the school on it's site was down played.
During the time I helped the school, I was concerned that the Ministry recommendations changed at least twice, and the board felt bewildered and exhausted. They had help from many skilled advisors who all felt similarly dismayed by the announcement and process of consultation.
In a community where large numbers of people were living in homes that were unsafe, many felt the school was a refuge and place of support. It felt like a double disaster to loose the school.
Now this local school will be merged with another, Woolston about 2 km down a stretch of busy industrial Ferry Rd listed as a top 10 pedestrian crash site. It is not clear how the government will ensure safety of very young children (in a low car owning community) who will now be required to walk a stretch of road, already listed as a top 10 crash site by the Ministry of Transport. These children will have to cross multiple traffic lanes at peak time
The ins and outs of the decision could be debated for years. No one is denying that education renewal is a good thing. But what the Ministry of Education and the Cabinet must learn from this decision is that carefully considering the timing and methods of open, transparent consultation are essential, post disaster.
Instead of compounding stress, if planners had waited 3 years, to begin the conversation when children and their families had at least gained their breath, it would have enabled consultation to begin with good will and clearer heads.
Christchurch experienced a disaster of international significance and disrupting schooling through a badly rushed consultation process to merge and close schools, made a natural disaster much worse and must never be repeated.
Local children's stress is climbing in Christchurch, particularly amongst the poorest children. They needed us to offer a duty of care to their principals, staff and to them as children, so that all could feel schools were places refuge in a changing world.
On a march to keep the school open, a local police officer remarked to me how sad he was and he described the local Philipstown Principal Tony Simpson as "a pillar of support in the community" and someone who had offered "social stability".
I leave the final word to a caring local resident who asked, "My mother went to this school, I went to this school, my children and their children went to this school, why is it that tradition in education only seems to count for the wealthy? We have lost so much in Christchurch, this school has been a wonderful community support, why does it have to go?"