01 October 2012

Déjà vu? School Closures in Canterbury

by Wendy Fowler

Upon arriving in New Zealand in 1998, I was confronted by a dilemma: to accept a job at a thriving country school in Mid-Canterbury which was being threatened with ‘voluntary closure’ set out by the then Labour government, or not. Accept this particular job at a family orientated school with strong values and traditions; a school which had been going for over 100 years; a country school nestled between the ski-resort of Methven, the sleepy town of Ashburton and the trout haven of Rakaiai. A school which catered to farmers and milk-sharers and even townspeople who chose to travel 20 km (and back) each day for a chance at a country school education.

My dilemma was resolved after a second breath-taking view of the Southern Alps and the Canterbury plains with its tussock and hedgerows. The added warmth and honest reception from the principal and Board sealed my decision to stay. Six uncertain months became five wonderful years and somewhere in that time I took on the position of deputy principal of a country school that is still thriving today. But not without watching the anguish of mums and dads as they fought for the right to survive, to continue; as they sought to justify the existence of a thriving school to officials who would not hear. I watched ex teachers in their eighties, emotionally overwrought, at open meetings pose the hard questions only to be met with Ministry responses and evasions that created bleaker and more obscure pictures of the future. I served alongside a Board of Governors, usually fulltime farmers, as they honed their skills together with an innovative principal to seek out plans to thwart the relentless march that is bureaucracy. And we won! Christchurch, you are not alone.

Any decisions that accompany school closures in Christchurch have to be iron clad, should not be done in the name of avarice, and should never be taken lightly. Any decisions should be challenged if they are thought to be unjust and there are those in Christchurch that agree.

I salute Cantabrians for their tenacity in the face of catastrophe and ongoing grief that has been wrought by the quakes and their aftermaths. I would like to stand by you as a co-worker in education, both in spirit and in word. Is it ever a ‘good idea’ to merge a thriving school or close a school? The reply, coming from an African where trees are precious, is analogous:

Is it ever a good idea to cut down a thriving tree? One may at times be required to regretfully sacrifice one or two. Perhaps a tree has grown unsafe or is on a lean. Decisions will necessarily have to be made. But …what of the birds in the trees, the nests in the tiny forks of the leafy twigs? The eggs still cushioned in the downy softness of the nests? What of those creatures that gather under the tree in the hot sun to shield their young from those warm yet harmful rays. …of the grass shoots that spring up just that more sweetly and more succulently because of their position at the base of that strong tree?...the dewdrop that hugs the blade of grass just that much longer because of where it is positioned…the seed that is watered by that dewdrop…WHAT OF IT?

Consider this. Schools are communities. School communities nurture, they rally the troops. They create hope and a future. They are unique by virtue of location, history, involvement, and key to healing communities where trauma has beaten down the spirits of those that have been brave for so long. Removing a school can mean the death knell to a neighbourhood, to traditions long held sacred, to hope. Does this sound emotional? Heartfelt? I hope so. These are people not bricks and mortar.

Life will be destroyed when the tree is chopped down. With this there is no dispute. The call goes out to not cause this death; to find ways where there are ways. To enable that dewdrop to accomplish its regenerative job. Interestingly and ironically, the documentation put out by the Ministry of Education on the closure of schools is being marketed as ‘Education Renewal’. Only politicians can carefully label the proposed closure of 13 Canterbury schools, the merger of 18 into 9 and the relocation of another seven as ‘renewal’ and ‘innovation’.

No doubt a tree that is a threat to safety could carefully be dismantled. A call goes out for empathy, not institutional coldness, for wisdom, not decisions based on avarice or a favourable portfolio. And instead of relentlessness, the appeal is made for a spirit of true restoration. Kia Kaha Christchurch. You are not alone.

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