“This has not been an easy decision to make, but after considering final submissions from the school and from the Ministry of Education, I believe it is the right one,” Anne Tolley, Minister of Education
Political leaders revel in stories about humble beginnings. Abraham Lincoln — from a log cabin to the White House*, Barrack Obama– from a primary school in Jakarta to the White House*, John Key–from a state house in Christchurch to the key of the House of State ( plus a mansion in Remuera and a holiday house in Hawaii).
As a 13-year-old, John Key decided he wanted to be the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Aorangi School, the primary school he went to in his pre-teen years, has just been closed in a pre-Christmas snow job, despite a High Court hearing challenging deficiencies in the consultation process.
The Government is having enough problems coming to grips with the leaky homes caused by the loosening of building regulations by its early nineties National Government predecessor. In this case it has had even more trouble with rotting school buildings. Perhaps something is rotten in the state…
There was obviously overwhelming local support for Aorangi, which was a microcosm of multi-racial Christchurch and provided unique educational opportunities for its community. It was a decile 3 island in a decile 10 suburban sea in NW Christchurch, which includes Fendalton, and had its demographic origin in the sixties policy of pepper-potting small numbers of state houses and their inhabitants in leafier suburbs than usual.
The school’s roll has been declining, not helped by the school’s being under a dangling Damoclean sword for many months. 27 staff- rather a good ratio of teaching, support and administrative staff in a shrinking school- were handed an unwanted redundancy card for Xmas.
The Minister has undertaken to provide a school undertaker, aka as a “change manager”, to support the school, families and students through all aspects of the closure process, which happens over the school holidays. The school community would have preferred a school caretaker. The ministry will work with Ngai Tahu to establish a replacement bilingual unit “with some urgency”, though, given the school’s rainbow population a multicultural unit might be more to the point.
As John Caldwell, junior counsel for the Aorangi Board pointed out, the alleged fiscal savings of around $2.5 million by closing Aorangi were “potentially illusory”*. The Press reported on 24 December that an independent accountancy firm concluded in a report made available on 10 December that the actual saving between the cost of rebuilding the school, calculated correctly, and the costs of moving its pupils elsewhere, was no more than $38,032 a year.
The board only received the working papers on which the ministry’s closure assumptions and dodgy arithmetic were based after the minister’s final decision to close the school, effective from the 27th of January 2010 (with the school holidays intervening, effectively from end of the 2009 school year).
In a clear example of below standard numeracy a ministry official apparently subtracted rather than added a six-figure sum for rebuilding demolished classrooms, which rather messed up the replacement tender budget and widened the gap between the board’s and the ministry’s negotiating position.
$38,000 is a very modest return for bad publicity and loss of goodwill. The government, which like its predecessors has more spin doctors than all the cricket playing nations combined, has trampled rather clumsily on its own education stumps rather than stumping up with the not very big net difference in finances.
With a bit of cultivation and a Mucking In makeover, Aorangi could have been a living, learning testimony to a poor boy made good and multicultural harmony. (Not that the Key family was quite the stereotypical New Zealand poor: his assiduous widowed mother, with her European Jewish heritage, was a great believer in education and his home would have had more books than most, even if her son became most interested in the double entry kind).
The young John Key’s shift, with his family, from his birthplace in Auckland to Christchurch and his educational progression from Aorangi to Burnside High, then to the University of Canterbury en route to a stellar financial trading career and politics and the top job in 7 years, while not quite Horatio Alger, is still good stuff in the Kiwi egalitarian lexicon. It is too good a story about the power of education to attain personal and social goals to have an unhappy ending.
As Trevor Mallard found out when he was the Minister of Education, whatever the budgetary constraints, closing schools is not the quickest route to political popularity. He certainly wouldn’t have tried to close down Helen Clark’s old school. If he had tried she certainly wouldn’t have let him.
The Prime Minister is relaxed about most things and cuts his ministers plenty of slack. Gallows humour is premature-there are bigger battles looming over National Standards- but this has been a dreadful public relations exercise for the Ministry of Education and its minister Anne Tolley, who has been left holding a can of worms because of some bureaucratic bungling.
#Lyall Lukey 26 Dec 2009