Last updated 11:26 28/10/2012
Is there a cunning plan? People are saying they wish there was. But it simply seems the Christchurch schools "renewal" programme has been badly bungled as a process.
Education Minister Hekia Parata has been taking the public flak - unsurprisingly, given her bossy handling of the announcements.
Unsurprisingly as well, John Key's National Government is being accused of pushing through some murky privatisation agenda - no-one can forget its charter school promise to the ACT party.
However, insiders say it may all just come down to the Education Ministry's incompetence.
Already labelled the worst performing government department, this year it has excelled itself with a series of spectacular blunders - the backfiring intermediate staff cuts, the half-baked national standards, the Novopay debacle - it has been one thing after another.
And with all these other fires burning, the ministry may never have realised it was about to dump a whole tanker of petrol on to a city of combustible tensions with its "firm proposals" to shut 13 schools and merge 25 others, based on bad data and laughable consultation timelines.
Whoosh, up it went up in flames - along with, according to some commentators, National's chances at the next general election.
In a belated attempt to mop up the political mess, Key has since tried to spell out what Parata was actually meant to say.
Key told Christchurch journalists last month that everyone knew there had to be changes because of the earthquakes.
About 4500 children have left the city and Christchurch's schools were over-supplied by 5000 places anyway. The combination of demographic shifts and building damage has required a thorough review.
But the choice for Christchurch is whether it wants to rebuild pretty much what it had pre- earthquake or have a bunch of new schools designed for this century's learning needs, schools just completely different in concept, says Key.
Demonstrating the advantage of local knowledge - he went to Aorangi Primary, Cobham Intermediate and Burnside High - Key says Burnside Primary, for instance, is slated for closure because it is riddled with borer and would cost $9 million to bring up to earthquake code standards.
"So yep, we can rebuild Burnside Primary on its site. Or we can pick up that cash, and frankly quite a bit more, wander down to Cobham and build a 21st- century school with the best technology blocks, the best equipment. We could potentially convert the land at Burnside into a sports ground with a full gymnasium and all the things you might want.
"So if you go out to the community and say do you want Burnside Primary completely rebuilt as a 1960s - but now in 2013 - school or do you want a 21st- century school, you might get a different answer."
Key says the Government is committing $1 billion to the school rebuild over the next 10 years. Personally, he is "cool" if local communities merely want to replace what was familiar.
"I can deliver to you what you had. It would cost us less money and it would certainly cost me less grief."
But exciting things are happening in the wider world of education - with new models being trialled in the past few years by schools like Albany Senior High in Auckland and Papamoa College near Tauranga. And Christchurch could join this revolution.
So what is Key talking about exactly? And then why, even if these new concepts are indeed great, does it look like the Education Ministry has stuffed up the process? Why are Christchurch's teachers and educators saying the way the changes are being rammed through is surely going to guarantee their failure?
It is a shock to discover what has been happening at some schools elsewhere in New Zealand.
Some primary schools are giving every child an electronic notebook, encouraging them to blog, and ensuring they have 24/7 access to the school's wireless network by putting aerials on their parents' homes.
Some secondary schools have thrown out the traditional classroom and instead operate hall-like "learning commons" where groups of up to 100 students work in fluid project teams while four or five teachers wander among them as facilitators.
John Sofo, of Auckland's ASC Architects, the "go to" designer for this new school thinking, says nationally the education debate seems to be about other things - the familiar controversies over charter schools, teacher/pupil ratios and national standards testing.
Barely registering is the fact that there is this reinvention of the schooling system taking place, a shift away from an education tailored to the needs of the industrial era to one better suited to a modern knowledge economy.
"As society became organised and industrialised in the 1870s and 1880s, education became organised and industrialised in the same way.
"Learning was modelled on the kinds of abilities you needed in the workplace and knowledge was compartmentalised.
"The idea of teaching separate subjects really was an invention of that era. We've accepted that now as the natural way to learn, but in fact it is not. Knowledge needs to be integrated."
Sofo says New Zealand, already a top-10 performing nation in the OECD rankings, has been gearing up for radical change for a decade. A milestone was the 2010 introduction of the new curriculum which emphasises an inquiry-based approach to learning. Sofo ticks off its four principles.
"If you asked what skills do kids need in the next 20 years to be successful, well, they need to be global in their thinking. They need to know how to find information, but not necessarily recollect it because it is available everywhere. They need to know how to take information and synthesise it. And the really key thing is that they need to know how to work together - how to be collaborative and form relationships."
It is a far broader notion of education, he says. Children still require literacy and numeracy. But the new curriculum is designed to foster the more general strengths of reasoning skills, self- management skills and even a social conscience.
It is ambitious. And to make it happen, Sofo says the old educational model of a teacher standing in front of 25 to 30 students, everyone studying the same section of a textbook for 50 minutes, has to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Sofo describes the new schools he has been involved in building, such as Papamoa College, which opened two years ago.
He says the "classroom unit" is now a mixed-age group of 80 to 100 children - the number of people which anthropologists say makes a natural "tribe", a proper community with an identity.
And instead of a collection of small classrooms, Papamoa employs a flexible collection of study spaces.
"For instance, you will see a general 'syndicate' space that nobody owns.
"It's a place where you can go and plug in your laptop, which you can occupy for an hour, or a week if you're doing some project."
Another kind of space is an internet cafe.
"That's a place where you can work, but also socialise - the boundaries between the two become more and more blurred."
The policy on technology is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Students are not only allowed but encouraged to hook into the school's super-fast wireless internet with their own computers and phones.
It is just all the things you would expect of a modern adult work environment, Sofo says. Like toilets that are part of the rooms.
"Students aren't forced to go outside to the toilet - I can't think of any other public building type where you have to go outside to relieve yourself. It's uncivilised.
"These studios are places where students are welcome to make themselves a cup of tea, microwave their lunch and sit together on bean bags. Why should you have to go outside to cower under the veranda in the rain?"
Sofo says as a result, the school atmosphere is utterly different. Students feel they own their spaces because they are not in them for single periods but entire days. "They just don't want to go home. Students stay around school because it's such an exciting and interesting place to be."
The way students study in these new spaces is equally different - project rather than subject-based.
"There will still be instruction. But you won't have teachers sitting down with a group of 30 and saying I'm going to teach you trigonometry for the next 45 minutes. Instead it might be students doing a science project like 'let's build a telescope'.
"So then you need to learn about optics, you need to learn about astronomy, you need to learn about tracking objects in the sky - there's an element of trigonometry there. The necessary knowledge will be woven into the project."
It seems a recipe for classroom mayhem. But Sofo says self- regulation and collaboration are precisely what schools are aiming to teach. Give students a civilised, stimulating environment and they will respond.
"This actually works better for low-decile schools because it creates a great sense of community."
Sofo says the new school design applies just as much to trade academies as it does to schools focused on producing university fodder or white collar workers.
"It is all about learning by doing. And that is traditionally project-based. Why would you have 30 kids all doing woodwork and making the same letterbox when one kid might have a passionate interest to build a bike frame and another one a model aeroplane?"
Others are equally enthusiastic about the possibilities. Derek Wenmoth, director of e-Learning at Christchurch's CORE Education, says it is obvious the internet will continue to transform the world of work and the world of education.
"The idea of a school as the sacred haven where knowledge was stored is nearly two centuries old now. In the age of the internet, we have to think about schools in terms of their virtual presence as much as their physical one."
So where Sofo is focused on the redesign of buildings to suit the new education philosophies, Wenmoth has been working on networking technology that could change the way schools interact with each other and the wider world.
Just think about Christchurch, Wenmoth says. It has a proud tradition of schools with an individual identity and reputation. Yet that has also encouraged a "not invented here" mentality.
"Schools have existed as stand- alone, self-managing units. The assumption is that they can act autonomously because they are filled with the resources to meet all their students' needs, provide the full range of possible courses. But hand on heart, that has never really been the case."
With video-conferencing, distance learning, and other web- based possibilities to share the city's best teachers, its specialised resources, Wenmoth says suddenly there is a chance to rebuild Christchurch with quite a different learning environment.
Other Christchurch educational experts, like Cheryl Doig, of Alpine Leadership, and Denis Pyatt, a consultant and former principal of Papanui High School, say the more you think about it, the more outdated the existing school system seems, and the greater the opportunity now to introduce change across a whole city.
Former Christchurch Mayor Vicki Buck, a founder of the alternative inquiry-based central city schools Discovery and Unlimited, says the disruption of the quakes - such as the forced sharing of school premises - has broken down some social barriers.
She says one exciting idea doing the rounds is that Fridays could be a day when all Christchurch schools are physically networked. Schools would pool their resources so that students could go anywhere where there was some specialist activity to match their interests.
It could be a cookery course at one school, kayaking at another. Or it could be a day out with the army or on a farm.
"Christchurch is a small enough city that kids could go wherever they need to learn what excites them," Buck says.
Doig, who with Pyatt, Wenmoth and others, set up a steering group, Shaking Up Christchurch Education (SUCE), within months of the February 2011 quake - says Christchurch educators had been bubbling with this kind of energy. They were ready for a big jump into the future. Now, however, they are stunned by how disastrously wrong it has gone.
Choosing her words carefully, Doig says: "The communication strategy, the organisation of the change, has been very poor for the outcomes [the Ministry of Education] wants to achieve. I'm trying not to get sucked into the negativity, but I'm very worried that this is a 'done to' process run by technocrats in Wellington who see it as just a technical exercise."
Wenmoth is more blunt.
"My gut reaction now is very much like that of a number of principals I talk to. I just feel completely defeated. It is outside anything I can influence, and I just want to give up and crawl into a hole."
Bright promise, bad process?
Key cites Albany Senior High, which opened in 2009, as a shining example of the reinvention of schooling - one especially familiar to him because it lies inside his Albany constituency.
At first, people were nervous of the concept, says Key. But now parents are sending their kids across Auckland just to be there. "The problem is stopping people going."
And this is the point, says Wenmoth, who worked on Albany's design. The new educational philosophies sound scary on first hearing. Radical change always does. And so it is absolutely crucial the community feels involved in the decision making every step of the way.
Wenmoth says Albany took many years of local consultation to get off the ground. "For three years we undertook a collaborative process to envisage and bring that through. When I first went up there, the architects in fact had a plan. But the school now looks nothing like that original plan because of the level of engagement with the community."
To be accepted, a new school design cannot be dropped out of the sky by bureaucrats. It has to evolve, says Wenmoth.
"What I always say to people is that the plan is actually in all of our heads and we need to have a process to bring that out."
Even after Albany opened, there were doubts. Wenmoth was called back to help reassure and finetune.
"It was still shaky. There was a third of the people who liked it, a third who hated it but had to send their kids there because it was in zone, and a third who were undecided."
Yet today, as Key says, the school is hugely popular.
Wenmoth says the problem for Christchurch is that the Government has got the community's back up.
Key might be talking about the shiny possibilities, but Parata appears to have arrived swinging an axe so the whole city has retreated into defence mode.
At street rallies and school meetings, all people are thinking about is how to save the familiar - keep what they had, rather than consider what could be better.
Doig agrees. Trust has been destroyed, she says.
Parata's timelines for consultation, schools having to give feedback by December 7, make it impossible for communities to even contemplate their options seriously.
"It's going to be very hard to grow something good for the whole city."
Why did it happen this way? Most can only speculate and even then they want to speak off the record. "If I spoke out in public, my school would go right to the back of the queue for repairs, you can be sure of that," says one source.
A few say the Government has some excuse because the educational plan for Christchurch was already six months overdue. School principals had been pressuring the ministry for quick decisions.
"They just got rather more of that than they bargained for," says an insider.
But the more general feeling is the ministry is overwhelmed and out of its depth, given the scale of what has happened in Christchurch. Change is being pushed through in a panicky fashion as a result.
One principal says public service cuts have denuded the ministry of talent and this has shown through in a series of bungles this year, like the poorly handled release of national standards.
"I've been teaching for 30 years and the ministry's people used to be careful and thorough - the pace of change was at least predictable if also pedestrian.
"But now they're being rushed to do things and the implementation is a dog's breakfast."
Other pressures may be at play. Another source says it could be about the money as well.
When Parata was forced in May to backtrack on the intermediate school staff cuts because someone had miscalculated the impact, that alone knocked a $140m hole in the ministry's budget, she says.
Then, following Christchurch's quakes, the ministry faced a big bill for earthquake strengthening of schools all round the country.
This is on top of the bill created by a nationwide leaky building problem.
"Throughout the North Island, they've got a large chunk of schools that need expensive work."
The urgency to merge and chop schools in Christchurch and consolidate costs - perhaps sell some land too - may thus well be financial.
"I believe the insurance on the schools in Canterbury will only pay for about 30 per cent of what's needed by way of a rebuild.
"So when you put all these figures down on a piece of paper together, then I think they are being driven by a property portfolio point of view, when they're pretending it's an educational point of view."
So there are no clever secret plans here. Charter schools and other possible Right-wing agendas are being dismissed as a political red herring.
The story is just about a genuine opportunity to revamp Christchurch's schooling and make it a showcase of 21st-century teaching. And then about a botched process which appears to render it near impossible to achieve much real change at all.
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