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Think-Ed: A system shaken

Stuart Middleton
28 February 2011

This morning, seventy-six thousand learners will not go to kindy or school. No, it is not another statistic about disengagement but one that is a result of the Christchurch earthquake of last Tuesday which inflicted major damage to about 34 schools. Add to that the thousands of university students and students in other education providers and the figures are huge. This probably also affects more than 5,000 workers in education – teachers, support staff, administrators across a wide range of activities.

Another one thousand words on this grim subject is unlikely to ease the hurt and the suffering and the loss but there has been little said about the schools, the teachers and support staff, and the students who all rather remarkably appear to have avoided serious injury and death despite the physical battering that was visited on their buildings.

The fate of the students in the language school in the CTV building seems sealed and it is likely that staff associated with them are also victims. But the absence of deaths or serious injuries among the schools that have been damaged points to some pretty smart work on emergency procedures, on safe behaviours during such an event by a group of teachers and other staff that have got it all right. The whole of education salutes this.

The Ministry of Education has it seems been responding well and their response to the emergency is a huge exercise in logistics. Re-housing the students from schools that might not open soon is a huge undertaking. I know that at least one school had not re-opened after the first earthquake last September.

Could we take a lesson from the evacuation of children from London during the war. Could senior students be “adopted” by schools in the north or well outside the danger zone for a couple of weeks? They might be matched up with a student at the host school and be billeted with them. I think this might work but only with the older senior students. The little ones need to be near their carers.

The schools will get back to a different normal one day. I have seen schools damaged to the point of complete disappearance in cyclones through the Pacific and have always been amazed at the speed of recovery. I recall one in Samoa that opened for business on a Monday despite having been literally taken, both buildings and land, from the face of the earth by the cyclone on the previous Friday. The classes were distributed around the houses and fale in the village and while without resources that teachers worked to bring a pattern of school into the lives of their little ones.

It seems that the many schools affected in the Queensland floods are now back in business but that was again a disaster of a different order. Buildings were damaged but not generally destroyed. When the water went away life returned quite quickly to a normal pattern in the schools I am told.

But the earthquake is quite a bit more comprehensive in its impact and the damage is widespread. The roads to get to school are difficult and in places impassable. Many homes of teachers, staff and students have been damaged and undoubtedly many destroyed. There have been many deaths and teachers and students will be unable to avoid an impact on their lives through the loss of a family member or a friend or someone they knew. Normal will be very sad.

The response of the university students in Christchurch has been remarkable. Getting into the physical work or clearing streets and properties and generally being busy, normal people around those who are having to cope is probably the best response possible. That it was organised by the students themselves and that word of it was spread virally is something of a good news story in amongst the unrelieved grim and upsetting accounts that have prevailed. Many of these students will have been affected by damage to homes, injurious and even death among wider families and acquaintances but their response has been practical, good humoured and, if the television pictures give a true account, they have set about the task with a smile. It must have helped hugely.

How could we help our colleagues in education in Christchurch?

Money is probably the best help because it can be converted into whatever seems best help by those close to the damage and those who have the best idea of the needs at this particular time. Perhaps all education institutions outside of Christchurch could donate 0.5% of their operating budget into a trust fund that can be used to supplement the assistance the Ministry of Education will provide. It might even be achieved by a voluntarily imposed levy – is this not a response that the Boards Association, principals’ and teachers’ organisations could get together and promote?

But then you might have to pause and think about the fire at the Glendowie Primary School that recently inflicted huge loss on that school. Disaster comes in both small and large sizes but from a student’s perspective the scale doesn’t apply. The Christchurch Earthquake does seem to call for a response from the education community that goes well beyond our normal expectation that officials will put it right.

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