Talk-ED: Our Canterbury Tales

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
28 March 2011

Any parent with young children knows of that suspicion that all might not be well when the children go quiet and the sound of play, the squabble and just of general activity cannot be heard. It’s a bit like that in education in New Zealand at the moment.

I think it is very much to do with the post-earthquakes period where the successive and overwhelming tragedies of the shocks in Christchurch and the earthquake / tsunami double tragedy in Japan have been numbing to everyone to a degree relative to the personal impact. All this has happened relatively quickly on the heels of the Australian floods. It’s been a huge amount happening in a short span of time in our little slice of the world.

What happens is that for a time everything else, the old daily grizzles, the ongoing issues, the standard stand-offs, all seem rather unimportant. In fact, there is almost an element of bad taste when the media leave these tragedies behind and return to their same old themes – they all ring a little bit hollow.

Education was affected considerably. Some schools in Canterbury have been destroyed, many damaged and most disrupted. Rebuilding all of this is a huge task for government agencies and communities. In more normal circumstances a rebuild of this magnitude would have been an opportunity to have a think about the shape of compulsory education – are the schools in the right places, of the right configuration and articulating in the best way. Just as once the intermediate school emerged as a solution right for an issue of the day, so too might the junior high school, the senior / community college or some form of transfer institution and other innovations might have been appropriate. But the imperative will probably be to restore to each community that which was there before the events of September 2010 and February 2011.

It is reported in the media that the University of Canterbury has lost around 400 students who have not returned to the university and have not enrolled elsewhere. This is a serious disruption to the lives of those young people but they too have other things on their minds at this time. I wonder how many students from Christchurch have not returned but have enrolled elsewhere? Whatever the number the University of Canterbury has some remarkable issues to deal with as it gets back into business with some classes in marquees while buildings are checked and restored to a safe condition. Institutions take a real hit when something of this magnitude happens.

Other institutions are also coping with the huge return to something resembling normal activity. But in amongst it all some good responses have emerged. Primary students in some numbers have been absorbed into other schools that have capacity. For many this will be looked back on something of an adventure at a time when families were disrupted. The dual use of secondary school sites by different schools was new to this country – might this lead to something that could be used permanently as the senior secondary school becomes more flexible?

Acts of kindness have brought to the fore a generosity of spirit within education – institutions elsewhere hosting groups or programmes or even individual students. It is not as easy as it sounds to transplant an activity or a student into another setting and it requires great effort on both sides. It would be good if all this was being documented to remind us of what can be done and perhaps even without the impetus brought by tragic events.

But to return to where we started – the children do seem rather quiet.

Is this the longest period of time we have gone without an NCEA story, the usual tale of trivial importance treated by the media with an ersatz gravitas? Where were the annual start-of-year stories about the incredible pressure universities were under as enrolment numbers reached unprecedented levels?  Why no stories about the terrible cost of school uniforms, the outrageous demands for school donations and the increased traffic as schools and tertiary institutions got under way? Major pay settlements for secondary principals and secondary teachers passed us by with cursory treatment.

Why? Because those stories don’t matter. What matters is the fact that a majority of students in New Zealand go to school and other education institutions each day supported by their parents and caregivers, do what they are told and what they love doing and yet, due to the might of natural forces, they were unable to do so in unprecedented numbers. That was perhaps the education story of a hundred years.

But it didn’t take long before the media moved on or was it back? Page after page on school bullying and violence. It matters but somehow it seems to be simply bad taste when there must be stories about the recovery of schooling in Canterbury that deserve to be told.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *