There isn’t a person in New Zealand whose heart beats, who has a functioning brain, who understands the value of empathy and support in hard times who wouldn’t agree that the citizens of Christchurch have endured and will continue to face the most difficult situation experienced by New Zealand citizens in the modern history of New Zealand.
Harder than the Great Depression? Harder than the influenza epidemic in 1918? The Erebus disaster? The sinking of the Wahine? The Napier earthquake? The earthquakes and the ongoing aftermath in Christchurch seem somehow to eclipse all of this. That might be because time dulls pain and moves on and us with it. It might be because the media have an “in your face” presence in it all that wasn’t present in a less technological age.
But the re-organisation of schooling in Christchurch is playing out in the media in a fashion that raises many questions about the nature of professionalism and leadership in such times.
The use of school students, many very young, to man the barricades must have a huge question mark placed next to it. If the issue was the seashore, human rights, housing in New Zealand, the 1981 Tour we would have no difficulty in being hesitant in keeping the little ones out of it.
And the scale of the issues is not reflected in the coverage. The issue is the future of a relatively small number of schools in a city which has been badly knocked around, schools and school sites damaged and a quite understandable decline in student numbers. Not only does this represent an urgent need to respond to this situation but also an opportunity to do so in a manner that moves the education system forward. And this at a rare time – there is money to achieve it.
There would be little point in rebuilding the system exactly as it was in the manner that St Petersburg was restored after the 900 day siege during World War 2. Here is an opportunity to provide a group of children with new and better ways of working.
Most principals in New Zealand can attest to the difficulty of getting capital works underway – there are simply no resources for it. And yet I speak with many teachers and principals who have great ideas for working differently, many not a lot different from those being proposed in Christchurch. The MOE Report Directions for Education Renewal in Christchurch makes good reading when read at a distance not with the overlays of emotion and self-interest that we would all bring to it had we personally been affected. Other areas are thankful that they have not had that catastrophic impetus for such a report but might also be wondering if such a “renewal” approach would be a good thing in their area.
It therefore doesn’t surprise me that I am told that opposition to what is being proposed in Christchurch is balanced with a good deal of support. There are schools and principals and teachers who warm to the idea of working differently, in new structures and in facilities that simply do not replicate the old.
But support is not what the media seeks – John Campbell rides to new levels in the ratings on the back of the negative stories from Christchurch schools and Novopay (helped also to a large extent by the laughable but not funny television programme that the other crowd have started in his time slot).
The layers of emotion that the media have dished up in the discussions in the Christchurch education stories have also not been helpful. The community sees a lot of tears on television, what is needed in education stories is a bit more grunt about professional issues (consultation has possibly been one but you can’t rewind those films) and clear evidence about student achievement and learning. An inconsolable principal might be greatly sought out by the media but no argument is not advanced by it. The wearing of politicised apparel, the making of protest banners (some of which have simply been a lesson in rudeness and disrespect) and the access that the media has had to children all raise questions.
The key professional issue that has been buried by the media in all this is that the kinds of changes proposed are ones that might profitably be spread throughout the entire education system. Where are the plans for the development of a new system that groups students in more effective ways, provides teachers with the spaces and tools that would enable them to teach to the high levels to which they are capable? A legacy for Christchurch might be that it led the way – education for the 21st Century might be to Christchurch what Art Deco is to Napier.
One thing we can be certain of is that when the dust settles the media will have moved on to another story in another place with a different group of protesting people, teachers and students will still be there doing good work, unnoticed and looking back and wondering about it all.