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Pathways-ED: The Empty Schools of New Zealand

I spent a lovely holiday once across the idyllic Kennedys Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula. We camped under the trees in splendid isolation and away from all the madding and maddening crowds.

But it wasn’t always like this.  A little further around the bay there had been in the 1800’s a thriving little town – houses, hotel and a school.  It was there to exploit the kauri needed then for spars on ships.  But that all changed and the town dwindled until now there was in the early 1970s only one house there, occupied by an elderly couple from a family that went right back.  Some Chinese gooseberry bushes planted a hundred years earlier now owned the treetops in what once had been an orchard.

This is not a remarkable or even unusual story.  All around New Zealand there are examples of towns that no longer exist, of of railway stations that are no longer used, banks and post offices that are now put to different uses and empty schools.

There are a number of reasons why schools can be empty.  Small communities have drifted to other parts and the children served by the local school simply don’t exist.  It used to be a joke that Education Boards liked to appoint teachers to such generally isolated school who had large families because that would double the roll!  Changes in the nature of employment, a sawmill closing, a dairy factory (many of which are now empty) being amalgamated with another,  and changes in farm size and modus operandi were all reasons that led to the empty school.

I was told the other day in a casual conversation that there are close to forty schools in the central area of New Zealand that are likely to run out of students over the next few years.

The demographics will have a huge impact on the placement and viability of schools over the next 30 years.  It is claimed that over that time period, the increased demand for school places in Auckland will exceed the total provision of places in the rest of the country.  This seems remarkable and, put simply, we are clearly in for a shake up.

There are however some opportunities that arise from adversity.  Such an opportunity is currently playing out in Christchurch where efforts are under way to re-position resources to allow for schools that work in different ways and provide different pathways for young people.  That such reforms should be located into communities that are under pressure might be regrettable but the opportunity is compelling.  It would have been better perhaps to have these changes made as part of a national intention to review the provision of schooling.

The water-tightness (which is really water-looseness!) of many schools is an issue that is measured in billions of dollars.  What a tragedy it would be to see those buildings simply re-built to replicate traditional provision in the traditional place and in the traditional way.  And I am not fooled by much of what passes for much of modern school buildings.  It takes more than calling classrooms “learning spaces”, placing corridors on the outside of buildings and bringing the trees inside to change a school and the way that it works.

The real changes come from the changing needs of education and the growth of ideas around increasing success for more young children and the older ones too.  Schools need to become a more humane environment where there is more emphasis on what happens inside the spaces.  Perhaps we need to be less nostalgic about the importance of fields for the playing on.  In a community characterised by intensification the juxtaposition of schools and public spaces to maximise use of land will be inevitable.

There is also the changing ways of working.  The senior secondary school is experiencing one such change right now.  The development of alternative approaches under the Youth Guarantee policy umbrella is seeing increasing numbers of students seek to continue their schooling along different pathways.  Trades academies, secondary / tertiary programmes, developments such as secondary/tertiary programmes located in tertiary environments, fees-free places in tertiary for 16-17 year olds are all developments that provide places other than in a school completely or in part.  The scale is there – by 2015 there will be around 15,000 students undertaking all or part of their senior secondary schooling in these programmes.  This means for many, being in a place other than a school.  Smart schools will be positioning themselves for a future in 30 or 40 years that involves partnerships and collaborations and working in clusters, not to be competitive but in order to provide quality provision.

There will be empty schools, there always has been.  But it would be a great pity if this was something that simply happened to schools rather than being a matter of design, the outcome of pathways for education that were designed to increase educational success.

Schools shouldn’t simply die on the vine like the Chinese gooseberries at Kennedys Bay.


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