The Christchurch earthquakes and all that has gone with it have placed demands on a community that are alongside the devastation that the two world wars wreaked on the communities of New Zealand.
But if you can put the events of the quakes to one side, there might be lessons in the proposed re-organisation of schooling in Christchurch that has recently been announced. Perhaps all communities in New Zealand should be taking stock of current provisions, places and procedures of schooling and ask whether they deserve close examination.
Take the placement of schools. The principles by which school were located were originally that a young person should be able to walk to school or be taken to school by a school bus ride that was not unforgivable often along unsealed and poor roads. Those criteria have been well and truly shot to pieces in many communities, especially in the cities and towns where the middle classes and the rich take their little ones to school in SUVs and suchlike. It is really only in what we identify as low decile communities that walking is the norm. The school walking buses are a commendable exception to this rule. In the space of a generation biking to school has all but disappeared. And in country communities there are now generally better and sealed roads and better buses and it is conceivable to consider longer distances.
So what powerful arguments exist that schools should continue to exist in the exact locations that they have in the past?
Well, tradition might be one reason and I can see the old secondary school sites being retained. But many of the old primary schools were located in parts of towns that might no longer have the communities of little ones to sustain them. A huge number of our schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s to cope with the baby boom and so the “traditional” argument might not be all that strong. It could simply be that we have too many schools, and some in the wrong places.
Then there is the matter of school size. I hear from many teachers that where schools use size to advantage then bigger is better. Just how much bigger might well be a moot point but where the resource base is able to provide choice and support across the entire diversity of a school population then it is a good thing. Where it is not then it is a pointless argument.
But perhaps the largest question I have about the “Christchurch Solution” is that it fails to address the sectors and their current structure, the place of senior secondary schooling and the development of choice through multiple pathways for students. It is in essence a housekeeping exercise with the existing ways of working which rearranges the furniture.
The results of schooling in New Zealand suggest that a more radical set of reforms is needed. If we were to look at the Finnish reforms that have taken the education system in that country to the top of the world three might be an argument for considering:
- changes to the sectors where a comprehensive “primary” sector would have responsibility for ages 5 to 16 with the eldest three years of this group (“lower secondary schools) starting the process of preparing students for the next step but doing this within the sector;
- the introduction of three year upper secondary schools that offer choices to students through academic tracks to university and vocational pathways into the trades and professions;
- rethinking the nature of a “local” school.
This last point is the most challenging. The Finnish put together teachers who previously worked in different kinds of schools and working to the view that understanding and working through human diversity was in itself an important educational goal, brought together students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, aspirations and circumstances. At the same time they eased the central controls on schools so that each school could introduce practices of a small-scale democracy (vivat Dewey). Teachers managed difference in the classroom through differentiated approaches often supported by assistant teachers.
This of course implies a more controlled system of allocating school places to produce the balance – the Finnish did it, such courage. Could we accept that parish pump and self-interest needs to be replaced by diversity and national goals? Do we really want to perform like Finland?
A system based on the principle of equal opportunity is one we aspire to but while we continue to work in a system that is structurally in opposition to such a goal, equitable outcomes will remain elusive. The cities and town of New Zealand should all be addressing these issues and starting to exhibit a willingness to consider new structures and ways of working or do we simply continue to do the same thing and get the same results?
In many respects the Christchurch proposals don’t go far enough – disruption on that scale that will lead simply to a perpetuation of the same way of working which is a disappointment. On the other hand it is a little unfair to expect Christchurch in these stretched times to alone make changes that should be permeating through the entire country.