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No 'sorry' from Hekia Parata over school closures

Tuesday 19 Feb 2013 8:49 a.m.

Education Minister Hekia Parata this morning acknowledged her ministry had "lessons to learn" following last year's botched Christchurch school closures proposal, but stopped short of making an unambiguous apology.

Speaking to Firstline, Ms Parata said she understood some parents and teachers might be disappointed with the latest interim decisions, released yesterday.

Seven schools will close, 12 will merge and another 12 originally set to close will stay open.

"These are not easy decisions to make at all, and I completely understand that some communities are very disappointed with the interim decisions that I announced, and they do directly affect families and children," says Ms Parata.

Since September's shambles, which saw the public find out details of the Government's plans before schools did – much of it based on flawed data – Ms Parata says she has personally visited all the affected schools.

"The announcements in September, I've already acknowledged we had lessons to learn, and I went and met with every school personally and heard from them directly," says Ms Parata.

"We've used those lessons in this next round of relaying decisions. Schools said that they wanted the decisions relayed to them directly and personally, on site at their schools, by a senior ministry official before the information became publicly known, and we honoured that request."

Given the chance to say "sorry", the closest Ms Parata got was "of course", but stopped short of using the word itself.

"Look, these are very difficult decisions to make, and of course people will be upset by that, and I completely understand it, and we will continue to work with those schools and those communities as we step our way through this."

Green Party co-leader and education spokesperson Metiria Turei says an apology from Ms Parata is a must, if she is to restore credibility in her role as Education Minister.

"Even if she believes it's the right decision, there's nothing wrong in saying, 'I'm sorry that it's going to cause you hurt to see your school close. I think I'm making the right decision overall – it's my job to do this – but I do understand that it is going to cause hurt,'" Ms Turei told Firstline.

"There's no loss to her in doing that – it's her arrogance that is undoing her abilities. Sixty percent of New Zealand don't think she's competent to be Education Minister – I think this is very serious for her, and she needs to have some reflection on why it is people don't think she's competent to do the job."

Ms Turei also questioned the sincerity in Ms Parata's school visits.

"National had no choice but to appear to have listened to schools, so some schools have been saved that would otherwise have been on the block… They've had to pull back because they did such a botched job of the consultation in the first place."

TOO MUCH, TOO SOON?

The next census, already delayed by the Canterbury earthquakes, is to take place on March 5. Ms Parata says there was no need to wait until that data had been collected.

"That happens once every five years, and it takes about another year to analyse that. We get roll results from schools twice a year – March and July – so they're very accurate reflectors of decisions parents have made about where there kids are enrolled, and so our most up-to-date information is from July last year, but it also, as I say, we have a pattern of where kids are enrolled, so we're using that information as well as all the other contextual information."

Ms Turei however says the Government should be taking more time to make decisions which can have such large impacts on communities.

"There is no need at this early stage to make major population decisions about Christchurch. The rebuild is only just starting to begin. We may see an influx of people coming into Christchurch over the next few years.

"But to reform the schooling system actually changes the way people will deal with Christchurch, it changes the way people will move to Christchurch. So I think they're doing it backwards – they should be waiting for a little longer and allowing things to settle a bit."

Ms Parata's view however is that the sooner parents, teachers and pupils know what is happening with their local schools, the better.

"They want to know whether their school is going to be open or not, whether it's merging or not – and when – so they can make decisions."

A BLUEPRINT FOR THE FUTURE?

Ms Turei believes the Government is using "spin" to paint its plans in a positive light, and will use its experience in Christchurch as a model for the rest of the country.

"I think we will see the same language – 'cost-effective changes', 'modern school buildings', 'reorganisation and a new approach to education'," she says.

"This is the spin language we'll see used to shift, I think, resources away from the public school system to a private school system. We're going to see more charter schools. We will see them in Christchurch, I'm absolutely sure of that, in the future.

"Other school communities need to be very concerned about what's going to happen to them in the future, with National. I think this is part of an overall plan."

Ms Parata denies this, saying Christchurch is a "hugely unique situation".

"No other part of the country has had an earthquake of 7.1 magnitude, and then 11,000 [aftershocks]… We are continuing to build schools around the country, that is true, as growth is occurring and we need to respond to that.

"We continue to build new schools around the country, and we continue to look at what some of the challenges are of other schools."

TIME ALMOST UP

Schools have been given all the paperwork and information the Ministry of Education used to make its decisions in order to formulate a response.

"Schools will have the opportunity to look at all that information and make an argument that is different from the one that we have drawn as a result of all the analysis that we have done," says Ms Parata.

They have six weeks to respond, and if they don't, it's likely the Government's plans will become final – excluding the possibility of legal action.

One school that was slated to close in September's round of proposals won a judicial review against its closure, and more will follow, says Ms Turei.

"I have heard that some schools are already considering judicial review, because the decision-making process by Hekia has been so inconsistent and unclear. She's already lost one judicial review action for her failed decision-making, and there could well be more if she continues with this plan."

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