26 Mar 2013

Chief Ombudsman to probe Christchurch school plan

9:20 pm on 26 March 2013

The Chief Ombudsman has opened an investigation into the Ministry of Education's handling of school closures and mergers.

There has been widespread criticism of the ministry's plan to close seven schools and merge 12 others in Christchurch in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes.

Last year the Ombudsman's office raised concerns about the ministry's handling of information about the proposed closures, saying schools and their communities should not have to ferret out information.

As a result Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem said she will look at recent closure and merger consultations, including the process under way in Christchurch.

She will assess whether the consultation processes were fair and meaningful and whether they could be improved.

Dame Beverley says her inquiry will be broader than just Christchurch.

She says her investigation arises out of an inquiry into a complaint by a colleague, who said schools and their communities should not have to ferret out information.

The investigation is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

A parent of a student at Branston Intermediate, Maya Mckee, says the investigation should serve as a wakeup call to the ministry.

Branston Intermediate is one of the schools earmarked for closure

Ms Mckee laid an official complaint to the Ombudsman Office about the handling of the process last year.

She says the ministry's handling of the announcement of the closures was appalling.

Ms Mckee says she hopes the investigation will prompt long-term changes within the ministry, so the process is not repeated.

Principals comment

Branston Intermediate principal Jennifer O'Leary welcomes the investigation but says it is too little, too late.

Ms O'Leary says the ministry railroaded through the consultation process and the investigation has come too late to change the outcome for schools told they are closing.

She says she hopes the investigation will teach the ministry it must follow correct processes in future.

"I hope it will achieve an iron-cast solution so that if the ministry goes about this sort of reorganisation again that they have to do it properly so communities have a chance for input before the initial suggestions about closure are made."

Phillipstown School principal Tony Simpson says the Minister of Education should do the right thing and put the reorganisation process on hold while the investigation is underway. Phillipstown is to be merged.

Mr Simpson says the consultation process had some serious flaws and should be started again.

The minister, Hekia Parata, says she would be open to any suggested improvements in the handling of school closures and mergers.

However, Ms Parata believes the ministry is doing a reasonable job with the Christchurch restructure.

She says it has taken into account that the community has suffered a lot.

Ms Parata says school closures are always difficult, no matter the circumstances.