21 Jun 2017

Chch school closures were a 'bombshell' - Ombudsman

6:23 pm on 21 June 2017

The Ministry of Education has apologised to Christchurch schools for flaws in the earthquake rebuild process.

Phillipstown School.

Phillipstown School was closed after the earthquake. Photo: RNZ / Jemma Brackebush

The apology follows the release of a report by the Chief Ombudsman (PDF, 4MB) today.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said the ministry consulted schools about broad plans for the future of education in the city following the quake, but at the same time it was running an invisible process with specific plans for individual schools.

"The ministry decided to adopt a parallel process and didn't properly engage the community in that. The result was like a bombshell when schools were told that many of them were going to close.

"So it really wasn't a good process in any view of the matter," he said.

The report said the ministry consulted schools about broad plans for the future of education in the city following the quake, but at the same time ran an invisible process with specific plans for individual schools.

The report recommended the ministry make a written apology in Christchurch's The Press to the 38 schools it initially said would close or merge. That was reduced to 24 schools after consultation.

It said that should include an apology for the lack of transparency in the reorganisation process and the manner of the announcements in September 2012.

Secretary for Education Iona Holsted made the apology in a statement this afternoon.

She said people were shocked by school closures and mergers announced in September 2012 because the ministry had not provided them with the information they needed.

"They deserved better. We let them down and we are sorry. We know this undermined trust and confidence in us, as the Ombudsman's school closures report confirms," Ms Holsted said.

"We didn't set out to mislead or to keep people in the dark, but the result was that we weren't as transparent as we should have been.

"Our intentions were good, but we should have done a better job. We apologise for any distress that this caused parents, students, teachers, leaders and their communities," Ms Holsted said.

Mr Boshier said the apology was important for the 38 schools that were told the ministry wanted to close or merge.

"It was a bombshell. They were gobsmacked by news which they weren't ready for and that sort of thing hurts. When you receive a body-blow like this you almost go into shock mode and I think that the apology goes a long way in restoring justice."

Halswell's Oaklands School principal Margaret Trotter, who is also president of the Canterbury Primary Principal's Association, said the Ministry could have apologised earlier.

"We have been saying as a sector for quite a while that there were some huge mistakes made. As you say, it's waited till the Ombudsman till we've had that recognition."

The Ombudsman's report said the ministry had acknowledged that its announcements were mishandled, but explained that it was aiming to deliver certainty to a disaster-traumatised community looking to rebuild.

"The school community, on the other hand, was rocked by what it considered a severe breach of trust, and felt totally blindsided by the announcements, when their expectation had been for further engagement before specific plans entered the consultation phase."

The report said specific proposals for closures and mergers were developed without schools' knowledge or involvement, and schools were given inadequate information about why the ministry had selected them for closure or merger.

It said there was "a fundamental lack of transparency from the Ministry, which led to affected schools feeling that consultation was a 'sham' and that the outcome was predetermined".

The report recommended the ministry work with education sector leaders on guidelines for the process of closing and merging individual schools and groups of schools which incorporate the principles of good consultation.

It said historically the process of reorganising schools had swung between giving schools a lot of autonomy, and more government-led processes.

At the time of the earthquake, the process was still unclear, it said.

The ministry believed there were too many schools in Canterbury and the damage caused by the earthquake presented an opportunity to plan a better system of schools, the report said.

"Any criticism of the ministry must be tempered by an acknowledgement that it was faced with enormous, often unprecedented challenges, including the fact there was no proven, successful framework in place for school reorganisation, in spite of a number of attempts to establish one since the inception of Tomorrow's Schools," the report said.

It said the ministry was also juggling a fragile community and individuals under disaster-related stress, extensive repair work, a complex school network already in need of reorganisation and the needs, visions and plans of ministers.

The report said the lack of a clear policy framework to support best practice in school reorganisations was a real problem, especially in relation to engaging with schools and their communities.

"Going forward, it is vital that the ministry goes beyond meeting the minimum statutory requirements for consultation and implements an inclusive process when supporting school reorganisations," the report said.

It said the ministry had proposed a new process for school reorganisations.

There was anecdotal evidence that the reorganisation in Christchurch had positive effects, but the report said processed had left a "bad taste" in the mouths of those involved.

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