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Christchurch / Canterbury Schools, New Zealand, Stress & Depression

Notes from a visit to Christchurch primary schools four years on, by Professor Martin Thrupp

quake train tracksLast month I was in Christchurch and took the opportunity to visit some primary schools including an intermediate. It happened to be September 4th, four years to the day since the earthquake sequence began.

I spoke mainly to principals and wrote a few notes. They are obviously only impressions from a short visit but I thought they would be useful to share, especially for those of us who don’t live and work in Canterbury.

The first thing to emphasise is that just as ‘The Press’ reported last month that only 10% of the rebuild was so far complete, quake-related problems in schools are by no means over either. Instead they trundle on and on and manifest in different ways over time.

A central problem is that many staff are exhausted after years of dealing with the problems at school as well as their own family and housing problems. As one principal put it, ‘There’s not a lot left in the tank’. It’s been hard for principals to get a proper break too. In the post-quakes scramble for attention and resources they needed to be constantly available at the end of a phone.

I was told that at a recent event for Christchurch schools, the amount and quality of work was down 20% on what schools had submitted in the past. While the pressures have been relentless, those who work in schools don’t complain much. In Christchurch it is unexceptional to have quake-related problems.

On the fourth anniversary of the initial quake, ‘The Press’ reported that babies born that fateful day in Christchurch were thriving. That may be so, but principals reported that many of the children arriving at school over the last few years have presented extra challenges.

Oral language skills have declined, perhaps telling a story of parents being more distracted than usual. Children have also been less independent, suggesting parents being highly protective after the quakes.

With many stresses including anxieties around their children, Christchurch parents have also become more difficult for schools to deal with. Families are less invested in their local schools as many have had to move house permanently or at least temporarily. Parents often can’t afford the school trips and other extras they once could.

There is erratic behaviour and chippy attitudes from some parents that leave schools wondering ‘what was that all about?’ Sometimes parents have gone to the media and had their concerns blown out of proportion or ’spun’ in ways that are not constructive.

It is in the more middle class school settings that these changes are being felt the most. I visited a low socio-economic school on the eastern side of the city where life for families has long been highly uncertain anyway.

For many Christchurch families the way forward in creating social mobility for ones children is not as certain as it once was. Old rules of middle class advantage that had come with living in particular parts of the city are being rewritten. Some schools are closing and others have become unusually oversubscribed as new housing developments have sprung up.

In this situation there is often increasing competition between schools. Zoning and enrolling children from beyond the ‘natural’ catchment of schools has become a concern for many principals. Most are still seeing the ‘bigger picture’ of education in Christchurch but some prefer to mostly focus on what is good for their own particular school.

Adding fuel to the fire is that some schools have been rebuilt with flash new ‘modern learning environments’ while others are going to have to wait years to get the same treatment, or won’t at all.

How do those in Christchurch schools view the Government’s response to the educational problems caused by the earthquakes? As a mixed bag but generally with scepticism.

Putting schools into voluntary clusters was a positive move but one that was overtaken by the ‘reorganisation’ of Christchurch schools. This revealed an appalling lack of consultation and was also a communications fiasco. One principal described ‘watching grown men cry’ as principals realised that they had been gathered together to tell them which of their schools were to be ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ after the quakes.

The Interim Response Fund has worked quite well for getting support with some children with extra needs. But the specialised psychological, speech and language and occupational therapy help that children need is hard to access. The Ministry isn’t seen to have the answers to ‘mainstreaming’ children with special needs yet the McKenzie Special School has been closed.

Some schools have staffing levels guaranteed as their rolls drop off before closure. This is a great arrangement in vulnerable communities. But others don’t have the same deal. It leaves some teachers preoccupied with looking for replacement jobs.

An extraordinary amount of school leadership time has needed to be spent on matters to do with buildings, grounds and services. Prefabs come and go. Classrooms are deemed unserviceable and then suitable. Regular ‘5YA’ funding for upgrading buildings has been discontinued during the rebuild.

I think we should admire the efforts being made in all Christchurch schools and not become overly distracted by the shiny new developments in some of them. The context of earthquake recovery is bringing new opportunities but primary education in Christchurch is unlikely to be out of the woods anytime soon.

The schools still need more support in all sorts of ways.  Extra staffing, more specialist support and more attention to inequities within the educational market that is continuing to evolve in Christchurch would all make a difference.

– Martin Thrupp

Professor Thrupp works at the University of Waikato and has expertise in Social class and education; the impact of managerialism and performativity in schools; school choice and competition; international policy borrowing; contextualised approaches to educational leadership. 

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"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi

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