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Liberty Belle: Going West

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

Going West

It's shameful. I've been to Paris five times but only twice to the West Coast of New Zealand. Both those visits have been because of this Labour Government's stupid policies.

My first trip west was in 1999/2000 when Labour kept its election promise to Auckland greenies and stopped the sustainable logging of beech. Having won the election, to curry favour with the rimu-lined kitchen brigade, the Government cancelled the West Coast Accord.

I was writing a story for North & South magazine and it angered me to see first hand how a bossy-boots government could dictate to people - who were not breaking the law, and not creating environmental vandalism - how to live their lives. "Go and wait on tables," seemed to be the answer to those Coasters who lost their jobs in the forestry industry.

This week I flew in to Hokitika then drove up the coast to Greymouth. I was visiting parents and teachers, concerned at the Government's plans to close their schools - Kaiata, Ngahere, and the birthplace of the Labour Party, Blackball.

It's certainly different down there - good for the soul. The Grey River, at this time of the year edged with foxgloves and flowering hawthorn bushes, sweeps up through the valley, pushing back native bush that insists on self-seeding on precarious banks. Seen from above it's a child's colouring-in, with crayon smudges and untidy bits where little fingers have gone over the edges.

And the humour. A driveway entrance is flanked by two cars - Valiants I think - standing sentry on their rear bumpers. A tourist brochure I'm given advertises the "natureally amazing" West Coast. I'm still not sure if 'nature' and 'ally' joined together is deliberately clever.

The town's names reflect early mining days: Boddytown, Shantytown, Barrytown, Blaketown, and, just in case you were thinking of heading into this area to buy some groceries - Notown.

Some locals still remember when Labour MPs, in 1999 and newly in power, referred to Coasters as ferals. They don't forget easily down there. Their unhealed wounds were rubbed again recently when Trevor Mallard visited and gave them his opinions at a public meeting on school reviews.

So I went down to see the schools under threat. After all, if the Minister's closing schools, they must be poorly supported by parents. The children, you'd think, are learning nothing. The teachers are hopeless; the principals lazy.

Nothing could be further from the truth. At a time when national student truancies and suspensions are at record levels; when bullying and disruptive school environments are causing headaches, I'm invited to stroll around peaceful playgrounds where children of all ages play together happily.

At a time when our national obsession for safety and saving people from themselves is regulating all risk from our children's environment, I visited schools where thick macroparpa hedges have been the adventure playgrounds for more than 60 years. Over, under and around the worn-smooth trunks children have been playing cowboys and Indians, forts, shops and house and yes, there have undoubtedly been broken limbs, split lips, banged heads and tears before hometime, but isn't that part of growing up?

In my book "Let Parents Choose" I mention research, which shows that a child's literacy and numeracy achievements are hugely connected with having at least one parent committed to the child's schooling. In these Grey Valley schools, as with similarly threatened schools all over New Zealand, parents clustered into the staffrooms to tell me why they are passionately committed to keeping their schools open.

Trevor Mallard busily tells his audiences he hasn't made up his mind on network reviews, then in the next breath says "the status quo is not an option". Does that not indicate a mindset?

This Labour Government has no mandate to close schools in such a massive and destructive manner. The Ministry of Education Forecast Report for the year ending June 2003 does not mention network reviews. There's nothing about increasing school sizes, or a policy of reviewing schools. Only mention of up to 20 schools closing and 30 to 50 reorganisations. Similarly, the Ministry's statement of intent for the next five years doesn't forewarn of network reviews.

As one mother said to me, when trying to figure out how Mallard can justify his actions: "I can only speak for my school. This is a school of 270 proposed to merge with a similarly large school. In recent years they have consistently achieved up to 94 per cent of children reading at or above their age level when they leave year six. In my son's year 2/3 class the teacher reports 100 per cent reading at or above their age level. Does he believe this will be improved by mergers? I think not."

Education, Mr Mallard, is not about sites, classrooms and buildings, but about children.

Liberty Belle is a column from Deborah Coddington, Member of Parliament for ACT New Zealand.

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