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Heather Roy's Diary

Heather Roy's Diary

Friday, 9 May, 2008
Labour's Priorities Off The Rails

Finance Minister Dr Michael Cullen looked like an over-excited school boy as he was snapped playing with a model railway train carriage earlier this week.

The carriage was a symbol of a much more expensive train set - New Zealand Rail - and the set up shot was his 'photo opportunity' following the Labour governments purchase of the New Zealand Rail assets for the grossly inflated price of $665 million.

Meanwhile, children at a small rural school in the South Island began the school term being taught in a shipping container-come-classroom.

The Labour-led Government had absolutely no qualms about purchasing the rail assets back for around $327 million more than they were originally sold for, but it couldn't find just $350,000 to fund two additional classrooms for mid-Canterbury's Longbeach School.

An amalgamation of three rural schools, Longbeach has a longstanding overcrowding problem and is eligible for two extra classrooms.  As the Education Ministry has refused to provide these, however, Longbeach this week took delivery of a shipping container – which was used as a classroom.  The move has made the school the target of Education Minister Chris Carter's ire.

I've been working with Longbeach School for the past six months, to provide some assistance in resolving the difficulties it is having with the Education Ministry:

In 1999 three small rural schools – Willowby, Eiffleton and Flemington – were forced to merge and form a new school with a roll of 84 students, four teachers and four classrooms.  With plenty of room for roll growth, the new Longbeach School had no official zone imposed on it.  The local communities and nearby schools agreed that the combined catchment areas of the three schools would form the school's zone and this was officially documented at the time.

At the beginning of 2007, however, the Ministry decided to change the rules.  It wrote to Longbeach's Board of Trustees advising that, with 102 students, the school was over capacity and was required to implement an enrolment zone.  Although reluctant to do so, Longbeach has since had several meetings with Ministry officials and consulted with the local community as required.  It has also had discussions with all the bordering schools.

Since the start of the 2007 school year the roll has continued to grow; Longbeach now has 115 pupils and five teachers.  By Term Three it will have 126 students and will be entitled to a sixth teacher; by year-end the roll will have grown to 135.  The Ministry has steadfastly refused to give Longbeach School additional classroom space and refuses to even discuss the matter of overcrowding until its favoured enrolment zone is put in place.  The BoT has submitted a proposed zone, which the Ministry rejected.

Meanwhile, teaching staff, students and visitors – such as the visiting dental therapist – continue to work as best they can in the congestion.  The school library is now a full-time classroom, with library books covered with sheets for protection.  The special needs children receive their one-on-one teaching in a corridor because there's nowhere else for them to go.

Even cupboards have occasionally had to be used as teaching spaces.  The school is not happy with the situation, but has been forced to adopt sub-standard conditions as the Ministry will not face up to its obligations. 

Even if an enrolment zone were implemented today the school would still have 115 children, five teachers and only four teaching spaces.  Government policy is that a child cannot be turned away from a school once enrolled, meaning the numbers at Longbeach are not about to change.  The Ministry's policies and attitude are inflexible, authoritarian and high-handed.  The real problem is that this BoT is putting its pupils first and refusing to do what the Ministry wants.  The Ministry's response is to wield a big stick and use the very bullying tactics that our schools work so hard to eliminate.

After trying again to discuss the matter with the Ministry, and contacting all bordering schools again, Longbeach's BoT felt it had reached an impasse.  Desperate to find a resolution and be heard, it brought a container on-site.  This Tuesday saw the official opening of 'Room 5' for nine Year Five and Six pupils.  I had the honour of cutting the ribbon, and 'Campbell Live' was there to capture the occasion on camera.

While Education Minister Chis Carter is now incensed, the BoT at least finally has his attention - all previous correspondence to him was answered with "this problem is the responsibility of the board".

The BoT has responded to the Minister and his officials by inviting them all to visit – Mr Carter has never been to the school – during teaching hours to see for themselves the overcrowding problems.  It has also stated its wish to discuss with the officials both the overcrowding and zoning issues - not one, but both.

This seems perfectly reasonable to me, and one would hope that the invitation is taken up – and that the officials update their research before discussions begin.  The Minister said on TV that he understood the library was sometimes used as a classroom – well, Minister, it's been a full-time classroom for the past 15 months.  The school now has no library.

Mr Carter also said that Longbeach is poaching students from other schools.  Not true – the catchment area hasn't changed from that originally agreed to, and there has been no recruitment drive around the district.  Parents are pleased with the education their children receive at Longbeach and believe they have the right to choose to go there.

Longbeach School has committed the terrible sin of being too successful.  Parents in the district want to send their children there – which doesn't correspond with Labour's desire to choose the school that children attend.

I want an education system that strives for success and excellence - not one that puts blinkered ideology ahead of quality education.  I want every Kiwi kid to have the option of going to a Longbeach School, where the BoT and teachers go out on a limb for their pupils.

ACT's education policy is simple: a scholarship for every child that would enable parents to choose the best school for their child; school choice for parents and students – not for the bureaucrats.


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