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First the State Schools, then the Catholic Schools

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

First the State Schools, then the Catholic Schools, Who's Next?

I hate conspiracy theories, so I've been wary of whispers about a secret agenda to overturn Tomorrow's Schools and shove parents out of their children's schooling for good.

I'm happy to report there is no secret agenda. I'm unhappy to tell you it's openly admitted. Turn to the Ministry of Education's Statement of Intent, 2003-2008 and read the Secretary, Howard Fancy's, words:

"No longer are we the hands-off Ministry that followed 'Tomorrow's Schools'. We are working to become more skilled about how, when and where we intervene."

Alarm bells about the fate of parental choice first rang for me when a group of Coastal Taranaki parents visited my office early this year to present me with a proposal to try and keep their schools open. Their plan - a very sound one - was for shared governance, with a few small schools sharing a board of trustees and pooling some resources. The community supported it. The Minister rejected it.

Then about three months ago I met with an education sector insider, who told me about some research done by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, an 'independent' body to which the Government appoints members and which is contracted by the Ministry of Education. This research looked at the role of boards of trustees, and concluded that the best model was one from Canada, where one board controlled 200 schools.

Back to the days of the old education boards.

But not content with controlling state education, the Minister now wants to get his hands on integrated schools. In 1975 the Private Schools Conditional Act was negotiated between Catholic schools and the Kirk-Rowling Labour Government. Immediately this Act, an agreement in perpetuity, was hailed internationally "for the way in which, in it, the secular and the sacred came together to forge a way forward in a pluralistic society."

Norman Kirk himself took credit on behalf of the Crown for the legislation's "vision and courage" and said passing the Act was "to the advantage of the whole country".

The Act was not, as claimed by Trevor Mallard in answer to my Parliamentary Question on 15 October, introduced "to protect private schools that were in danger of closing in the 1970s. All those schools have now been integrated."

The Act was intended as a continuous action, and established an ongoing partnership between the Crown and the Catholic schools - now joined by other schools of special character - to provide freedom of choice in education.

Now the Minister wants to breach that agreement, by bringing the Integration Act into the Education Act, so he can zone, close, merge and control integrated schools.

Privately, the Minister told me that "the Bishops are all for it". But I'm not so sure. I fear they're playing a game of diplomacy and I warn all proprietors of integrated schools - don't think that if you're nice to the Minister he'll be nice back. If you don't believe me, go out and talk to parents in the Grey Valley, Invercargill, Canterbury, Wairoa, Northland, Upper Hutt, Masterton, Taranaki - and all the other places where Trevor Mallard is conducting 'network reviews'.

The parents who came to see me from coastal Taranaki started off being nice. Now their schools are gone.

I have no doubt now that the ultimate goal is to overturn Tomorrow's Schools. Close small schools; push the pupils into big schools. It's all about control. The reviews, Mallard told the House yesterday, are to continue for the next 15 years. Yet on 13 November he said they would last for 10 years.

How many schools will we have left in 2018? How many boards of trustees? Will we still be 'behaving nicely' when the Minister of Education comes calling? Or will we Let Parents Choose?

Yours in Liberty

Deborah Coddington

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

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