Small school axing threat: Oh no! Not again!

When will they ever learn? Small schools should never be for axing; they should only be for asking, and politely, and always with the right of first and absolute refusal. The Tararua schools of Ballance, Hillcrest. Kumeroa-Hopelands, Makuri, Mangamaire, Mangatainoka, Papatawa, and Woodville have said: No!

That should be the end of the matter.

This is all so reminiscent. The ministry, if precedent is anything to go by, will have instigated the idea, with the minister testing the closure waters. As well, the review office will be there, adding its skewed backing.

An important point for the wider school community is this: if the closures go ahead, all country schools will feel threatened; if it fails, that will represent deep insurance for them. As a result, all country schools should start lobbying their local members of parliament, district mayors, and the like. We need to stand together on this one. As a further incentive for widespread action is the reality that some of the Tararua rural schools  under threat have substantial roll numbers, one for instance has 67 children.

Some things I wrote in 1995 in Network Magazine against an aggressive ministry school closure policy; and in 1996, when invited to help a small Northland school, might be helpful in providing guidance to the Tararua schools in their predicament. My prediction, however, is that the move to close the schools will fail, but that should not be left to chance.



Network Magazine, 1995

The secretary for education wrote a letter about forced school closures; the following are some extracts from my response:

‘I applied under the Official Information Act for any ministerial reports investigating the quality of education provided by small country schools, and received “The Economic and Educational Viability of Small Schools Review” (1990). In a nutshell, it is a report glowing in its description of the role, functioning, and contribution of such schools. It was also less than certain about the financial gains from closing them.’

Four key statements are:

  1. ‘It has yet to be demonstrated that pupil achievement suffers because of size of schools.’ (p. 19)
  2. ‘If pupils arrive at school tired and stressed from a long journey it is unlikely that they will be immediately receptive to learning opportunities, no matter how well conceived and delivered.’ (p. 19)
  3. ‘… contrary to some assertions, rural schools develop positive personal and social attitudes in congenial groupings, unaffected by the small numbers of children of the same age; intimate knowledge of pupils and strong community-school links, as well as curriculum flexibility, contribute to a sound curriculum for rural children; and rural teachers are not as isolated – as is commonly thought.’ (p. 23)
  4. In commenting on the submissions received, the reviewers wrote: ‘The overall impression from the submissions is that money allocated to purchase education for children in small rural schools in fact buys much more. In some districts it may also be ensuring a stable economy, holding together the social infrastructure, and generally making the difference between a reasonable quality of life and economic and social sub-existence.’

[My comment in 2009 is that if this isn’t game, set, and match then Bob’s my uncle. I wonder if the members of the Bush Education Plan had access to this report, or were they operating on the basis of ideologically-suspect review office reports.]

I then go on to comment:

‘The closure of the schools is more symbolic than substantial. In reality, the savings, even if a large number of schools are closed down, represent only peanuts. To justify the closure of small schools, the worst case scenario of the cost per pupil of a very small school is compared with that of a best case scenario of a child from a large city school. But the children of closed schools do not go to large city schools; they go to nearby rural or small town schools which are relatively more expensive anyway. As well, there are extra transport costs. In addition, it’s not that small country schools are so expensive; it’s that city schools are so cheap. Why shouldn’t city schools also have the advantage of lower teacher-pupil ratios?’

‘Country school teaching is a particularly primary school thing, Maris [O’Rourke, the then secretary for education]. For primary teachers, country schools are a rich source of innovation and inspiration, they are highly evocative – shades of Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Elwyn Richardson. They are magical things for us. We want them looked after and cherished. Most of us have been country teachers. We know about the commitment and the dedication needed to teach in often remote places and the implications for country teachers’ families. We love our country schools.’

‘I’m going to leave it there, Maris, except to say that there is little educational or financial justification for your aggressive school closure policy; that closures have occurred over many years and will occur in the future without recourse to ‘proactive’ [Maris’s unfortunate bureaucratic word] moves; that your own ministerial reports provide no grounds for the ‘proactive’ policy you have adopted; that the closures are mainly symbolic and ideologically driven; that they are awash in bureaucratic and head office self-interest; and that they have a hugely unsettling effect on nearly all country schools, their teachers, and the children they serve. The nonsense should stop. Please stop hounding country schools.’

Kelvin Smythe

January, 1995

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