From the quiet heroes of the earthquake recovery to little more than collateral damage, the way Christchurch schools were mistreated is finally recognised, writes the University of Auckland’s Carol Mutch

Yes, finally someone has acknowledged what Christchurch schools, their communities and their supporters have known all along – that the post-quake school closure and merger process was insensitive, poorly managed and underhand.

Schools are often called the “social glue” of their communities. They provide a sense of identity and social cohesion through good times and bad. Several decades ago, Trevor Mallard’s infamous network reviews closed many small rural and town schools leaving social and emotional scars that are still visible. It would seem insensitive in this day and age to take a community traumatised by natural disaster and subject it to similar damage.

My research into Christchurch schools following the earthquakes showed that schools went above and beyond the call of duty. On the day of the February earthquake they rescued, evacuated, calmed and cared for children all across the city despite the fears they had for their own families. Schools became community relief and drop-in centres. When schools were up and running again, in repaired and relocated classrooms, church halls and tents, teachers and principals turned up every day to support children and their families despite the turmoil in their own lives. Parents described teachers as the “quiet heroes” of earthquake recovery.

We knew by watching events unfold in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that ruthless bureaucrats could take advantage of disoriented and dislocated communities to fulfil their own agendas – what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine”. It seemed incomprehensible that our bureaucrats would go as far as to fire every teacher as happened in New Orleans. Surely, something like that could never happen here.

Imagine my disbelief when I heard about the coloured labels that principals were given to wear to denote whether their schools were to be “restored”, “consolidated” or “rejuvenated” – bureaucrat-speak for saved, amalgamated or closed. Could this really be happening? Isn’t the Ministry meant to use a process of consultation about 21st century schools? Aren’t we meant to build back better?

“Schools were pawns in a bigger game. They were already reeling from the impact of the disaster and instead of being supported, they were deceived.”

We now know that many of the closures and mergers went ahead despite consultation, submissions, protests, and legal action. The recently-released Ombudsman’s report has found that the process was mismanaged and caused stress to already-traumatised communities. This could possibly be excused in a tumultuous post-disaster environment but what the Ombudsman’s report revealed, most importantly, was that the Ministry had a hidden agenda. They were making their own plans – regardless of the outcome of consultation with schools. Consultation was a cover. This was our own “shock doctrine”. Schools and communities in post-earthquake Christchurch were treated with contempt. As one principal remarked, “in military terms, we are just collateral damage”.

I am grateful to the Ombudsman for bringing these matters to public attention. But the Office of the Ombudsman had already drawn our attention to problems with the process in 2013, along with schools themselves, their lawyers, the media, teacher unions, principals’ associations and the Human Rights Council. Despite much evidence to show the social and emotional damage the closures and mergers would do, they went ahead. And with what speed! They were rushed through before communities could fully comprehend what was happening. In one case, a school closed and merged with a nearby school only to find themselves back on their old condemned premises the following year because there was not enough room on the new school site.

The recent report highlights the deeply flawed nature of the process. Schools were pawns in a bigger game. They were already reeling from the impact of the disaster and instead of being supported, they were deceived.

“This was not a benign process. Much harm was done. It cannot be undone.”

At the outset, the Ministry made little effort to gather correct information to make decisions. Schools were told decisions would be based on whether land was prone to liquefaction, if it was uneconomic to repair the buildings or if rolls were dropping. Decisions were made that bore no relation to these criteria, or were made using completely inaccurate data. When schools provided correct information, it was ignored. Looking across the city, decisions seemed incomprehensible and unfair. And the rules kept changing. Schools never knew if they would be next. They thought they were safe because they had enough students to be viable – but that number changed. Decisions were made and then completely overturned while other decisions were challenged at the highest level, yet it made no difference. Schools tried every avenue open to them – one student even wrote a letter to the Queen but still the juggernaut rolled on.

In hindsight, it appears as if the Ministry was playing a game of divide and rule. If each school was so busy looking after its own interests – to remain open or overturn a closure decision – then the city’s schools as a whole could not come together en masse and challenge the process.

Some schools began to get a sense that something was wrong when they were provided with conflicting responses or when information was deliberately withheld or later retracted. They sought information through the Official Information Act but were told by the Ministry to stop. In 2013, the Ombudsman’s Office found the Ministry had acted wrongly by withholding information and telling principals they were not to use the Official Information Act. Still the closures and mergers went ahead. At the time, it appeared the Ministry was merely incompetent, but the latest Ombudsman’s report reveals that there was, as schools suspected, a hidden agenda – an agenda that was pushed through in the most cruel and heartless way in a city that was already reeling from disaster.

I am grateful to the Ombudsman for pushing the Ministry to apologise. This was not a benign process. Much harm was done. It cannot be undone. All we can hope is that current and future ministers and ministries learn from these mistakes.

We cannot let this happen again. Our schools are the hubs of their communities. They undertake tireless service on behalf of society. They should be valued, supported and celebrated.

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