*This story was first published on July 30, 2021*

Six-year-old Gus Milne wants to talk to the Prime Minister about learning to cook in his new class kitchen; his dad would like to talk about whether the millions invested in school infrastructure show the Government is finally cooking with gas.

JANUARY 2022 UPDATE: Jacinda Ardern opened the new classroom block as planned on July 30, charming the children and being wreathed in floral lei in return. For two weeks Gus enjoyed his shiny new classroom – and then Delta arrived and the Prime Minister put the country back into lockdown. Gus and his classmates never had the chance to return to their new classroom block.

ANALYSIS: My six-year-old son Gus was up before dawn today, dressed in his school uniform and ready to go. He was quietly excited. Barring any household or political meltdowns, Gus and his friends will be showing off their new classroom block to Jacinda Ardern – and I think this deserves to make the national news.

Yes, these may be the indulgent witterings of a proud dad. But after four years trying to understand erratic school roll growth from both the inside and the outside, they also tell the story of the real challenge faced by this Government in responding to population growth and the housing crisis.

And last night I received briefings requested under the Official Information Act revealing that as recently as yesterday, Education Minister Chris Hipkins was briefed on pushback and petitions from local communities, ours included, against shifting school zones to reflect changing demographics. Education officials seem helpless to predict the ups and downs of local populations; I argue that a joined-up government should be better able to anticipate where it will need more (or fewer) classrooms.

Here’s how I know all this. Four years ago, as a parent rep on the board of little decile 3 Oranga School, I was tasked with leading a subcommittee to set in place a school zone. This was new, for us.

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Oranga School was an absolutely brilliant school, bringing together a diverse mix of mostly Tongan, Samoan and Palagi children from the clutter of state housing and 100-year-old workingman’s cottages that climbed from Mangere Inlet up the south side of One Tree Hill towards our beloved Maungakiekie.

The staff were (and still are) enthusiastic, caring and at the cutting edge of the innovative teaching required to meet the needs of such a diverse school whānau. The principal and leadership team, then and now, were deeply engaged in the community. 

But it was only recently – 70 years after it was founded in the shadow of World War II to educate the baby boomers – that the school had become in-demand. Middle-income families, priced out of Grey Lynn and Point Chevalier and Remuera, had begun buying up those little cottages, installing insulation in their cold walls and ceiling vaults, and painting them in elegant muted hues with names like Ōkārito white and Muriwai brown.

The roll had climbed from 300 up to an end-of-year peak of more than 400, when the Ministry of Education suggested we might want to consider implementing an enrolment scheme. The school was popping at the seams. The library had been converted to a classroom. Class numbers were at their max.

And so, despite some trepidation about the impact on families whose children bussed in from further away, we accepted that we had to cap the roll. Our first obligation was to the families who lived nearest to the school; we would no longer be able to accept those from further afield.

I think all of us on the school board believed in the importance of supporting local schools and school networks to provide a great education to all Kiwi kids. And that it well and truly trumped some spurious “right” for affluent parents to choose to drive their kids to affluent schools in leafy, affluent neighbourhoods on the other side of town, leaving their local schools as under-developed concrete wastelands.

What I quickly realised was that the new enrolment scheme boundaries would leave my own family home less than 50 metres outside the Oranga School zone. That my youngest son Gus, when he turned five, would not be able to attend the school that his brothers attended, the school they loved. He wouldn’t cycle to school with them; he wouldn’t have them to look out for him when he was sad or angry in the playground; he wouldn’t be able to wear their hand-me-down uniforms; he wouldn’t be a part of the school community in which we were so deeply involved.

We were gutted. But there was no way round it. I couldn’t gerrymander the zone boundaries just to include my own home!

And besides, our school board had started to realise something else: despite the Ministry of Education’s assurances that this was our decision; despite our hard work engaging and consulting with our community, this had never really been our decision.

The consultation was more or less a sham. The Ministry had already decided where it wanted the boundaries and, if we decided something different, it reserved the right to advise the Secretary of Education to overrule us.

We weren’t looking for a fight that we would lose. We accepted the inevitable. The Ministry got its zone with the boundaries it wanted, even where they trod on the toes of our friends at neighbouring schools.

And for our family, we thought about sending our three boys to two different primary schools. We thought about pulling the older boys out of the school they loved and sending them down to Onehunga School with their little brother; that was where we would be zoned.

And in the end, we skipped the country. It was just one more factor in our decision to move the family overseas to new jobs and a new family life in Cook Islands. If we were going to have to tear the boys away from their friends and their school in order to keep the family together, we might as well move them 3000km to Te Uki Ou School on Rarotonga, as move them 3km to Onehunga School.

Sons for the return home

Here’s where it gets strange – and here’s where our experience at Oranga School highlights the wider difficulties facing the Government and its education officials. Three things happened. 

First, the Ministry of Education decided that Oranga School was not a one-off, but would be the triumphant success story to kick off a massive project to zone or rezone 135 schools right across Auckland, not to mention many more throughout New Zealand. As such, it asked the Government to pass a new law making its officials, not the school boards, responsible for instituting and updating enrolment schemes.

Secondly, housing agency Kāinga Ora and several private sector developers teamed up to bulldoze half our community, shift out 400 long-established local families to who knows where, and embark on a massive new development of 1200 new homes over the course of eight years.

Thirdly, Covid happened.

With the coronavirus closing borders and changing the world, we came home sooner than we had expected. Our little cottage with its picket gates and wood-laced verandah and muted hues had been rented out; we moved back in at the start of this year.

And, to our surprise and delight, we were able to enrol all three of our boys, Monty, Joe and 5-year-old Gus, at Oranga School. Despite our warnings to ministry officials, they had failed to anticipate the impact of the bulldozing of 400 homes. They had pushed on with instituting the zone. Indeed, they had pushed on with building a lovely new classroom block. But the school roll had plummeted by nearly 100 pupils. There was capacity to spare for our three boys and many more.

“The National Educational Growth Plan provides options for managing growth in the short to medium term, including a range of interventions at a regional and catchment level such as enrolment schemes to manage growth and help schools avoid the risk of overcrowding.”
– ministerial briefing

I’m not saying that the Ministry shouldn’t have instituted the new zone; I’m certainly not saying they shouldn’t have built Gus’s lovely new open-plan classroom block that he will proudly show off to the Prime Minister when she cuts the ribbon this morning.

The Ministry has to plan long-term. Over the next few years, hundreds more families will move into the 400 new Kāinga Ora homes and 800 new private homes, as they are completed. 

And more than that, we are part of a network of schools. To our east, Ellerslie School is at capacity. To our west, Royal Oak and Onehunga schools are at capacity. We will quickly fill those new classrooms.

But already, the Ministry has told us it expects, with its newly-enacted powers, to redraw our zone boundary to take in homes as far west as the Royal Oak roundabout of death. And disregarding our pleas to support the integrity of the traumatised state housing community across the road from the school, it is looking to draw an arbitrary line right through the middle of it.

This is all barely a year after the zone was set in place. It had failed to anticipate the highly localised population blips and dips. 

Engaging with locals

And it’s not just us. By more or less taking over the zoning process from school boards, the Ministry of Education has lost the deep understanding of local communities that is held by the school leaders and trustees at the heart of those. Yes, it still engages, it still consults, but speaking from my own experience and reflecting on conversations with many other schools, the Ministry’s small and ever-changing staff seem confused and overwhelmed by the scale of the task. And that task is growing by the day.

The briefings released to me last night identify 202 schools where the Ministry is setting in place new or amended zones, 135 of those in Auckland. Beyond those, there are more neighbouring schools that are very directly affected. 

The new zones go hand-in-hand with school building projects. “The National Education Growth Plan catchment plans forecast an additional 100,000 new student places to 2030; 60,000 of which are forecast for Auckland,” the minister was briefed. “The NEGP provides options for managing growth in the short to medium term, including a range of interventions at a regional and catchment level such as enrolment schemes to manage growth and help schools avoid the risk of overcrowding.”

But Covid and community pushback have already delayed the design and implementation of 16 school zones. Te Papapa School just to the south of Oranga had been one of those resisting having a zone set in place.

And yesterday, Chris Hipkins was briefed on a petition signed by more than 200 community members opposing a reduced zone for Royal Oak Intermediate, a couple of kilometres to our west. That’s the school our oldest son now attends. That is just one of 20 schools where there are problems or community resistance that officials say poses a moderate or high risk to the zoning project. Another 35 schools in phase 2 of the programme are considered low risk.

What all this delay and compromise and changing demographics means is that school roll growth building projects, while very welcome and very laudable, may not be as precisely targeted as they should be.

Chris Hipkins – a safe pair of hands on his Mastermind specialist subject of education – should ensure the Ministry of Education is engaging more effectively with the communities, and engaging better with local councils and key infrastructure agencies like Kāinga Ora and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, so that it might be blindsided less often.

That would mean communities would not be bruised by official indecision and changing plans.

Millions spent, millions more to come

It's a been a busy week opening new school buildings for this Government. Jacinda Ardern marked her birthday, on Monday, by announcing a new block at Ruakākā School, near Whangarei. They gave her a birthday cake, and she somewhat rashly asked the kids, "how old do you think I'm turning?" They mulled it over, then ventured: "62?"

She and associate education minister Kelvin Davis announced $100m of investment into short-term roll growth classrooms and $150m of investment into shovel ready school property projects across New Zealand. 

In the South Island, Minister Megan Woods visited Hillmorton High School to announce a $20m funding injection from Budget 2021 to complete four shovel ready projects and new classrooms at six schools and kura across West Coast, Tasman and Canterbury.

The Government says it has committed to ensuring all ākonga have access to quality learning environments by 2030, and so the Ministry of Education is embarking on 320 school property programmes to provide additional teaching spaces or upgraded learning environments. 28 of the projects are completed, 55 are at a construction stage, and 111 are at a planning and design stage. The rest are yet to be started.
The National School Redevelopment Programme serves a dual purpose: to redevelop, refurbish and rebuild the school property portfolio, but also to stimulate the economy and create jobs to help with the economic recovery. The 194 projects underway include 54 Redevelopment Programme projects and 140 existing projects. Nearly a third of the 57 Auckland and nine Tai Tokerau projects have been completed; in the rest of NZ the progress is slower. None of the seven Waikato projects are finished. This does not include projects in the Christchurch Schools Rebuild programme, or roll growth-only projects.

Is the latest new project to respond to booming populations, Hipkins announced on Friday that a 1.5-hectare site in Hobsonville Point would be used to support growing demand for schooling in West Auckland – part of the $66m was set aside in Budget 2021 for the design and planning of 11 new schools. “We’re anticipating up to 2,000 more homes in the wider Hobsonville Point area," Hipkins said. "This new site will help provide for this forecast demand, and ease pressure on the local education network, including the existing Hobsonville Point Primary School."

Further announcements about investment in school property are promised in the coming weeks.

This same morning, my fiery little redheaded 6-year-old and his friends will show the Prime Minister the new five-class capacity block that her Government paid for. He loves helping mum and dad cook so he's in charge of the tour of the new class kitchen. Though he confides to me that his favourite bit about the new block is the cubbyholes, where the kids can retreat from all the hustle and bustle for a bit of quiet time to themselves.

There won't be much retreat from the noise today; I think our whole community is turning up. We are very grateful for these beautiful new teaching and learning spaces. I'm sure Ruakākā and Hillmorton and all the other school communities feel the same way.

As the Ministry of Education learns from the mistakes it's made in the early days of this big roll growth project, I do believe the rest of the country should be able to gain greater confidence in its decision-making. Greater confidence that it is setting the right boundaries, to manage the right capacity; spending the right public money, in the right schools, to ensure all our kids have as good an experience at school as Gus.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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