SuPPPer School for Aranui – ‘devil beast’ for all of us

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Putting the ‘suPPPer’ into super schools?

Yet another brick in the wall?

The Education Ministry’s $41 million proposed year 1-13 super school for Christchurch is set to be funded by the private sector, a document reveals.

The document, obtained by APNZ, outlines advice given to Education Minister Hekia Parata and shows she signed off on five of eight recommendations.

Ms Parata added in her handwriting that four Christchurch eastern suburb schools should close a year later, in December 2016, to allow for “considerations of public-private partnership procurement.”

The privately funded school, known as a public-private partnership (PPP) school, would be the second in New Zealand after the Hobsonville Point primary school opened this year in Auckland.

A ‘brick in the wall’ or maybe just ‘another piece of the puzzle’ of just what has driven the proposals that are part of the restructuring of Christchurch schools?

Part of that puzzle has been the timing of the restructuring  – I mean, ‘renewal’ – of the network (so soon after the earthquakes) and, then, the lengthening of the proposed times for implementation till 2016.

Well, the one year delay seemed so reasonable at the time, but now it makes far more sense: The delay from the original timeline is to give enough time to work out a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement.

The Principal of Aranui High School and Board of Trustees Chairwoman of Wainoni Primary School were both reasonably supportive of the ‘super school‘ but seem less enchanted – and very surprised – by the ‘suPPPer school‘ possibility:

Principal of Aranui High School John Rohs supported a year 1-13 school, but said a public-private partnership would detract from the community approach the school was trying to achieve.

We are opposed to this. The needs of our community are not conducive to the public-private partnership.”

Mr Rohs said it had come as surprise to see the minister had put forward the PPP procurement option.

And,

Chairwoman of the Wainoni Primary School board of trustees Christine Nihdam said the school supported a year 1-13 school, but had only recently heard about the public-private partnership proposal.

“We haven’t had a chance to discuss that matter yet. It was something that had not been mentioned previously. It’s was something new to us.”

It also seems that the Aranui super school’, according to a Ministry official, is not the only new Christchurch school that will be put through the PPP business case:

“A business case will be developed later this year to determine whether a PPP for Aranui and other Christchurch schools provides better value for money than a more traditional contracting method.”

Irrespective of the merits of PPP arrangements for state schools what possible justification is there for the Minister not to have made this possibility quite explicit when the original proposals were put to the schools and their communities?

This drip-feeding of more and more controversial aspects of the proposals makes a mockery of any arguments – as expressed in this Press editorial – that it is time to ‘move on’, ‘face the future’ and ‘not complain’ (all for the sake of the children, of course).

It is time now for all involved – teachers, parents, school boards, the Ministry of Education – to put the turmoil of the past few months behind them and look firmly forward to try to make the outcome as good as possible for the most important figures in the saga – the pupils affected.

The first announcement of the changes necessary in Christchurch could not have been more bungled, but that must not be allowed to create a lingering sense of resentment.

The time for recrimination is over.

Any sense of grievance certainly should not be allowed to impede the proper establishment of the new arrangements.

… now the future must be faced with fortitude and determination.

… parents and teachers owe it to their children and pupils to set an example in this.

Any setbacks that occur should not be used as an occasion for complaint.

Parents must also play their part in calming any fears their children may have and encouraging them on what can be seen as an exciting new opportunity.

When the ground keeps shifting under your feet, when more revelations keep emerging of the full consequences and implications of the Greater Christchurch Education ‘Renewal’, such inconsiderate exhortations just start to sound as hollow and ill-informed as they in fact are.

The very experimental ‘procurement method’ of a PPP is now in the pipeline for these same parents and pupils that The Press editor is so concerned about. It is important to emphasise that the PPP approach has, to date, only been tried on one other school in New Zealand yet, it seems, that Christchurch schools and families are thought a proper testing ground for a broader roll-out of a step towards private provision of public education.

Perhaps it was thought that the ‘procurement method’ for these schools was a topic entirely irrelevant for the decision making of the school communities involved over proposals to close and merge schools. Perhaps it was assumed that there are no conceivable connections between different ‘procurement methods’, school management responsibilities and educational outcomes.

Could that be the innocent reason why it was thought that there was no need to mention the possibility of a PPP in establishing the ‘super school’?

Was it thought quite appropriate that a possibility apparently so surprising even to those positively disposed towards the mergers should be left out of the discussions and debate?

Even if it was thought irrelevant why did the Minister not volunteer this information to the schools and their communities, given that she obviously favours consideration of such a possibility? Why did it have to emerge only after journalists somehow acquired the relevant document?

Apparently (see quote below), Ministry officials even think that PPPs are a ‘boon’ for schools and Boards of Trustees so, once again, why wasn’t it thought a good idea to inform them during the consultation about such good news?

What was there to hide about the prospect of PPPs being used?

Well, as just quoted, Aranui High’s Principal, John Rohs thinks that the needs of his community, at least, “are not conducive to the public-private partnership“.

So perhaps the perceived ‘irrational’ resistance of communities to the idea of PPPs was the reason why it was not mentioned (i) when the proposals were presented; (ii) when the interim decisions were announced; and, (iii) when the final decisions were relayed to those affected.

If that was the reasoning for the repeated failure to mention the PPP possibility, is it true that such a possibility should have no bearing on the decisions made by school communities in response to the Christchurch schools restructuring proposals?

Obviously, the question deserves a closer look.

Importantly, “a PPP extends the responsibility [of the normal use of the private sector to build a state school] to include design, build, finance and maintenance of the school over a long-term contract of up to 25 years“.

Supposedly, this frees up Boards of Trustees to focus solely on educational outcomes and not worry their heads over boring matters like building maintenance or, presumably, the physical design of their school or future building projects.

The MoE Deputy Secretary for regional operations, Katrina Casey had this to say:

“One of the main benefits for a school is that that the board of trustees and school leadership no longer have to worry about maintaining school property as this is the responsibility of the private partner,” Ms Casey said.

That also presumably means that they don’t get governance authority over that part of the funding normally allocated for building maintenance (and new building projects on site?).

But, if that is the case – that a PPP would relieve Boards of the quite irrelevant concern over responsibility for building maintenance – it is particularly strange that, currently, the Ministry of Education sees a clear link between the resources provided to Boards for their property (including maintenance) and the education and learning outcomes of students at schools.

To put it bluntly, Boards are required to exercise governance over school property just because it is believed to be commensurate with the creation of a proper educational and learning environment. That is, it is claimed that there are good, educational reasons why the Board should exercise oversight and governance of the range of property management responsibilities.

The Ministry website notes that:

Schools receive resources from the Ministry of Education in four distinct streams; operational funding, staffing, school property and transport assistance. This resourcing enables schools to deliver the New Zealand Curriculum to all students entitled to attend school.

More particularly,

School board’s role in managing school property effectively to support student learning.

Even more particularly,

The board’s role

Boards of trustees have a governance, rather than a ‘hands on’ role in property management.

This means that boards:

  • ensure there is alignment between the school’s vision through the Charter and their property plan

  • keep up to date with current Ministry policies and requirements

  • develop a 10 year property plan (10YPP) to provide the right quantity and quality of school property to achieve the best physical environment for learning

  • engage project managers to manage building projects at their schools

  • oversee the day–to-day management of school property to ensure it is in good order and repair.

There is the assumption here – quite reasonably – that the physical property of the school and the process of learning are directly linked and, so, Boards must exercise governance control over the property. Yet, with a PPP the schools are being told that maintaining school property (and designing it and financing it) “is the responsibility of the private partner“.

Left unclear is who – the Board or the ‘private partner’ – has a ‘governance’ role over the property. Yet, if the Board still has that governance role within a PPP arrangement in what way, exactly, can they cease to worry about these matters?

And, even if governance remained with a Board there’s always the possibility of a de facto hijacking of the governance role by those who ‘manage’ the property. In the corporate world it is not unknown for top managers to take over, de facto, the governance role from Boards of Directors. How then might School Boards of Trustees – often populated by part-time parent volunteers and not always flush with professional expertise – resist the ‘direction’ from the, presumably more experienced, private property manager?

There are, then, so many hanging questions that remain over an experimental process that, yet again, is being trialled in Canterbury. Even the National Party 2011 election manifesto policy document “Education: 21st Century Schools” simply states on page 5 (under ‘Get better value from school property’), that the government will only “continue to investigate PPPs“:

4. Get better value from school property

  • Review school property management so we get the best facilities more efficiently.
  • Continue to investigate PPPs as a way to build new school property and buildings.
  • Review the Integration Act, particularly with regard to school buildings and property.
  • Further develop the National Infrastructure Plan to promote better management of school property.

Does ‘investigate‘ now mean ‘experiment‘? And is Christchurch now the National Party’s policy laboratory?

In all of this, Christchurch and Canterbury communities must have the sense that they are being treated like the proverbial mushrooms.

At best, they might feel that the Minister has patronisingly assumed that they don’t need to think about – or are not capable of thinking about – the practical details of what is planned for their schools, their communities and their city.

At worst, they may feel that their lives and their communities have been largely taken over and that there is little they can do – apart from ‘not complain’, of course – about the situation.

What dignity is there in any of this? What sense of autonomy and self-respect is there left for the people of Christchurch and Canterbury?

And – far more tellingly – just how much more disdainful and dismissive can those who are driving and implementing these proposals become of the people of Canterbury?

Where is the honesty, the straightforwardness, the transparency?

Unfortunately, that’s a question that is being raised in New Zealand far beyond possibilities of PPPs in the ‘education renewal’ here in Christchurch.

It is increasingly common to note that there has been a continuous drip, drip, drip of legislative and policy changes that – in isolation – are presented as innocent and pragmatic responses to ‘improve systems’, ‘increase efficiency’ and even ‘fix’ what is ‘broken’ or in ‘crisis’.

Yet, in the aggregate, these changes all seem to shift New Zealand – remarkably rapidly – in the same direction. In terms of the removal of local, democratic input and oversight, for example, this steady dripping has been likened to the mythical slow-boiling of a frog in water.

More generally still, Colin James claimed some months ago that “Ministers are privately saying they are achieving substantial right-leaning economic reform bit by bit without, so far, scaring voters.

It is often said that ‘the devil is in the detail’. Usually, that just means that some nice-sounding grand plan may come unstuck in the practicalities of implementation.

Increasingly, in New Zealand today it is more likely to mean that the devil has actually been concealed in the detail – and, as our Prime Minister has pointed out, ‘devil beasts‘ are scary things.

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