Some thoughts about Redcliffs, Parata, and the drive to gigantism

The arguments about why Hekia Parata is so intent on closing Redcliffs School are swirling as they always do when Hekia and the ministry are making decisions about whether a school lives or dies: are the reasons financial or ideological? There is always, as well, a dispute about what the ministry-funded or -produced report means and whether, in the first place it was accurate. In the case of Redcliffs, the report is about what a geological report actually says on the safety for children of the cliffs and boulders behind the school.

The view of this posting is that the threat to close Redcliffs is essentially ideological but not in the usual in-your-face way.

Parata is, of course, being her disingenuous self. There is absolutely no danger to children from the cliffs – the report, if read objectively, makes that clear. And though she denies it, distributing the children to other schools will be cheaper than reconstructing Redcliffs School.

However, those are not the real reasons why Parata is closing down the school. The real reason is that it is government policy to make schools bigger and so more manipulable for neoliberal ends.

But intertwined with that ideological purpose is the personality of Parata. Christchurch has given her the opportunity to dominate – it plays to her sense of payback; of grandiosity; of revelling in the batting down of the bleating of primary school people about such things as the welfare of children and sense of community; of deviousness as a means to an end; and of satisfaction in flattening people to play and paw them.

My name is Parata – Look on my works … and despair.

And I do look on her works and despair – I look on those architecturally bloated and enlarged schools and despair; I think of those intimate schools the children came from, built to scale for children, and despair again.

The government announced some time ago as a policy imperative it was shifting from closing down small rural schools to closing down urban and provincial schools and going for gigantism in replacement. The government found that closing down small rural schools was both provoking awkward opposition from its own National supporters and MPs; much better to close urban and provincial schools, especially intermediates, and set up more manipulable and compliant very large amalgamated schools.

The threatened closure of Redcliffs is part of that policy, a sweet little dessert after the main meal carve up. Though the threat has come as a terrible shock to the school it was always going to happen, and now it has. There were the horrific earthquakes, then the courage, effort, and unity displayed in migrating to Van Asch – think of the work of trustees, principal, teachers, parents, also the children in settling in, all the time thinking of the time when they would return to their school, now the shattering of those hopes, and the prospect of a bitter diaspora to neighbouring schools.

Redcliffs is not a victim of the children being removed to newly built amalgamated schools, but it is the victim of the policy to larger schools – and Parata’s personality. Much of what follows is not specifically about Redcliffs, nor is it only about the Christchurch amalgamations, such amalgamations are occurring everywhere. And when I talk about the administration characteristics of these amalgamated schools, I am not referring to any particular schools, in some part, I am describing the vision of the ministry – but I do hold that large schools and of a particular architectural style, will, over time, display the characteristics described. I also want to make clear I have not had nor will have any communication with Redcliffs – I don’t want my interest in the matter getting caught up in the machinations of Parata’s personality to compound the school’s difficulties.

Neoliberalism in public school education is expressed though a drive for increased bureaucratic control, ‘efficiency’, hierarchy; and a narrowed, utilitarian curriculum implemented at the least possible cost.

Large schools provide greater opportunity for of these.

A principal appointed to a large new school can be assumed to have gained various bureaucratic approvals in the course of his or her career and be far less likely to buck the system compared to those pesky principals of smaller schools. As well, the ministry will very likely have played a big hand in who is appointed.

Principals appointed to those new schools will be the crème de la crème of the structural behaviour now demanded of public schools, a massive time allocation to public relations; trustees too have become caught up in this necessary madness. An outcome of this is principals continually promoting curriculum ideas of the sort I see as modish trivialities, but they describe as ‘points of difference’.

I want to make it clear that what I am saying is not invariable.

Larger schools have bigger administration sections that are likely to be somewhat more distant from the curriculum as a living thing and closer to the curriculum as set out by the education review office. One is likely to find larger schools possessing a curriculum run by objectives and the like. A living curriculum is not amenable to objectives; has to be approached as a wonderful enigma in magical interaction with myriad cognitive-affective pathways; an objective-based curriculum, on the other hand, is all sorted and fixed (leaving aside the points of difference). Also likely to be found is inquiry learning (electronic projects) and much pasting, rather than series of manageable, open-ended activities that really takes children on a learning adventure.

Large schools, no matter the efforts to dissipate the effect, are or will be (a lot of these things are a matter of time), more formal, less intimate, more regimented – and so are or will be, the teachers. The picture in the minds of Parata, the ministry, and treasury is secondary schools. The large school policy is about turning primary schools into junior secondary schools.

The bureaucratic ease of passing on directions to relatively compliant large schools is alluring to Parata and the ministry. Building such a network, on PPPs, in other words, policy on the tick, is the Parata and ministry purpose.

I feel saddened when I see children being dispersed to schools with very large open spaces of the variety presently favoured – I have called those spaces cathedrals of vacuity. There is phenomenal hype from Parata and the ministry about the use of computers and the possibilities of these large open spaces – they are described as what 21st century education is all about – really? a learning tool and a style of school architecture?

Twenty-first century education should be about schools and teachers being freed to be allowed to display initiative and make the official curriculum work for children. But you’re the boss, Hekia.  It is a badly kept secret that the ministry and treasury have plans to increase class size as part of the large school policy. Schools will be enticed  with more funding for electronics to ‘trial’ a form of mass learning based on using computers  – John Hattie no doubt will be called on to undertake authentic research into the matter.

Parata’s and the government’s policy is insidious. I acknowledge good people are caught up in the madness of it, even believing in it, and promoting it. So I can’t be too harsh in my view of them.  But I want to remind all that in 1990 in Developmental Network Magazine I observed that teachers are unsettled by the possibility of curriculum and administrative ideas being able to be passed quickly down the hierarchical chain without those ideas requiring teacher involvement at the various stages of their development.  Now, as a result of the bureaucratisation of primary schools (and other changes, for instance EDUCNZ), there is left for children only a will-o’-the-wisp protection from the vagaries of educational and political ideas and the human drive to control and dominate. The powerlessness of the young, the fact of them being young, will always, I acknowledge, make school-children tempting targets for those who want to turn schools into battlegrounds for competing visions of what society ought to be.  But one of those competing visions is at an unprecedented level of dominance and intemperateness. And a symptom of it being an almost reflexive cruelty being inflicted on a small seaside Christchurch school.

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