Taking on the Ministry. What happened at Phillipstown School

December 2013


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GRAY CLEVELAND and TONY SIMPSON give the full story behind their David and Goliath court battle with the Ministry of Education and how unwavering community support kept them going.

Phillipstown School is an inner city Christchurch full-primary school with one of the largest technology centres in New Zealand.

On 22 February 2011, the school received the first of many shocks, some not of the seismic kind! More about that later…

The children went through a variety of ordeals of having to remain in the school grounds, which was undergoing continual aftershocks, buckling of asphalt areas, spewing liquefaction, and dust clouds from collapsed buildings around the city – they showed remarkable resilience.

The school was forced to remain closed until 17 March. After a stunning clean-up by volunteers from the wider community and from throughout New Zealand, we re-opened with 55 pupils. Subsequently, the roll began to grow (somewhat erratically) as families returned or left.

On 13 June, our roll stood at 93 when the second earthquake struck. It wasn’t until 4 October that we returned to our pre-earthquake roll. Many children were experiencing the ravages of hardship and poverty and were often living in sub-standard conditions through structural damage to dwellings.

There was a huge out-pouring of support from as far away as Australia and England. Through the generosity of Malvern School (Melbourne), we were able to purchase wind-proof jackets for every child. The money was raised by making and selling ‘Cup-Quakes’. The Tsu Chi Foundations of Buddhists generously provided food parcels, warm blankets (made from recycled plastic bottles), and Vulcan Steel supplied thermo underwear and socks to each family – these were but a few of the many individuals who stepped up to support us. This was humbling to say the least and highlighted the deep feeling of community spirit.

The school continued to operate despite limited Ministry support to upgrade our physical environment. As a result, during the winter months, 80 per cent of our play area was unable to be used by our growing roll. We haven’t played a game of netball or padder tennis since February 2011! Running amongst gravel and puddles is the new norm here now.

Despite earlier predictions, the school roll continued to grow as people moved into Christchurch from all over New Zealand and the world. Our ESOL teacher was confronted with children who spoke fluent Portuguese and Spanish.

The Minister of Education’s announcement of 13 September shattered our soul. In this process, the school was proposed to ‘rejuvenate’ – this meant a merger, but in real terms, it meant closure.

We were asked to consult our community on the proposal to merge Woolston and ourselves on the Linwood College site in 2018. The rationale for change was given under several headings: people, land, and buildings. According to the Minister, land and buildings had been damaged and warranted this change. Vast amounts of time and energy were spent by the board of trustees and staff detailing a submission in response. In short, the community rejected the proposal and asked ‘why us?’

The Minister countered this with a new proposal – the merging of the two schools would now take place on the existing Woolston School site in 2014 with a Minister-appointed board. This galvanised our community into action. Once again, we had support from the wider community but on a larger scale, many of whom gave us advice and support, free of charge.

We were recommended to contact Chen Palmer Public Law, which was able to give us sound advice as to where we stood in terms of the legality of the merger. They believed in our cause and saw that there was a case to be answered.

Our board made the brave decision to proceed with legal action on the basis that they owed this to our children, community, and to future schools facing a network review.

This started us on a path that was stressful and not for the faint-hearted. Simply put, we were taken from our core focus of teaching and learning and placed in a web of legal proceedings and media attention.

We could not have achieved a successful court ruling, coped with the public spotlight, or won this case without the guidance of Mai Chen and her team. Mai’s support was akin to that of a guardian angel and mentor.

It was clear that there was a story to tell, that facts were inaccurate, incorrect, and even invisible! It seemed that no matter how hard we as a board tried, we couldn’t dispel the feeling that this was predetermined or in fact the true agenda was not being made clear to Christchurch and New Zealand. There was huge public interest in our school’s plight. A rally was organised and the motto of ‘We Are Phillipstown’ encapsulated our peaceful philosophy. Moral and financial support poured in from people of all walks of life, many completely unknown to us, but all with a strong sense of fairness and community.

Having presented papers in the High Court to initiate proceedings, we faced the wrath of the Ministerial muscle. Everything was thrown at us: a well-resourced and powerful legal team, numerous affidavits, and an ever-diminishing timeline.

Throughout all of this, there was the concern for the health and wellbeing of staff. It created an additional burden placed on staff, many of whom were facing house, insurance, and EQC issues. This created an unhealthy cocktail of anxiety, uncertainty, despondency, and gloom. This had a negative effect on morale. Some questioned, ‘what is happening to us?’; others just asked, ‘why?’ These questions remain unanswered.

Justice Fogarty’s decision was received like a Lotto win. On 10 October this year, the High Court judge declared the process behind the Minister’s decision to merge Woolston and Phillipstown schools in Christchurch to be unlawful. On 1 November, the Ministry announced that it would not appeal the High Court ruling and would instead continue with consultation.

The David and Goliath battle that others had talked about in the media had become a reality. Our fortunes were given a mammoth tonic and another chance. We realise we have only won a battle and maybe not the war, but we are committed to work for the ultimate decision that Phillipstown will be allowed to continue to serve the community as it has done for the past 136 years.

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