A city turning the tables?

February 2012


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ROBIN DUFF reflects on how Christchurch schools are coping one year on since Canterbury’s devastating earthquake.

There are times when I feel like I’m still crouched under that flimsy table in the Christchurch Town Hall quietly begging the whole structure to hold up, to stop shaking and let me out alive.

Perhaps it was because I’d convinced myself halfway through the ordeal that my universe was never going to cease convulsing and rumbling that I’m still secretly amazed that it actually did.

And perhaps because that hideously drawn-out moment in time now serves as a temporal marker between two worlds for so many of us that it just sticks there, replaying itself ad nauseam, like a wide-screen ad in a shopping mall.

No sooner had colleagues and I got out from under the seats and tables, and we promptly cancelled the paid union meeting for the eastern half of Canterbury Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) members scheduled to begin that minute, than a sense of shock and disbelief descended – a state of inebriated helplessness, loss and uncertainty about the future that, one year on, most Cantabrians will tell you pervades to this day.

The scenes of devastation that confronted us as we strode outside are well documented visually and descriptively and were broadcast and uploaded so quickly that the whole world was confronted with them more or less as we were. But words and pictures describe only so much. They won’t capture the uncontrollable swelling of grief. Nor can they transmit the primeval raising of heckles as you prepare for the inevitable aftershocks or explain why conflicting threads of togetherness and loneliness should cruelly begun to knot inside, loosening only with time.

A short walk away my 150-year-old inner-city cottage still stands. It’s still host to much of the internal chaos created that afternoon and still bears severe wounds. I’ve stopped worrying whether I’ll be green-stickered and given a shot of life from a renovator’s nail-gun or red-stickered to the earth by a contactor’s bulldozer. Worrying won’t speed up the process; it will just drag out time. In this state of domestic limbo you get a feeling of what it is to be a refugee, particularly when who you are and where you are is so intricately defined by your home.

That I’m not alone in this situation is at once a source of relief and of anger. Unofficial support networks criss-cross personal and professional lives from one end of the city to another. But why does the process of assessing who gets to rebuild and who gets to resettle have to become such a tangle of bureaucratic tape?

I’m constantly amazed at the way teaching colleagues are able to put aside such trauma and vexation and front classrooms of adolescents dealing with those same issues day in and day out. Pleasing NCEA results for 2011 show Canterbury students were able to conclude their year of study with a comparable degree of success to previous years. This is partly due to NZQA taking special measures to ensure Canterbury students were not unduly penalised by the effects of the disaster, but also to the courage, resilience and perseverance of the region’s teachers and students.No day at a Christchurch school in 2011 was easy.

When schools finally began to re-open in the weeks following the February quake, teachers and students from a number of severely damaged schools found themselves awkwardly transferring operations and “double-bunking”. Such shared living arrangements put pressure on both host and guest schools as each pairing had to operate on the same site but on separate half-days.

Putting to one side the logistical challenge of bussing hundreds of students residing in the harder-hit eastern city around the cordoned-off city centre to host schools in the west, the double-bunking experience illustrated just how difficult it is for two schools to function on one site in the competitive environment promoted by the Tomorrow’s Schools operation model. Encouraging schools to operate independently is all very well until a crisis necessitates that they bind their core teaching and learning functions together. The fact that the double-bunking schools were unable to do so meant that teaching and learning time was hindered as each school attempted to cram each day into a segregated half-day.

The Tomorrow’s Schools system also created difficulties for the roll-out of emergency ICT infrastructure to affected schools. In a report to PPTA’s earthquake recovery taskforce, an ICT consultant working with local schools post-quake said it would have been much easier to set up new ICT systems under a centralised system. He said central government and schools could then operate a supply-driven policy instead of the separate, school-by-school, demand-driven systems that struggled in Christchurch after February.

But despite the woes brought about by Tomorrow’s Schools, an element of unofficial inter-school cooperation inevitably emerged. An impressive number of schools throughout the country elected to “buddy” a Christchurch school and donate what they could to schools in Christchurch that had lost or couldn’t access fundamental resources. Soon cartons of pens, printer paper, whiteboard markers and memory sticks were being eagerly opened by departments at displaced schools all over Christchurch. The same spirit of collegial support saw members donating considerable amounts of their hard-earned cash to PPTA’s Canterbury assistance fund, which was heartily welcomed by colleagues in the most seriously affected schools.

I had hoped that by the time of the quake’s February anniversary a pervading sense of uncertainty about the future would have been replaced by a feeling of optimism brought about by positive news of plans for Christchurch. Sadly, that’s not the case. With a local government in turmoil and an opportunist central government hinting that it wants to bring the necessary rebuild of some city schools into its rough-and-ready charter schools experiment, I share the dismay of many Cantabrians that there doesn’t seem to be an authority in the land with the city’s true well-being at heart. A city can recover from a major geological disaster so long as it’s not a trigger for a series of political ones. If that becomes the case, we’ll make soap boxes out of the same furniture we once cowered under.

Robin Duff is president of the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA).