School property announcement stirs outcry from educators

The government’s decision to pause work on school property projects has caused both backlash and support from educators. 

Last week the government announced that it would be reviewing its school property system following a pause on over 100 school-building projects, stirring mixed reactions from the education community. 

Erica Stanford, Education Minister and Christopher Luxon, Prime Minister, delivered the news at a post-Cabinet media briefing last Monday, stating that the existing property system was “bordering on crisis. 

“There have been a number of cost escalations and some schools expecting exciting, bespoke building projects that are not able to be delivered on,” said Stanford.  

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An inquiry has been set up to report on the situation in three months.  

“There is a clear need to review the school property system to evaluate the sustainability and efficacy of current arrangements and ensure we can deliver the school property our children deserve, while protecting taxpayers from futher inefficiencies and poor value for money,” Stanford continued.  

Luxon stated that the announcement was not related to the upcoming Budget announcement or a need to find cost-savings. Leader of the opposition and former Education Minister Chris Hipkins disagrees, claiming National is prioritising tax cuts over children.  

“Cost escalations in the building sector have been a fact of life. National were told before the election they hadn’t allowed enough for cost escalations in their fiscal plan and chose to ignore that and claim tax cuts were affordable. They aren’t and now it looks like kids will be the latest to pay the price,” Hipkins stated.  

One project that has been put on hold is the Te Tātoru o Wairau Marlborough schools co-location project, which would see Marlborough Girls’ College, Marlborough Boys’ College and Bohally Intermediate school relocated to a new, shared campus. Stanford stated that the project had “years of cost escalations” which saw an original estimate of $170 million in 2018 rise to $405 million.  

A pressing need  

The pause on classroom builds was announced in early February, prompting several schools to speak out about their decaying school properties.  

In Invercargill, Principal Mike Newell of James Hargest College said that 14 classrooms were now up in the air after six-years of designing and planning. He described existing classrooms as “shot”. 

“We’ve had ceilings collapse on children,” says Newell. 

Work was paused in September last year, with the Ministry of Education head of property Sam Fowler stating that they were exploring “more cost-effective options”.  

Andersons Bay School in Otago is another school that urgently needs upgrades, says Principal Pauline Simpson. Five years ago, the school had been promised a complete rebuild over 25 years. Now, the rebuild is limited to half the planned size, which Simpson said was “ridiculous and short-sighted”.  

Fowler said around $750,000 dollars had been spent on the project so far and completed work would go toward the now smaller development and any future need.  

Some classroom buildings are in bad repair and are out of date. Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash.

Sommerville Specialist School in Auckland is another kura to speak out against the building pause.  

“You can smell the mould. There are roof leaks everywhere, there’s dampness in the walls, our floors are like waves in the ocean,” said Principal Belinda Johnston.  

“We’ve got students that are very vulnerable with respiratory conditions. They need even temperatures to maintain seizure control.”  

Newlands Intermediate in Wellington is also waiting for new buildings as their roll is at 151 percent of capacity. Principal Angela Lowe says they’re “all in limbo.”  

Meanwhile, wealthier schools such as Macleans College in Auckland have self-funded classrooms to meet growing need. Principal Steve Hargreaves said their school’s roll had grown by 300 in the past two years.  

“We’ve built five classrooms, and they’re open now. They cost us two and a half million dollars and we put that together in about nine months.” 

The funds were sourced from international student fees from the past 25 years.  

Poor communication  

Following the news from Wellington several schools in Christchurch spoke out about poor communication from the Ministry of Education.  

Iain Murray, Principal of Hornby High School said they hadn’t received work from the Ministry for months and described the news as “frustrating”.  

He had been planning an additional eight classrooms when communications from the government stopped in September last year. The planned classrooms have now been reduced to four portable classrooms to be delivered over the course of this year. The school is currently over capacity by over 125 students.  

Many school are over roll capacity. Photo: AdobeStock by surasaki

In Canterbury, roll-growth continues to be high says Joe Eccleton, President of the Canterbury West Coast Secondary Principals’ Association and Principal of Cashmere High School.  

He sent a letter to the Ministry of Education stating that Canterbury principals were frustrated and disappointed, and reported some classes being held in administration areas and very old classrooms.  

Some schools may soon have to turn away in-zone students, said Eccleton.  

Pāpāmoa College in Tauranga also saw paused construction and Principal Iva Ropati described communication from the Ministry as “extremely poor.”  

Stanford has responded by stating that communication from the Ministry has not been up to her expectations and “schools deserve clarity on their builds.”  

The Secretary of Education, Iona Holsted said that the Ministry would continue to see how they could improve communications, but believes the Ministry has been transparent with plans.  

A prime example  

In their announcement of the review into the school property system, Education Minister Erica Stanford used the example of Te Tātoru o Wairau – the Marlborough Boys’, Girls’ and Bohally Intermediate School’s co-location project – as an instance of unaffordable and unrealistic building projects for schools. 

The project has now been halted, with funds now being given to addressing urgent property priorities at each of the three schools.  

Speaking with RNZ, Principal of Marlborough Boys’ College, John Kendal said the decision was disappointing but not surprising. Now, the school would focus on getting a list of buildings that needed urgent upgrades to the Ministry.  

Marlborough Girls’ College Principal Mary-Jeanne Lynch said that herself and the school community was “incredibly disappointed at the Minister’s announcement”, stating that the project was ended “suddenly”.  

She said that in an ideal world, the government would “honour their commitment to supporting a world class education for all in our communities [including] delivering contemporary facilities that are fit for purpose and enable the type of pedagogy and leaning that will prepare students for their future.”  

Lynch said that the need for more classrooms went beyond simply replacing like with like, stating that single cell prefab classrooms “may provide immediate relief in terms of spaces for learning [but] constrain the range and depth of learning. 

Pre-fab classrooms don’t necessarily meet modern learning needs, says Marlborough Girls’ College Principal. AdobeStock by Rido

“We also need school facilities that reflect our unique culture in Aotearoa New Zealand – that is our commitment to honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi. For far too long, secondary schools have had an industrial and, at times, Victorian vibe which has resulted in poor educational and life outcomes for too many young people.” 

The project had originally been co-designed with local iwi. Shane Graham, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Rārua pouwhakahaere said the project would have been transformative for the community and expressed disappointment at the Ministry’s decision, which he said failed to follow tikanga of the decision-making framework.  

“I call upon our MPs, including the Te Tai Tonga MP, to champion our collective voice and convey our disappointment to Education Minister Erica Stanford and her colleagues, advocating for a future where our voices are not only heard but heeded.” 

The silver lining  

Despite the outpouring of disappointment and anger at the delay to much-needed upgrades, some are praising the review to the school property system.  

Head of the Secondary Principals’ Association Vaughn Couillault told RNZ that school property issues had become “horribly acute” due to long-standing systemic problems.  

“We have a systemic failure where the planning isn’t right in terms of roll growth or need in a particular area. And the delivery doesn’t work either.”  

Auckland Primary Principals’ Association president Kyle Brewerton agreed, and advocated for generic blocks on the grounds of fast delivery and cost-efficiency.  

Naomii Seah

Naomii Seah is a writer and journalist from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She enjoys crochet, painting, and a coffee or two at the beach. Her work can be found at The Spinoff, The Pantograph Punch, Stuff, and of course, School News NZ.
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