4th January 2013 at 00:00
A plan to revamp the schools system in the wake of the 2011 earthquake could prove disastrous for New Zealand's teachers

We went to bed on the third of September and woke up on the fourth and our world had changed for ever. It's hard to transmit what that feels like," says Phil Harding, principal of Paparoa Street School, a primary in Christ-church, in the Canterbury region of New Zealand.

In the early hours of the morning on 4 September, 2010, Christchurch was hit by an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale.

No one was killed by it; on that occasion Christchurch got lucky, say the experts. However, the city's luck did not last.

The September quake triggered a series of aftershocks which led to another earthquake in February last year. This one was less powerful - at a magnitude of 6.3 - but the proximity of the epicentre to Christchurch and the shallow depth at which the seismic movement took place meant it caused severe damage to the city, killing 185 people.

"That trashed and broke our city," says Mr Harding. "You don't need to drop a brick from very high for it to kill someone."

The February quake struck in the middle of the day - 12.51pm - when children were in school. But not a single child died in school that day, says Mr Harding.

"One died travelling on a bus in the city, but that was the only death of a pupil," he says "We took great pride in that."

Schools quickly became the focal point of their communities, he says. Now, however, they are faced with a new challenge - falling rolls.

Roughly 10,000 pupils left Christchurch after the February quakes; about 4,500 did not return.

Mr Harding's own school roll fell by 100, but is slowly rebuilding itself. He also had 22 international students before the quake struck; now just two remain.

"Some families moved due to stress and fear and made that decision quickly," he explains.

Others were forced to move because of the loss of vital services such as water or because their homes were open to the elements or beyond repair.

He continues: "Some areas were quickly identified as red zone - meaning they could never be built on again, and so moving was inevitable. There are many houses in the red zone yet to be vacated, which means we will see continuing falling rolls for some time to come."

In September, the New Zealand government unveiled a $1 billion (pound;515.2 million) plan for education in Christchurch, involving the closure of 13 schools, the merger of 18 and the creation of a new all-through school, catering for students aged six to 18 (years 1 to 13 under the New Zealand system), to replace three primaries, an intermediate school and a secondary.

Up to 40 principals (as headteachers are called) who led their schools through the crisis could now lose their jobs, along with some 500 teachers and support staff, say the unions.

This is a scenario unlikely to arise in Scotland even in a crisis situation, says Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland. Teachers' terms and conditions of service would probably be suspended but surplus staff - be they teachers or headteachers - would be redeployed or seconded, he suggests.

"We've never had to face up to any serious threat of compulsory redundancies," says Mr Flanagan. "Where a surplus has been created, for whatever reason, a negotiated approach has been taken, sometimes with early retirement as an aspect."

In New Zealand, staff will have protection for 30 weeks, during which time they will be redeployed in another school. If a job comes up, they will be appointed to it. But the system was designed to deal with the occasional surplus teacher, not the current scenario.

The government's plans are too ambitious, argues Mr Harding who takes over as president of the professional association the New Zealand Principals' Federation this year.

He adds: "We believe some rationalisation was inevitable following the movement of folk out of the red-zoned areas, but we feel the scope and scale is too much and too soon, and the consultation is rushed and flawed."

The country's largest teaching union - the New Zealand Educational Institute - has accused the government of "using the earthquake as an opportunity for radical reform of education in Christchurch".

NZEI president Ian Leckie told TESS: "We believe that the government is using Christchurch as a blueprint for education reform that it would like to roll out throughout the rest of the country - in particular, things like mega-sized schools."

Principals of affected schools were given 10 weeks to respond to the government's plans. That deadline passed last month. They will learn their fate on 18 February - the day before the NZEI is due to go on strike.

A spokesman for the New Zealand government's ministry of education stresses that no final decisions have been made on the closure or merger proposals.

Defending the government's position, New Zealand education minister Hekia Parata, says: "We have 215 schools across the network. One hundred and seventy-three are not affected by closure or merger, but we have 4,500 less students in the network and we have had to look at what the options were across it."

New Zealand is nicknamed the Shaky Isles or Shaky Islands but an earthquake in Christchurch, which is located on the country's South Island, was not anticipated. The largest city within the zone at high risk of earthquakes is the nation's capital, Wellington, on the North Island.

"Although earthquakes had happened in that part of New Zealand, Christchurch had not really been hit by a big quake in historical times," says Brian Baptie, head of earthquake seismology at the British Geographical Survey. "Most major earthquakes in the South Island occur in the Alpine Fault Zone, to the west of Christchurch. The faults the recent earthquakes occurred upon were not mapped at the surface - geologists did not really know about them."

Nonetheless, earthquake drills were performed four times a year in Christchurch schools and pupils taught to form "the turtle" - to crouch on the floor and protect their heads, getting under a desk and holding on to a desk leg if they were indoors.

When the February earthquake hit, however, principals realised there was a big difference between preparing for an event and reality.

Three Christchurch principals - Mr Harding; John Bangma, principal of Mairehau Primary; and Denise Torrey, principal of Somerfield Primary - urged Scottish headteachers to learn from their experiences when they spoke at the European School Heads Association (ESHA) annual conference, which was hosted in Edinburgh late last year by the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland.

Mr Bangma says: "This is about when a disaster will strike - not if. Christchurch was never meant to have earthquakes - it was Wellington destined to have quakes, not us."

During drills, the norm was to assemble classes on playing fields to check off pupils. But liquefaction - when the shaking from an earthquake causes soil to behave like a liquid - meant in many cases the fields were unusable. Teachers also discovered that standing children in straight lines in order to perform roll calls was terrifying for them during a crisis.

"The sound of a whole school of children screaming in terror is the most awful sound, so we had to talk about how we would allow the children to support each other," explains Mr Harding.

Performing roll calls was further complicated by the loss of power suffered by many schools, which led to problems accessing children's information and attendance registers.

Mr Bangma's school is just four kilometres from Christchurch's central business district, but it took three classes of children, who were out of school that day, four-and-a-half hours to get back to base.

"Christchurch is not huge, but it took a long time," he says. "For some staff it was six or seven hours before the last child was picked up. And the reality for some children was that their parents were never coming back."

Now Ms Torrey keeps a pair of running shoes in the boot of her car, so that if there's a quake she can run back to school - she now knows it will be impossible to drive.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the priority was to reopen schools and keep parents informed.

"Some schools were closed for weeks," says Mr Harding. "If you kept parents informed you took them with you, but there was negative feedback for those that did not."

Savvy principals quickly learned the power of Facebook and Twitter, he says.

Mr Harding sums up: "Scottish headteachers need to consider whether they have good communication systems in place. Are they up and running today? And in your own associations, do you have that link to each other, because you need each other when disaster strikes?"

All three principals say they have been deeply affected by the earthquakes and describe themselves as "hyper-vigilant", reacting to loud noises and shaking.

Since September 2010, Christchurch has suffered thousands of quakes of differing strength, including at least two strong earthquakes over magnitude 6. Even a walk across the Forth Road Bridge proved a nerve- wracking experience for the principals, because of the movement as vehicles rumbled past.

"In large groups now, I always know where the exits are and what could fall on us," says Mr Bangma.

Today, the main priority for Christchurch schools is pastoral care.

Ms Torrey says: "Nine months after the earthquake things started to fall apart - kids' behaviour deteriorated, marriages broke up and there was an increase in fatigue and exhaustion and domestic violence."

The emotional effects of a disaster can cause as muchsuffering as the physical effects, New Zealand's chief science adviser, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, said in a briefing paper he wrote in 2011 on the psychological consequences of the Canterbury earthquakes.

He identifies four phases that follow a disaster (see panel opposite) and concludes that most people recover over time, but 5-10 per cent will need "significant ongoing psychological support".

The Canterbury Primary Principals' Association, of which all three principals are members, conducted a school survey in April, looking at pupil behaviour and staff stress. On the back of their findings, the 35 worst-affected schools were given intensive support.

NZEI is concerned that more needs to be done to ensure that children - identified by Professor Gluckman as a "vulnerable group" - are not at risk of long-term psychological damage. Educators need to be trained to support children and their health needs to be monitored so that interventions can be made as required, argues Mr Leckie.

Across Christchurch, the key to recovery is that people regain a sense of control over their lives, says Professor Gluckman.

"The earthquake was a disempowering event - an event that individuals had no control over - and that leaves them essentially with no control over how they live," he writes. "The need to regain some sense of control over one's life is central to the recovery process."

A lack of community participation in the recovery planning process is one set of circumstances which "might create heightened anger or other emotions", he continues.

"Disempowerment essentially reinforces the trauma," says Professor Gluckman.

One of the main complaints from principals and teachers about the government's plans for education in Christchurch is a lack of communication and consultation, leaving them feeling disempowered.


185 - Number of people who lost their lives in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake

7.9% - Proportion of New Zealanders who sustained serious damage to their homes after the Christchurch earthquake

4,500 - Number of pupils who left Christchurch and have not returned after the February 2011 earthquake

5% - Proportion of people likely to have significant ongoing psychological problems requiring professional help as a result of the Christchurch earthquakes

36 - Number of Christchurch schools earmarked for closure or merger

1,800 - Number of buildings in Christchurch's central business district which have been or are being demolished


Phases people go through in the wake of a disaster

Classically, four phases are described after a disaster:

1. An initial heroic phase, in which people help and don't count the "costs".

2. A honeymoon phase in which people see some help arriving and feel that the situation will improve.

3. A disillusionment phase in which people realise how long recovery will take and become angry and frustrated.

4. Finally, people return to a new equilibrium, but this is a long-term process with no clear endpoint in that things can never return exactly to how they were before the disaster, although people will find a "new normal".


It is impossible for an outsider to know what the residents are going through in Newtown, Connecticut - the town which two weeks ago today lost 20 children and six teachers in the deadliest primary school shooting in the US, says Gordon Jeyes, who was director of education at Stirling Council when Thomas Hamilton took the lives of 16 children and their class teacher at Dunblane Primary.

Like the survivors of a natural disaster, such as the Christchuch earthquake, they will be experiencing shock and grief.

But in the aftermath of this man-made tragedy, there will also be anger, albeit with no perpetrator at whom they can direct their rage, he says.

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old loner who committed the atrocity, took his own life, like Thomas Hamilton before him in 1996.

The parallels between the shootings in Newtown and Dunblane are disturbing, says Mr Jeyes, who left Stirling Council in 2005.

The children killed by Hamilton were in P1; Lanza killed 20 six-and seven- year-olds and six staff at Sandy Hooke Elementary.

Dunblane is a quiet and picturesque cathedral town; Newtown was described as "safe and lovely" by the mother of Dylan Hockley, one of the children killed in the tragedy, when the family moved there from England two years ago.

The main difference, says Mr Jeyes, is that in Dunblane there were survivors. He calls them "the forgotten children" - the other faces smiling out of the class photograph that became known across the world.

In the early days after the Dunblane shootings, the main priority was to prevent further deaths in the form of suicides and to keep communicating, says Mr Jeyes.

"Some of the key letters we wrote at the beginning missed some parents of the children who had been injured, which was unforgivable," he says.

In Dunblane, a new school could have been built on a different site, but the community didn't want it. Instead, the old school was redesigned and the gym hall where the children lost their lives was pulled down.

"The advice from psychologists and other experts was it had to stay up to allow parents to work through things, but the community and others wanted it down. Everybody who visited felt it was their right to make that decision, but at the end of the day the decision was mine in consultation with the community."

The attention from the outside world that such a tragedy brings is suffocating, even when it is well meant, says Mr Jeyes.

"It puts huge pressure on the town to have additional visitors. In Dunblane, it was Prime Minister John Major and Tony Blair, then the Queen. These are big events in their own right. As with any bereavement, it's about respecting privacy."

Another issue the community will have to grapple with is the gifts coming in.

"They will fall out about that if they are not careful," he warns. "Some will go to the town, some will go to the school, some go to parents or something set up by the local press. There will be discussion and there will be divisions of views."

Ultimately, there can be no returning to normal for communities that suffer tragedies like those visited upon Dunblane and Newtown, says Mr Jeyes.

"It's a new normal," he concludes.

Mr Jeyes is the first chief executive of the new Child and Family Support Agency in Ireland.

Original headline: First the earthquake, now a schools shake-up

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