Wednesday, July 6, 2011

School closures - what happens next

Recent attempts by the Minister, government and department to close 20 schools have revealed much. The following are just some possible lessons:

Closing a school is not something that can be done one the basis of numbers. It is a complex and uncertain task with broad ramifications

Parents and communities place a very high value on the current well-being and long-term success of their children.

When it comes to success and well-being, parents and communities are confident about their local schools. Their confidence in the Minister, government and department has been severely undermined.

And so on…

School closures failed this time for two reasons: they were based on a very narrow discourse; and they were set up as win-lose and would have resulted in a net loss. The losses to the students, their families and community would have been far greater than the modest financial gains to the government.

The next step is for the lessons to be learned. This means taking advantage of the current situation to learn as much as possible and develop a new sustainable dialogue around all schools: what they are for and how to manage their futures.

The important conversation we need to have is not just between some schools and the government. The fundamental "fight" is about how we as a state understand, talk about, utilise and value our schools and their futures: what they are; what they do; how they make things possible.... And this involves all schools, communities, governments, departments...
The conversation really counts. And it needs to be ongoing, not just when there is an urgent need for the government to reduce spending. The conversation should include the full range of direct and indirect costs, benefits, values, relationships and possibilities associated with schools.

And these are best captured as stories of real people in real contexts as schools have demonstrated. This is what schools have all been gathering and sharing in recent weeks. And it worked so well.

Schools should look after their stories well. There will come a time when they will be needed again... not only for the sake of the school, but also to help the decision makers make better decisions next time. Hopefully the proposed Reference Group will be wise enough to tap into this goldmine before it dissipates. Governments world-wide are having to reducing spending and this will continue.

I hope The Minister gets full credit for correcting the mistake. Clearly he acted on poor advice from others who should have known better - they are the ones who need the stories most.

To be successful the conversation needs to be open, rich and interactive... not constraints by a narrow set of terms of reference with a particular outcome in mind. It needs to lead to innovation and overall win-win outcomes which may or may not result in some actual closures!!

The schools have demonstrated that this can be done. Facebook played a key role. There are tools for enabling even more focused and productive outcomes. Now it is time for the Minister, government and department to catch up.

Perhaps the critical next step is to make the Reference Group about School Futures (not just school closures).

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