Property can sound like a dull topic, but New Zealand’s Fifth National Government (which has been in power with the support of coalition partners for nine years) has brought property to the fore. Around the country is growing evidence of its policy commitment to ensuring all New Zealand schools conform to a ‘modern learning environment’ standard by 2021. With an election looming on 23rd September, I am surprised that I have not heard any of the political parties mentioning rebuilds, retrofits or new builds, though yesterday, the Prime Minister announced a major investment for Whangarei Boys’ High School, while on the campaign trail.
An academic article I wrote to review the current government education property policy was recently published in the Waikato Journal of Education, and is free, open access. To get the flavour of that article, here is a brief critical summing-up.
State-of-the-art, modern school buildings are the outward embodiment of current state education policies that seek to develop digitally-connected lifelong learners for the 21st century global knowledge economy, while relentlessly focussing on raising student achievement. Flexible learning environments have become ideal vehicle to encourage the required changes to teaching and learning that will support these ends. The developing imaginary of the teacher of the 21st century, and the creation of flexible learning spaces designed to develop and enhance changes to teaching and learning is not up for debate and discussion, and 2021 is the target year for every state school in New Zealand to have modern learning environments. The Ministry of Education presents as unproblematic the nature of these facilities, and the practices envisaged within, while the single cell classroom is an object of scorn.
The Private Public Partnership concept, increasingly deployed by the government to fund the building of new schools, is contested. PPPs raise questions around whether turning a profit from education is appropriate, and whether the education profession has its professional autonomy undermined by limitations on design input or occupancy use.
The Christchurch earthquakes enabled the rapid acceleration of the government’s property strategy, but the negative response of some communities to the Shaping Education strategy has included resistance at having flexible spaces, and the underlying changes to teaching styles, foisted upon them.
The current government, and its state apparatus, the Ministry of Education, link flexible buildings, pedagogy and learning for the 21st century in a deterministic, linear fashion. Nevertheless, it is now wishful thinking on the part of any teacher, school leader or parent to imagine that they may somehow avoid having to experience a flexible learning space as long as they are in, or associated with, a New Zealand state school. The school building programme that reinforces this situation may be one of the enduring legacies of the Fifth National Government.