Close or be closed : to what extent can school closures and mergers be contested and negotiated? : Three New Zealand case studies : Masterton District Network Review 2003, Makoura College closure crisis 2008, Bush District Community Initiated Education Plan 2009 : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Education at Massey University, Palmerston North

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When faced with school closures and mergers stakeholders have a number of options: they can volunteer to close, they can seek a merger with a suitable partner, they can seek a stay of action by seeking more time, they can invest effort in negotiating an alternative outcome or they can resist closure by fighting to survive as a stand-alone school. Organised individual school and/or community protests are other options that may be used. This thesis explores the contestability of school closures and mergers in post Tomorrow’s Schools rural New Zealand contexts in both the primary and secondary sectors. The three case studies selected are the Masterton District Network Review 2003, the Makoura College closure decision 2008 and the Bush District Initiated Education Plan 2009. This thesis will show that the school closure/merger process can sometimes be successfully contested by politicised and determined educational communities. If and when the level of community concern reaches the level of community wide outrage, then politicians may decide to back down. In the Masterton District Review 2003 some schools were more successful than others in contesting mergers and closures. The reasons will be explored. Community resistance was crucial in overturning the Makoura College closure decision in 2008. The Community Initiated Education Plan policy trialled in the Bush District in 2009 resulted in a victory for the stakeholders throughout the region who actively contested the proposals and won. The research literature in New Zealand, and overseas, shows that school closures and mergers can be expected to cause significant community culture shock. Stakeholders discover that they have a deep emotional attachment to their schools. They usually close ranks as its guardians to defend the Taonga (cultural treasure) and social capital that their school represents. In this process distinct patterns of response emerge. Anger and grief are expressed in on-going outbursts of emotive language. Parents assert their ‘right’ to choose the most suitable school for their child conferred by Tomorrow’s Schools and demand clear and transparent communication from the Ministry of Education and to be fully consulted during the process. There is a clear pattern of communication breakdown between the Ministry and local stakeholders. This can be seen in community meetings, protest marches, petitions, contentious debates about transport issues, racism, white flight, demographics, economics, the virtues of smaller schools versus larger schools and the destruction of core communities. The conflict in values leads to community infighting and conflict between schools and with the Ministry and the Minister of Education. After school mergers, stakeholders face the often unwelcome task letting go of the past and engaging in the on-going challenge of creating a new culture where the unconscious taken for granted beliefs and values which had provided the cultural glue for the merging schools must be revisited until a new culture develops which is accepted by the new school community as appropriate to its needs. In the aftermath of school closures abandoned buildings, trapped in prolonged disposal processes, become environmental eyesores in their communities as they slowly succumb to vandalism and arson.
School closures, School mergers, Communities and schools, Masterton, Makoura College, Bush District, New Zealand schools, Education policy, New Zealand Ministry of Education