By: Brittany Keogh
An Auckland school’s wait for a new multi-million dollar science and technology block has dragged on for nearly a decade, allegedly due to a standoff with bureaucrats about the building’s design.
And the stoush appears to be an example of a wider problem where schools desperately in need of new facilities butt heads with Ministry of Education officials over “flexible learning spaces”, also known as “modern learning environments”.
The Ministry says the structures, which are basically large, open-plan classrooms, can be set up in a variety of ways. But at many schools two or more class “groups” and teachers work collaboratively in the spaces at one time.
The Herald on Sunday understands the Ministry has been pushing for Macleans College to replace its current leaky science building with a flexible learning space since being notified in 2010 of watertightness issues.
However, the school wants to build single-cell classrooms, which it says would better suit the needs of its staff and students.
Meanwhile, the education sector remains divided about the benefits and drawbacks of flexible learning spaces.
The Ministry and some academics argue the designs maximise collaboration between teachers and encourage student-directed learning.
However, at its annual conference in October the Post Primary Teachers Association called for the Ministry to conduct further research about the impact they had on student achievement, among other things.
Macleans College is standing firm in its position that specialist teachers work best in classrooms dedicated to a single class, principal Steven Hargreaves said.
“Consider technology being taught in wide open spaces where one group might be doing something more theoretical and one’s doing something with machinery. It’d be difficult to make that work in a way that’s good for students.”
Negotiations between the two parties about the shape the new building would take had moved “at a glacial pace”.
“The issue is we are probably still years away. Obviously it’s got to go through council consent and all those processes as well.”
Money set aside for the rebuild was being “frittered away” on the redesign and review process, Hargreaves told the Herald on Sunday.
“This isn’t unique to us. This is every building that the ministry completes is subject to these same ridiculous, bureaucratic processes.”
Kim Shannon, the Ministry of Education’s head of education infrastructure, said the science block was part of a bigger development at the school, costing $38.6 million.
It was expected to be completed in December 2020, with minor repairs and maintenance work being finished by 2022.
Shannon said the ministry considered schools’ teaching practices and students’ needs when planning new facilities.
“We encourage schools to consider the use of flexible spaces as they support a diverse range of learning activities and can easily be re purposed as educational needs change and visions evolve over time.”
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the Ministry wouldn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom design under his leadership.
“In future, the Ministry will continue to work with schools on a case by case basis to come up with the most suitable learning environments.”
However, Secondary Principals Council chairman James Morris said while ministry officials had told him several times they wouldn’t force schools to adopt flexible learning environments, some principals had spoken about feeling pressured to.
Mark Wilson, principal of Cashmere High School, told the Herald on Sunday his school and others in Christchurch that were part of the earthquake rebuild project had some “challenging experiences” with the Ministry.
He had favoured designs that blended the benefits of flexible learning spaces with traditional single-cell classrooms and it was only after a meeting with then-Education Minister Hekia Parata that the ministry agreed to sign these off.
Wilson said although Parata assured him schools could determine their own property needs and pedagogical direction “there are still some people in education who believe there seems to be overt pressure being put on schools to adopt a modern learning environment approach”.
Source: NZ Herald