The school I work in is, quite literally, falling apart. Our roofs leak and will cost many millions to repair. Timber is rotting and various types of mould spread their spores through the air. Recently we have had to close ten teaching spaces because they are considered unsafe for human habitation. Next term we’ll have to roster home senior students because we no longer have adequate spaces in which to keep them dry and warm, let alone focused on their learning. Last year we spent close to one and a half million dollars maintaining the government-owned buildings we inhabit. Our maintenance budget, provided by this same landlord, was $200,000. Our school is not unusual. The national stock of school buildings is ageing and inadequately maintained, and what money is available for new builds is diverted always to the latest crisis. Those responsible for prioritising the spend are, just like individual schools, constrained by laughable budgets. As a result, they are forced to concentrate not on long-term planning and investment, but rather on the triage that funding shortfalls demand. People with serious needs feels overlooked and undervalued. Good people become frustrated with one another. They wonder why on earth money isn’t being spent on prevention, and instead we are forced to concentrate on the far more expensive option of crisis mitigation. And although I write this about schools, those working at the frontline of our health system would doubtless recognise the tale, as would those working in justice, or local government infrastructure, or social welfare. We are underfunding the provision of the collective social services that allow us to consider ourselves a civilised nation, and we have been for some time.
I remember years ago cycle-touring through Europe and being delighted at the way small towns and cities would appear on the horizon, first would come the spire of an ancient church or cathedral, speaking eloquently of the values of a time long gone. Today the modern city is dominated by the vertical builds of banks and insurance companies; only the sports stadia compete when it comes to grandeur. This too speaks of its time. There is a wonderful line in The West Wing (one of very many) when Sam Seaborn says:
Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defence.
For the record, I’d be okay without palaces, but dry and safe would be nice. We do something awfully special with education in New Zealand. We provide quality and mostly free education to whoever walks in the door. You don’t need to go to a private school in this country to get a good education, our state schools can more than match our laissez faire counterparts. We offer places of safety, where kids can count on being noticed and attended to, where they can feel liked and believed in. We do our damndest to undo the tangled damage of social inequity and miraculously, we sometimes succeed. We give our kids a place to stand in the world, a sense of who they are, where they’re from and where we’re going together. We reinforce the values upon which our communities rely for their coherence. But somewhere along the way, our governments decided it was desirable to do this on the cheap.
We’ve been governed by frightened politicians for decades now, terrified that significant public investment would earn them the ire of the powerful and the wealthy. We have, as a society, become more individualist and mean-spirited and have voted accordingly. Underinvestment doesn’t show its evils all at once. It’s a slow burning process of undermining, hidden sometimes for decades by heroic efforts to patch and seal. But we’re starting now to see what happens when we do not plan for our future, when we do not possess the collective courage and generosity to accept that the values we hold most dear will be the dearest to maintain.
Until we do, I’ll be teaching some of my students remotely. We should all be ashamed it’s come to this.