Jared Phillips, The Spark coordinating editor
“That a group of Girls’ High students researched the problem and approached the Ministry of Education last month, with a supporting submission from the city’s high school principals, not only shows great initiative but puts the best face to this issue. Some will quibble with the fact today’s march, which started at 9am, cut into valuable school time. The direct action to try and address an historic injustice is to be commended, though. They certainly have our attention” – Jeremy Muir, Editor, The Gisborne Herald.
On Wednesday April 13 up to 2000 high school students and their supporters (with some reports of more) made a Hikoi (demonstration march) through the main streets of Gisborne, a city on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island. They were raising a demand for free school busses for students who live in the Kaiti suburbs.
Kaiti comprises much of the eastern side of Gisborne and all four of the city’s high schools are located in the western side. When family budgets can’t meet travel costs, students from Kaiti have to walk up to 5 kilometres to get to school. This is often the case as the Kaiti suburbs constitute the majority of the poorer suburbs of Gisborne. The suburbs are literally on the other side of the bridge and populated predominantly by working class people including unemployed.
Protest organised primarily by school students
It was reported in a Gisborne Herald editorial (6/4/11) that the hikoi was initiated by Gisborne Girls High School students, in a Year 12 health class, who had carried out a research project which found that non-attendance amongst students who live in Kaiti grew in the period leading into winter because of transport issues. As well as affordability other issues were identified such as problems with minimal shelter at bus stops and bus overcrowding.
From there the Girls High students combined with students from Lytton and Boys’ High and won support for the protest from teachers and other adults. The students indicated that they were highlighting “a serious social justice issue” in Gisborne (Gisborne Herald, 6/4/11). Heather Gorrie, principal at Girls High School, said that the issue impacts on more than 700 students every year.
With a majority of the demonstration being comprised of school students, an estimated two thousand people attended. The Gisborne Herald (14/4/11) reported a turnout of more than two thousand and Newstalk ZB (13/4/11) reported one thousand.
No account of ability to pay
Income in Kaiti is well below national averages. The national median income in June 2010 was NZ$27,508 from people of all sources of income. At the same time the national median income for wage and salary earners was NZ$41,444 (Statistics New Zealand, Income Survey June 2010). The annual median income in Kaiti is just NZ$19,525 and in Outer Kaiti (which is furthest from the high schools) the median income is NZ$16,300 (The Gisborne Herald, 13/4/11).
Adding to that broad picture of inequality, families who live in the idyllic beachside suburbs of Makorori and Wainui - which are predominantly middle and upper class areas – can without cost send their children to the Gisborne high schools on busses that pass straight through Kaiti. The editor of The Gisborne Herald (6/4/11), wrote “Farcically, we have students from upmarket ‘rural’ Wainui riding free to school through low socio-economic Kaiti, where families pay $10 per week for each child to attend high-school by bus”.
The Wainui area, as well as the Makorori area is outside of the 4.8 kilometre range from Gisborne’s high schools, allowing school students in the area to be considered rural in accordance with the Ministry of Education’s criteria. Students who live within 4.8 kilometres of a secondary school also have fully subsidised transport. It is because the Kaiti students live in an urban area outside of a 4.8 kilometre radius that their parents and caregivers are required to pay $1 per child for each trip to and from school.
The action and the government response
The hikoi started at 9am at Waikirikiri primary school in Outer Kaiti and went on to Te Wharau primary school. At both schools there was strong support given from teachers and parents, as it is their children who will soon be amongst the more than 700 pupils affected by the issue each year.
On occasion the march brought traffic to a stop. A small group from the march attended a meeting at the offices of the Gisborne City Council. One councillor asked them why they didn’t bike to school like when he was a child and they responded that bikes were often too expensive and traffic has changed and there are more people getting hurt on bikes (biking to school has actually become a thing of the past, the bike sheds at many schools have been taken down for some years).
The marchers shouted various chants including ‘Free Busses – Up Attendance!’ and ended the protest at Girls’ High at around 12 noon.
The Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, who is also National’s MP for Gisborne is refusing to make an exemption to the 4.8 kilometre rule for the Kaiti students. Local people argue that there should be an exemption because Gisborne is the only city in which all of the high schools are located on one side of the city. Tolley resorted to snide comments and rejected the link between bad weather and truancy, noting that rain and the distance between Kaiti and the high schools had been present for decades. In other words she doesn’t accept a historic injustice, one that has been present for thirty years, and seeks to maintain the status quo whereby the poor have to walk long distances in bad weather to get to school.
Tolley said that “There is no equity issue other than distance”. School students, teachers, principals, parents and mainstream news editors think different. The whole issue highlights not only inequality, but the deceptiveness of the type of democracy we live in; a broad community wants something to change but the government tries to ignore the community and ridicule it. Now it’s up to the students, parents, and anyone who supports local democracy to escalate the issue.