The Green School New Zealand. (Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin)

Green education means more than just private schools for rich hippies

The problem with the Taranaki Green School isn’t just that’s an expensive private institution, says Laura Rapira O’Connell. It’s that funding it does little to address the environmental challenges faced by ordinary New Zealanders and their children.

James Shaw came under fire last week for approving an $11.7m government grant to a private ‘Green School’ in Taranaki. The school is part of a network that was started by rich white people in Bali looking for somewhere to send their kids. The schools pride themselves on being “progressive” and “holistic” and can cost a casual $43,000 a year to attend.

At the Balinese school, the buildings look like a scene from Neverland in the 1991 movie Hook. Lunch is cooked with sawdust fuel from a local bamboo farm and served in straw baskets with compostable banana-leaf lining. Students travel to and from school in bio-fuel buses, power is almost 100% renewable and students are introduced to economics by learning to raise chickens and selling eggs. There is an aquaponics facility, a permaculture farm and a closed waste management system.

It’s rich hippy heaven that verges into green colonisation when you consider local workers on the minimum wage will earn NZ$3,000 per year while wealthy visitors pay six times that for the annual tuition fee.

Don’t get me wrong, there is immense value in innovative environmental education, but having access to it should not be determined by whether or not you are rich.

The Green School near Ubud, Bali, in 2009(Photo: SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP via Getty Images)

Here in Aotearoa, one of the controversies surrounding the Green School grant is that it comes up against the Green Party’s education policy to defund private schools in favour of public education. Technically speaking, the grant is for construction, not operations, and therefore doesn’t contravene the policy. However, the optics of a Green Party minister approving a sizeable grant for a private school’s benefit are not in the Greens favour.

The situation could have been avoided had ministers chosen to give Green School Taranaki a loan and not a grant. With tuition fees for international students at $43,000 per year, 100 students could pay up to $4.3m annually, a slice of which could easily be carved out to pay back the public.

While not a lot of money when it comes to overall government spending, the 11.7m grant is particularly jarring when you consider the Crown’s reconciliation package for their atrocities at Parihaka (just 25 minutes drive from the Green School in Ōakura) was just $9m.

On Saturday night, James Shaw apologised to Green Party members for his decision after receiving a flood of criticism, including from former Green MPs. He had signed off the funding in his capacity as climate minister without the knowledge of other Green Party MPs, including co-leader Marama Davidson. That’s because all budget decisions are required to be kept under wraps from everyone but government ministers until they are announced. It’s a flawed system that doesn’t allow for checks and balance, the failings of which we’ve seen play out this past week.

It’s likely that in Shaw’s mind he thought he was getting a much-needed “win” for the planet. And, let’s be real, the planet needs wins when you consider that Boris Johnson has done more for the climate than Jacinda Ardern. But it’s hard to get environmental wins in a government that is all about “shovel-ready” jobs with no discernable strategy as to how those jobs build a healthy and prosperous future.

As someone of Te Ātiawa and Ngāruahine descent who feels a mixture of distress and fury every time I return to Taranaki and see what dairy and oil corporations have done to our ancestral land, I understand Shaw’s desire to help the region transition to a green economy. Two hundred new climate-friendly jobs is a good thing, especially in a region that has been plagued by corporations punching holes in the land and seabed for decades to extract oil, gas, metal, and minerals.

Mount Taranaki from above. What once was forest is now farmland. (Photo: Axelspace Corporation / CC BY-SA 4.0)

But we need to think and act bigger than bourgeois sustainability education for the rich. All public schools could be retrofitted to be energy efficient with large-scale composting, rainwater collection and greywater systems. This would create jobs and help guarantee water security in an increasingly drought-stricken New Zealand. In Tāmaki Makaurau where dams continue to sit at dangerously low water levels, there could be government support available for families to set up rainwater collection at home with a particular focus on helping low-income whānau.

The government could be decarbonising our economy and creating thousands of jobs by supporting farmers to transition to regenerative agriculture and funding the replanting of streams, wetlands and marginal land. The Raukūmara Pae Maunga project is a conservation partnership between the Crown, Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-a-Apanui. It creates jobs, restores the forest and absorbs carbon – more Treaty-based projects like this could be rolled out across the country.

The lowest carbon jobs of all – caregiving, support work, nursing, teaching, childcare – are also some of the lowest paid. If the next government is serious about moving us towards a low-carbon economy with dignified jobs then it needs to support and incentivise people with better pay, better conditions and guaranteed lifelong access to re-training and education.

The Green School philosophy is that it’s all about dreaming big, living sustainably, working with the community and innovating to make positive change for people and the planet. In my view, our government could do with more rigorously embracing this philosophy too.




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