Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Rural principal fights for wool carpets in schools

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A Waikato principal has found no joy in his efforts to get the Ministry of Education to rethink the use of synthetic carpets in Kiwi schools.
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A rural school principal says his attempts to negotiate with the Government over its decision to use synthetic carpets in schools have been completely ignored.

In July, the Ministry of Education announced it had contracted global manufacturer Milliken to supply and install nylon carpet tiles in up to 800 small and remote schools

Federated Farmers voiced its strong opposition, saying the decision to use synthetic instead of wool carpet was a slap in the face for Kiwi farmers.

Nick Jensen, principal of Kiwitahi School near Morrinsville, Waikato, also believes the Ministry should have picked a New Zealand-grown wool product. 

“As principals, it’s an absolute no-brainer to us that if you’re going to upgrade your carpeting, you’d try and support your own local, rural community. 

“It just seems another example of the disconnect between Wellington and the rest of rural New Zealand – they’re completely out of touch.”

Jensen, an executive member of the New Zealand Rural School Leadership Association, says he’s tried repeatedly to speak with the Ministry about whether there’s room to move on the decision. 

“When the story first broke, I think we had one Zoom meeting with the Ministry. Since then, I don’t know how many emails I’ve sent them, and there’s been no reply. Every time you try, you get nothing in response.

“We tried to negotiate with them and said, ‘Can rural schools accept some of the funding and then find a way to top up the difference to get the wool option?’ But it’s been absolute radio silence.” 

He says the Ministry finally sent a bulk email – in the form of its regular newsletter to small and rural schools – in early November. 

The email begins with ‘We’ve heard you’, followed by a smiley face emoji, and then provides a link to a ‘carpet facts sheet’ explaining the Ministry’s reasoning for choosing Milliken.  

“We have received some feedback over the last few months regarding the Ministry’s decision opting for nylon pile carpet over wool pile carpet,” the email reads. 

“Your opinions matter to us, and we want to make sure you have all the information you need to understand the reasons behind our decision.”

Jensen says the email is almost certainly a response to his many “annoying” emails. 

“Clearly, instead of responding to me directly, they’ve just sent a blanket answer: ‘We’ve listened but we’re not changing our mind’.

“What they’re saying is that if we decline their carpeting option and go with an alternative, the school must fund everything.” 

Toby Williams, Federated Farmers Meat & Wool chairperson, remains baffled by the Ministry’s decision and says it’s “completely tone deaf”. 

“To carpet New Zealand classrooms in a foreign-made synthetic product, rather than a locally sourced natural alternative, is an absolute kick in the face for Kiwi farmers, especially when sheep farmers have been battling low lamb and wool prices, and high input costs.”

He says the move runs contrary to the previous Government’s rhetoric about the need for greater sustainability. 

“One of the Labour Government’s big announcements was banning plastic bags, knives and forks, takeaway coffee cups and all those things. Well, surely removing plastics from our flooring is the next step forward in that sustainability process?

“We should be integrating more natural fibres and products into our homes, schools and buildings. They’re healthier, warmer and better for the environment.”

There are some things the Government should be looking to save money one, but this is not one of them, Williams says. 

“It would have been cheaper for New Zealand to keep using plastic bags, but we decided to ban them because it was the right thing to do. So, what’s the difference here?” 

Jensen agrees and says there’s a sad irony in the decision. 

“We talk so much to our students about making good sustainable choices for the environment, and supporting local, and we’re having those conversations with them while they’re sitting on synthetic carpet imported from overseas.” 

He says the Rural School Leadership Association has surveyed its members and 80% of principals say they want woollen carpets. 

Jensen says Kiwitahi School will most likely decline the Ministry’s carpeting offer. 

“We’ll look to put in our own woollen carpets. We won’t be able to do the school in one fell swoop – we can’t afford that. 

“If schools do pursue a woollen carpet option, we’ll need to fundraise our socks off.”

Williams says every political party at the Rural Leaders Debate in September said they supported wool carpet in schools – but their words don’t line up with their actions. 

“Our rural schools don’t want woolly statements of support with no follow-through – they want woolly carpets on their floors that are locally sourced, sustainable, and great for the kids.” 

Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.

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