Centre for Effective Learning Environments (CELE)

The impact of the Canterbury (New Zealand) earthquake on schools


By Brian Mitchell, Ministry of Education, New Zealand


Over the last 30 years New Zealand has invested in improving the earthquake safety of existing school buildings. An evaluation of damage subsequent to the earthquake that hit the Canterbury region suggests that the seismic strengthening of schools has been successful.


On 4 September the Canterbury region was struck by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.[1] This was the largest earthquake to affect an urban area in New Zealand since Napier earthquake of 1931. Though the quake caused widespread damage and power cuts in the Christchurch urban area, there were no fatalities.[2]



The impact on school property


Within the Canterbury region there are 179 state schools, 33 state integrated schools and 11 independent (private) schools. The Ministry of Education is responsible for the property of state schools only. Over the last 30 years, the Ministry has invested in improving the earthquake safety of state schools, particularly those of masonry construction. The Canterbury earthquake was the first time that school buildings had tested the:

  • structural strengthening standards (post 1931)
  • results of the dedicated seismic performance improvement programme.








Immediate hazards



Potential structural issues



Superficial damage



No damage



Total state schools




An evaluation of the damage shows that the stock of state school buildings had performed well. Only one state school suffered severe damage, though this was primarily due to liquefaction of the underlying site.  The damage to the remaining 178 state schools was relatively modest. Initial estimates placed the damage at AUD 14 million but this will be subject to regular review as the remedial work programme progresses.

Clearly, the seismic strengthening of schools has been successful. Several large schools (circa 1930-50) of masonry construction suffered minimal - if any - damage compared with unstrengthened private and public buildings of the same era that either suffered major damage or collapsed.


The response


The first priority after the earthquake was to ensure that all schools were safe prior to reopening. Parents, students and communities were informed that all schools would remain closed for the first week while all potential damage was assessed.


The Ministry of Education co-ordinated the process of assessing all state schools and identifying what property work if any, was required to enable them to safely reopen. Any significant damage identified (or suspected) resulted in the building or area being cordoned off for further inspection over the following few weeks.


Despite a significant aftershock (magnitude 5.1) the week after the main earthquake, the inspections and any emergency work were largely completed within one week; 100% of schools were operating classes either on-site or in alternative accommodation.


Recovery and reconstruction


Work is currently underway to develop and deliver the programme of remedial work. This programme will be directly managed by the Ministry of Education and not by schools themselves so as to ensure the earliest completion date. A panel of professional project managers has been assembled to re-inspect in detail all schools with reported damage.


The intention is to develop, within the next few weeks, a phased programme of work that can be largely completed prior to the start of the  2011 school year in February. Current information indicates that the majority of the work is likely to be attending to superficial damage rather than general building replacement or structural repairs.


Superficial damage includes:

  • cracks to buildings
  • shifting of buildings
  • damage to wall linings & cladding
  • cracks to concrete & paved areas
  • damage to building features such as boilers and chimneys


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Canterbury_earthquake
  2. The population of Christchurch city is around 365 000 people.

For more information, contact:
Brian Mitchell
Acting Regional Property Manager
Ministry of Education
Eden 5 Building
12-18 Normanby Road
New Zealand



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