Te Kura Hourua O Whangārei

Let’s not sacrifice charter schools for Māori to an ideological war

An education system must work for all. Let’s deal with the issues rather than wholesale abandon the Kura Hourua concept, argues Carrie Stoddart-Smith.

There is a saying that policy is a contact sport. Never has that been truer than when it comes to education. In particular, when it comes to feelings about Kura Hourua (charter schools) – one of those love ’em or hate ’em kaupapa. Proponents and opponents alike position a practical education alternative within an ideological bun fight: the notorious right versus the sanctimonious left, or something. But is it really as black and white as the politicians make out?

Yeah sure, Kura Hourua were the lovechild of a National-ACT union, but origins aside we need an education system that works for all, and one that addresses the generations-long education chasm between Māori and non-Māori. Not an ideological war over funding.

I’m no education expert but I do have a unique experience of this kaupapa. Mine is the lived human story behind the obscene statistics of Māori under-achievement and negative cognitive bias in mainstream education. It took a great deal of support and personal growth to get me from the intermittently NEET (Not in Employment Education or Training) school leaver back into study as an adult student, where it was being part of a rōpū of other Māori students and Māori lecturers that strengthened my confidence in my ability to succeed.

This is not an argument against state schools, unions, or teachers. And for the record, yes I agree there absolutely should be greater investment in state school infrastructure and workforce development to meet the needs of students and prepare them for their futures. However, I do have gripe with the insistence that there is only one way or the highway, and that is enough to warrant comment on the imminent exclusion of Kura Hourua from Aotearoa’s education system.

We don’t hear how Kura Hourua is an evolving model producing positive learning experiences for a large proportion of its Māori students. The successes are not publicly or non-partisanly celebrated – despite kura like Te Kāpehu Whetū in Whangārei, a partnership school that is showing great promise in improving the learning experiences and outcomes of its Māori students and achieving above the national Māori achievement standards across all NCEA levels. We don’t see the light shone on its Ako (teaching and learning) philosophy that replaces age as a marker of aptitude with project based and place based learning where students don’t view themselves a part of a production line.

A key part of its success, and the achievements of other Kura Hourua, is the culture of high expectation fostered in these alternative learning environments. This is in contrast to the negative cognitive bias against Māori and Pacific students in mainstream classrooms and the low expectations of them by their teachers. Research prepared for Treasury found that these low expectations affect both the results of students in priority learning groups, such as male, Māori, Pasifika or students with special education needs and the learning opportunities made available to them.

You might think that Te Kāpehu Whetū is an isolated case – but it is an example that demonstrates a major breakthrough in a very short time. Where is even one example of a state school that has produced that same kind of transformation for Māori under the same intense political and industry scrutiny?

It is true that the Kura Hourua model does not and will not work for all students, and there are valid concerns from the profession around transparency, funding allocation, teacher quality processes and student exclusions. These are not all unique to Kura Hourua, however. In fact the same argument could be made against public schools. So let’s deal with the issues rather than abandon the concept and its successful prototypes because state schools embody many of their own problems, with Māori students in particular carrying the weight of decades of institutional baggage. And, yes, it astounds me that a significant proportion of the education profession cling to publicly funded state schooling as the archetype for Māori educational salvation, even if it has disproportionately starved us of achievement.

We heard over the past week at Waitangi, as aggregated in Bryce Edwards political column, that Māori would disproportionately benefit from universalism’s invisible hand framed as an “actual by-product” of [insert non-targeted (universal) policy where Māori are disproportionately represented here]. Personally, I’m not sure if we should be offended or amused.

Universalism works in the right circumstances. For instance, the universal application of superannuation means all people over 65 can receive their entitlement regardless of their economic position. However, there are times where relativism is the tika approach.

Where disproportionality is the result of almost two centuries of colonisation and its intergenerational impacts, universalism is not the answer. Where marginalisation is the result of centuries of bigotry and ignorance, universalism is not the answer. Where the issue of sovereignty – the basis for an equal Treaty partnership – is absent from the conversation, universalism is not the answer. If we seek transformational outcomes in education, then sharing policy and pedagogical power is critical to the attainment of that goal.

Suffice to say, in the context of this revitalised universalism, the minister for education’s statement that the core mission for education in Aotearoa is a publicly-funded education system for all was, well, depressing.

Firstly, it is not a core mission. Free education at least in the elementary and fundamental stages is an international human right. As is the prior right of parents to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children. To restate a human right as an aspirational target is wholly non-progressive given this is what we should expect from successive governments in Aotearoa.

Secondly, the aspiration places funding at the centre of our frame rather than the student. In doing so, it scrubs the student and whānau voice from the picture and signals their views on their futures are not important. It tells students and their whānau, by way of action, that their futures are government choices and not their own.

You cannot treat organ failure with a sticky plaster, in the same way you cannot address educational achievement and the learning experiences of Māori without examining the system, developing a treatment plan and cauterising structural bias. Every student and their whānau – Māori or otherwise, should have trust and confidence in the learning institutions of their choosing.

We must accept that a publicly funded education system for all is not the same as an education system that works for all. The nuance matters. We need a diverse education system with all the component parts: Public, Private, Partnerships (Kura Hourua), Special Character and Kura Kaupapa Māori plus room for new models that do not exist yet.

As we grow as a nation, we can be innovative and resourceful about how we deliver education to achieve the outcomes we seek and to improve shortcomings and failures across the board. It is not enough to stamp out Kura Hourua citing “special character” already exists. If we could have gotten by with special character provisions alone, we would have. But we didn’t.

If we are honest with ourselves about our failed history of educating Māori and other priority learning groups, we wouldn’t be here uncritically claiming a universal (-istic) model of education for all students. We would be examining the special character provisions and pointing out that they allow the minister to misuse their power for ideological or political gain through being granted the absolute discretion to refuse to establish a designated character school.

The layers of bureaucracy and the way the interpretative licence given to the responsible minister creates uncertainty are major drawbacks for genuine entities wanting to establish partnership models. It is the autonomy to create alternative environments and freedom from an imposed curriculum that make Kura Hourua a practical alternative to special character schools.

And let me nip this in the bud before moving on – Kura Hourua for Māori are not the same as Kura Kaupapa Māori, whose principal language of learning is te reo Māori. Placing intergenerationally urbanised Māori, many with fragile or non-existent connections to their hapū and iwi, in immersion environments without the groundwork needed to succeed in that environment is setting the kura, the student and their whānau up for failure. I hope to see Kura Kaupapa Māori become the natural choice for Māori students and their whānau but there are major externalities to address before that can happen. Kura Hourua offer one of multiple buffers as we advance and expand our Māori immersion education models and capacity.

There is nothing except political will preventing a less drastic approach to concerns over Kura Hourua. An alternative might be a moratorium on establishing new Kura Hourua with a plan to develop a longitudinal picture of what does and does not work in our national context. We are in an ideal position to innovate how we get the most out of a diverse education system such as investigating the viability of co-locating models and partnering to share resources. This could spawn many mutual advantages for students, teachers and the wider community.

The extensive amount of dissent and support for Kura Hourua and non-mainstream models is an argument for retaining and enhancing a diverse systems model, to ensure an education system that is fit for purpose for all. If we get the frame right then we might actually make a meaningful difference. We can resist an either/or binary and accept we can do both. Because we must demand an education system that works for all students and their whānau, where student wellbeing and aspiration is at the core of that mission. If it’s not that, we’re doing it wrong.

Carrie Stoddart-Smith (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua) works in the Māori economic development space and has written extensively on Māori politics. She ran for the Māori Party in the electorate of Pakuranga in the 2017 general election.


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