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Charter schools: the case for

New Zealand charter schools are achieving extraordinary things despite their tiny scale, says Alwyn Poole, academic manager at Mt Hobson Middle School. The main challenge is that opposition to the sector and governmental indifference is stalling growth just as it’s gaining traction. 

Further reading – Charter schools: the case against from the NZEI

If education in New Zealand was a garden you would be highly concerned about the productivity of the soil, the growing conditions, and the nature and nutritional value of the crops.

Some examples:

National Standards: Under former education minister Hekia Parata a national goal was set to have 85% of NZ Year 1 – 8 students “at or above” national standards for reading, writing and maths. As at 2015, they were all below 80% (and as of writing closer to 70%) with Māori and Pasifika 15% behind European students. The rate for writing for those two groups sits just on 60% of the “at or above” standard. Where are we now? The 85% goals have recently been dropped. The reading goal has gone completely and the maths and writing versions are now 80%.

International comparisons: In maths, reading, science, New Zealand’s performance has declined over the last 20 years in international surveys PISA and TIMMS (in which we are the worst English speaking nation).

NCEA: The government has made much of NCEA Level 2 reaching 85% pass rates. Astute media have dug a bit deeper and found that students are being eliminated out of courses and many Level 2 pathways dead-end and leave students stranded. It appears that this 85% goal has now been quietly dropped too. At UE – arguably a more significant cycle breaker – there was no goal. The 2016 outcomes there have Asian students at 66.5% pass, European students at 57.8%, Māori at 31.4% and Pasifika at 30.7%. These differences are so vast that some educationalists have reverted to pre-1960s thinking and started to talk about “appropriate pathways” for groups – a superb example of the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

Willie Jackson is an intelligent and passionate man. He has had a look at the education garden and worked out where he can make a difference: getting involved in one of 10 currently operating partnership/charter schools in New Zealand (out of 2600 schools total). According to NZEI spokesperson Laures Park on Waatea news last week, “Charter Schools are a reality now… we can’t shut them down now they are going.” Several others of various political stripes made similar statements to the effect that those which are working should be allowed to continue.

The Villa Education Trust operates two of the 10 schools: South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland. What we have achieved is significant.

South Auckland Middle School (SAMS) began in 2014 with only a four month lead-in and $1.1 million to cover all establishment costs. A comparative state school startup would have been approximately $27 million and an 18 month staffed lead-in. SAMS has flown since day one and currently has 180 students and approximately 70 on wait-lists. We teach the New Zealand curriculum, have had a very stable student body with minimum transience, and in 2016 showed an 18% improvement for our Year 7 and 8 students in their national standards, in contrast to the national pattern. At SAMS, 93% of our students are Māori or Pasifika. It received its 1% retention payments (Labour education spokesperson Chris Hipkins calls them bonuses) for 2014 and 2015.

Middle School West Auckland (MSWA) began in 2015. Again after being given only four months lead-in and, somehow, less money for establishment – despite the original maximum roll being listed at twice that of SAMS. Two state schools establishing through the same period, also for Year 7 – 10, were Rototuna (Hamilton), costing approximately $40m, and Ormiston Junior High, costing approximately $91m (currently listed as having 150 students).

The first year at MSWA was more difficult than SAMS and we have recently been told MSWA will not get the 1% for 2015. We accept that but making the decision 18 months late clearly has a limited effect. In 2016 we got things right at MSWA in terms of staffing and facilities and have begun 2017 with a great team, a stable 200-strong student cohort and significant progress happening. Of the students at MSWA, 88% are Māori or Pasifika. In 2017 we anticipate that same improvement pattern we saw for SAMS.

What does the policy allow us to do differently? One of the current myths is that these schools could simply have been “special character” schools. We had asked to have a “special character” school way back in the early 2000s when Labour was in government and were given the bum’s rush. So instead we set up our private school in Newmarket (Mt Hobson Middle School) and waited and hoped for a wider opportunity to work with New Zealand children.

The key elements of the Partnership Schools policy introduced in 2011 are:

– Minimal start-up assistance. In fact, it has been so reduced since the policy’s establishment that we have chosen not to apply in rounds three to five, and understand other organisations are in the same position.

– Per student funding that is comparable to decile one state schools of a similar size for SAMS, and decile three of a similar size for MSWA.

– We get the funding in bulk and are trusted to use that bulk funding to make good choices for the students, families and staff and generate improved outcomes. The teacher unions have refused to allow the government to bring in bulk funding for state schools so their principals do not have the same level of choice and ability to innovate.

– We have 15 students per class and 60 per “Villa” (mini-school within a school). We run a very hard-working academic morning and an effective arts and activities-based afternoon. Our school leaders have a teaching role. We frame our curriculum with set cross-curricula projects that the children have an hour a day to work on and hand in every five weeks – developing superb output skills along the way. We provide all uniform, stationery and IT. We pay our staff salaries at least 5% above state levels, provide other benefits for them and pay them directly for the development of some resources.

– It’s working. In three and a half years our two partnership schools have a combined roll of approximately 400 students. A reasonable state comparison would be the two Hobsonville Point schools that were established on a $114 million budget in 2014 and have just over 700 students between them. On a cost to taxpayer basis we are doing very well. Our organisation is a charitable trust.

– Students are coming to us with huge need. In 2017 as few as 23% of our Year 7 entrants were “at or above” National Standards for reading, writing and maths.

There is a lot of work to do with these children over the four years they will spend with us – but we are confident we’ll bring about significant change.

Students at South Auckland Middle School (image: supplied)

The recent media debate has been about whether the schools should stay open or not if there is a change of government. The best the opposition seems to have come up with in terms of education is “do-aways”: at various times they have promised to do away with National Standards and do away with charter schools. However recently it has begun grudgingly conceding that good things are happening in these schools and that the New Zealand education system is actually in a perilous state overall – making change, innovation and diversity of provision important

The smart play is to look to enhance and improve the policy; people like Peeni Henare, Kelvin Davis, Willie Jackson and the two current Māori Party MPs could be key to this. Reuben Wharawhara of He Puna Marama Trust, the Whangarei partnership school provider, recently told Waatea News the partnership schools policy is “one of the best things that have ever happened to [Māori].”

Unfortunately progress is stalling. From 2011 to 2014 nine partnership schools were authorised and eight of those are functioning well; the ninth, the failed Whangaruru school, should never have been authorised in the first place. Under education undersecretary David Seymour, only two have been authorised and established so far. The funding for establishment has been reduced to a negligible amount, and thus the interest in the model and enhanced risks of failure for newly establishing schools.

The failure to agree terms with John Tamihere’s Waipareira Trust was also a poor moment. The release of the second Martin Jenkins evaluation (five months late) made public that we have laid six formal disputes with the Ministry to try and improve the policy (for some reason David Seymour only acknowledged one of those when queried by Lisa Owen on The Nation in July 2016).

Early during Mr Seymour’s term we tried to communicate the need for policy improvement but received two direct phone calls from him asking us not to put our concerns on email as they are “discoverable”. Maybe education is just not his thing and he feels slightly lumped with it through the 2011 coalition agreement. If so it should be handed onto someone who would truly see educational improvement for priority learners as a passion project – and has the ability to understand these families, be publicly transparent and listen well to the providers. We heard virtually nothing from Hekia Parata’s office during her time as Minister of Education except to be told that we cannot be a part of Communities of Learning. We have some hope that Nikki Kaye will take a different approach.

We don’t care what the schools are called (if Labour were in government they could be called Hipkinsonian Schools or Little’s Little Schools for all we care) but the mechanism of private niche organisations being able to provide differentiated, innovative and effective education for priority learners should remain and be enhanced. Not only that but, as the Martin Jenkins report shows, there should be clear and supported pathways for growth and development and much-improved administrative processes and performance management through the Ministry.

People often ask us if the occasional public negativity of the government’s social and political opponents has an impact on us. In terms of those who talk about us and not to us – to quote Roger Waters, we have become “comfortably numb”. So the answer is no effect whatsoever. Our clear and privileged focus is on providing an extraordinary education for the children and families we work with. We have a highly qualified, registered and passionate staff doing just that. By far the bigger impact on us is the need for the policy, and administration of it, to be improved to allow us to do our job even better.

Education is about change and all schools are funded to bring about change despite the circumstances. External social inequality is not an excuse for a school to fail to bring about progress for their students. Out in South Auckland we are proud to be near Manurewa Intermediate who are also doing exactly that – and being recognised for doing so.

Of most education interest in the election year should not be whether or not 10 charter schools will continue to exist beyond this year, but what superb, educationally sound, responsive policies and practices can the parties bring to the table to really get the garden producing for children through all 2600 schools. One of those policies should be how each party would look to significantly enhance the model currently called Partnership Schools.

Further reading – Charter schools: the case against from the NZEI


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