Act adopts softly-softly approach over charter schools

With work now starting on the blueprint for the first batch of "charter" schools, the scene would seem to have been set for a real ding-dong battle as opponents try to mobilise the only weapon they have to halt or at least delay the concept becoming reality - public opinion.

The trial of two or more such schools - an Act-driven initiative which has National's tacit blessing - could herald the most significant change in the compulsory education sector since the Tomorrow's Schools reforms of the late 1980s and the introduction of NCEA a decade or so later.

The emphasis should be on "could".

The pilot schools are not expected to open until the first term of 2014.

That leaves about nine months before that year's general election - too short a period for any meaningful evaluation of the trial in lifting the educational achievements of the disadvantaged pupils the new schools will be targeting.

A re-elected National Government would therefore likely allow the trial to continue, opening the way to more such schools being established down the track.

A Labour-Greens government, however, would likely dump the project.

The stakes are therefore very high both for the teacher unions, who see the autonomy that charter schools will enjoy in terms of curriculum, classroom hours, term dates and paying teachers according to performance as the very thin end of a very thick wedge, and for Act, for whom charter schools are a "core" part of its ideology.

What has so far passed for debate has been conducted from those two political extremes. Unlike an issue such as paid parental leave, there seems to be little room or appetite for compromise.

The opponents of charter schools have already called in the heavy artillery in the form of a 101-page report produced by a clutch of Massey University education academics who have assessed the success or otherwise of charter schools overseas.

The report might have been a valuable contribution to the debate.

However, any claim to objectivity was undermined by the authors' obvious disdain for charter schools which many on the left see as both an abdication of the State's responsibility to provide adequate schooling and a sell-out to profit-driven corporates.

With John Banks on the other side of the argument in his role as Associate Education Minister, you might have expected a suitably withering response - something along the lines that the so-called "long tail of under-achievement" in traditional state schools is testimony to those schools failing to do the very job they were set up to do, i.e. provide an education that gives pupils from deprived areas the means to escape their backgrounds.

You would be wrong.

Mr Banks is avoiding giving oxygen to the likes of the Massey group and their pre-emptive strike on Act policy.

Sometimes the best way to disarm your critics is to agree with them - and then carry on with what you were doing regardless.

Such a softly-softly approach looks like being the modus operandi of Catherine Isaac, the former Act party president, wife of the Business Roundtable's Roger Kerr, who died last year, and now chair of the Government-appointed working group charged with designing the charter schools model.

Her hug-your-enemy strategy was much to the fore in her presentation on charter schools to Act's annual conference last weekend.

She talked of the working group being open and transparent. The teacher unions would have been invited to meet its members who would be consulting widely.

Ms Isaac, whose day job is in public relations, realises Act has nothing to gain from engaging in a slanging match with the education establishment - be it the unions, academia or the bureaucracy.

The working group, which is finalising its terms of reference, holds all the cards for now. However, the long-term durability of the policy hinges on the public buying into it in large numbers.

That is more likely if Ms Isaac and Mr Banks take the moral high ground and look inclusive, constructive and responsive to suggestions, rather than being wedded to fixed ideas.

To that end, Ms Isaac has acknowledged faults in some overseas models of charter schools, saying it is to New Zealand's advantage it can avoid making the same mistakes.

Above all, she has stressed charter schools are not a "silver bullet' in terms of remedying the educational under-achievement of all children from lower socio-economic areas.

What she hoped was that charter schools would make a positive difference for some disadvantaged children.

The New Zealand schools may well follow the American "Kipp" model (Knowledge is Power Programme) which sets strict criteria such as a longer school day, with pupils being expected to wear school uniform and do set homework supervised by parents.

Somewhat reluctantly, the Massey University report acknowledged pupils enrolled in Kipp schools tend to perform better than similar pupils in traditional state schools.

However, the report put this down to a high attrition rate among low-performing pupils and substantial extra funding of pupils.

The report concludes the "most generous" interpretation that can be put on results is that Kipp schools reduce the achievement "gap" but do not eliminate it.

For some advocates of charter schools, the Massey report's underlying political polemic must be extremely frustrating.

Ms Isaac's working group, however, held out the olive branch. It welcomed the report's release, pointing to areas of agreement, such as the need for charter schools to have fair enrolment policies so they do not cream off the best pupils from other schools.

Such placatory tactics may not persuade the 30% of respondents in a recent TVNZ poll who opposed charter schools to change their minds.

But being the epitome of reasonableness might tempt a chunk of the 36% who professed not to know what charter schools were to line up alongside the 22% who already back their introduction.

Swaying public opinion to the extent necessary for the concept of charter schools to survive a change of govern-ment is a very tall order, but not one which the Act pair will shy away from.

John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.


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