Charter school plans merit hearing

The Government's charter school proposals provide the chance to radically change the lives of many children for the good, writes Alwyn Poole.

The recently released charter schools proposal may be the most exciting idea for improvement for some groups in the New Zealand education system over the past 20 years. Parents and pupils ought not leave this to the unions, professional educators and politicians to fight over and water down. It is an opportunity to give genuine choice and bring parents far closer to the decisions that matter for the children that they know best.

I have been in education since 1991. I did a business degree, a teaching diploma, master's in education, and all that was talked about 20 years ago was the 20% achievement tail in New Zealand and how poor pupils, Maori pupils and Pacific Island pupils were over-represented in that group.

Since then - despite some genuine improvement in some areas and the best efforts of many sincere and dedicated people - we are still having the same discussions. The predominant view at the time was that the system was failing the pupils. If that is even partly true here is an opportunity to begin some changes.

Not only does New Zealand have an alarming educational tail but, as almost every teacher and parent will tell you, there is an ongoing "could do better" at all levels. A range of models can greatly aid that and any opportunity to improve things should be given a good hearing.

The Government made two mistakes with their policy release.

Firstly, stating target areas as Christchurch East and South Auckland because it created a negative connotation for those areas.

Secondly, calling them charter schools as it directed attention overseas rather than seeing opportunity here that may avoid many, if not all, of the pitfalls.

This is a remarkable new opportunity to build indigenous models that genuinely benefit children. Groups that before the election were crying out for alternatives and bemoaning the failing aspects of the New Zealand system are suddenly saying our education is world class and no change is needed.
The PPTA and NZEI are in default negative mode and are even avoiding the key point in the data they are quoting from overseas, and that is that the model is helping children in poverty.

It has been interesting for me to see so many groups go into this mode and throw out the "United States model", "Swedish model", "non-registered teachers" comments. In the past we have asked those groups to come in and see what we do at Mt Hobson Middle School.They never show up.

Further from the oft-misquoted Stanford report were these comments: "charter schools that are organised around a mission to teach the most economically disadvantaged students in particular seem to have developed expertise in serving these communities." And: "charter middle schools overall make significant gains in reading and maths. Those with students in poverty do even better."

Here is an intervention that a comprehensive study says aids children in poverty. But why do we not have traditional advocates for helping those in poverty not leaping in behind this? I see opportunity for many children and their families to benefit, and wonder if much of the opposition is about who announced the proposal rather than possibilities.

In 2003, I helped found a school in Newmarket, Auckland (Mt Hobson Middle School) that is a New Zealand model that we have "trialled" for the past nine years therefore does not depend on US data, etc.

We are non-profit; all our teachers are registered; we get (and welcome) ERO review; we deal with a range of pupils. We teach the New Zealand curriculum and we run at a per-pupil cost very close to state funding.

This model can well and truly be expanded into many areas, as a charter school, without adding to the Government's education costs.

We run a 12-1 pupil-teacher ratio - which greatly aids our ability to do the things that recent research highlights as being more important than small class size (e.g. quality of feedback) but are made much easier by having fewer pupils in front of the teachers. We split our day into a four-hour academic morning and in the afternoon do community service, community learning, sport, art and music. We run a project-based curriculum, which means the pupils get an hour each morning of independent study towards five weekly set assignments - it gives a context. We are very good at knowing every pupil and their families well.

We have had a massive number of educators come through and their acknowledgement of what we are achieving means a lot. The feedback from parents is also very positive.

We constantly test and adjust what we do according to the pupils in front of us, best theory and the local-national environment. We take all administration off staff so they prepare, teach, assess and report.

We are non-profit.

We deal with a genuine ability range with our pupils. Our results are nothing short of remarkable, with 95% of our pupils getting level 1 qualifications when they move on.

Many were not on that pathway when they came to us.

The way we operate cannot be replicated in the state system and simply giving more money won't change the structures. No-one has been prepared to even consider our pupil-teacher ratio, our day structure or our curriculum model in the state system. And yet these are the things that are helping the children who come to us.

There are probably several reasons why public schools are not able to follow these innovations.

Some are: inertia and risk - any change within the state system has the Ministry of Education, NZEI, PPTA, parents' organisations and public perception issues to get past.

And perceived and actual funding issues - state schools have funding formulas that have a ratio built in.

There is a limited flexibility in that.

We have long had the desire to place the schools into other areas and are helping a group begin a new middle school in Upper Hutt at the start of 2012. Under current funding models schools like ours need to be self-resourced and parents (who already pay taxes) need to pay significant fees and we have currently not got the resources to replicate the model elsewhere (we started this school through selling our family home). Clearly, the charter school proposal could change this. It will obviously not allow us to help every child who could benefit, but it may give us the opportunity to do a lot more.

Some of the opposition to this seems to be saying that if you can't help everybody then help nobody.

This is an opportunity to do something for many children in New Zealand that will fit their context and radically change their lives for the good. It is an opportunity that parents in every district in New Zealand should be excited about.

- Alwyn Poole is the academic manager at Mt Hobson Middle School, Auckland.


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