Venturing into un’charter’ed territory

December 2013


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The opposition to charter schools intensifies with the announcement of the first five partnership schools in New Zealand. JUDE BARBACK weighs up the arguments as the new schools prepare to open their doors.

The announcement of the first five partnership schools in October was met with both groans and cheers – depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting.

Charter schools have certainly divided a nation during their contentious path to inception. Broadly speaking, supporters are in favour of trialling an alternative approach to help address the languishing problem of underachievement, largely concerning those students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Meanwhile, opponents see the scheme as a risky experiment and a threat to public education.

Like it or not, Kura Hourua O Whangarei Terenga Paraoa, The Rise UP Academy, South Auckland Middle School, Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru, and Vanguard Military School are set to open their doors next year to a new era of education for New Zealand.

International evidence – a duplicitous thing

Much of the criticism directed at the partnership schools programme stems from other countries’ experiences with similar models.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries have forged ahead with their respective versions of charter schools, with mixed results.

Partnership schools, charter schools, free schools – call them what you like, whichever corner of the globe they can be found, they are all shrouded in controversy.

Opponents here have clung to opponents elsewhere – the PPTA’s courting of Karen Harper Royal a good example – and pounced on the failures in an attempt to bring New Zealand’s scheme to its knees. A common criticism, particularly of the US charter school system, is that selective retention, whereby students are cherry-picked to ensure those most likely to succeed are educated, while those that don’t maintain grades are quickly weeded out. At the PPTA’s annual conference in October, executive member, Austen Pageau, spoke of a Washington DC charter school having an expulsion rate 28 times as high as local public schools. He also suggested corruption was rife and gave the example of one American principal paying himself a salary of $5 million.

Further condemnation of charter schools was found in a recent UK report, which described a free school in Derby as being “in chaos” and “dysfunctional”. British politicians have received similar criticism to that faced by ours, the British shadow education secretary describing the British Free School programme – similar to New Zealand’s partnership school programme – as “a dangerous free-for-all: an out of control ideological experiment”.

The international evidence and anecdotes can certainly be alarming, but similarly, partnership schools proponents here have found allies abroad. Catherine Isaac, chair of the Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua Working Group points out that the Stanford University CREDO study that is regularly quoted by partnership school sceptics also shows that American charter schools deliver better results for students from low income households nationwide. There is apparently evidence from Sweden that shows that achievement is higher in districts with more free schools. A similar story has emerged from Alberta in Canada.

While the negative international evidence is touted regularly, there is no shortage of the positive stories as well, leaving us to ponder who is right. In any case, should we really be paying so much attention to what is happening in other countries? The Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua model is different to comparable systems overseas, and our education system is different. It seems the apparent successes or failures in other countries are not indicative for whether partnership schools will thrive or dive here, so why the constant need for affirmation from abroad?

Ingenious solution?

But without drawing on international evidence, what else do we have to go on in these early stages?

While the Government has certainly not been forthcoming with the word ‘experiment’ – favouring ‘small pilot’ instead – this is essentially what the partnership schools initiative is: an attempt at something new to address the old chestnut of underachievement.

It has often been reported that our education system is not working for a proportion of Kiwi students. We are all familiar with New Zealand’s “long tail of underachievement” by now, and the Ministry of Education sees partnership schools as a potential solution to this problem.

While Isaac says it is “not a silver bullet”, she believes the scheme is worth trying.

“No one can reasonably argue that the current rate of educational underachievement in New Zealand is acceptable or that some new approaches to the problem aren’t worth considering”.

She cites the 31 per cent of young New Zealanders, including 52 per cent of Māori and 41 per cent of Pasifika students who currently leave school without achieving NCEA Level 2, which is considered the gateway to the workforce and further study. She also cites the PISA results, which, when broken down, show New Zealand European students ranking second in the world and New Zealand Māori students ranking 33rd.

… Or mad experiment?

However, opponents have described this “different approach” as an “irresponsible experiment”.

“Surely, Catherine Isaac can come up with a better reason for going down this dangerous track than her often repeated mantra that ‘it’s worth a try’?” questioned Ian Leckie, past president of the NZEI Te Riu Roa in Education Review last year.

Leckie berated the partnership school model for allowing private profit-driven or special interest groups to use taxpayer money to run schools with no public scrutiny, no need to employ qualified teachers, and no need to stick to the national curriculum.

His concerns are shared by many, particularly members of fellow teachers’ union, PPTA.

PPTA junior vice president, Hazel McIntosh, says the partnership schools scheme reflects the Act Party’s desperate attempt to ‘unleash the forces of the market’ in the education sector.

“Handing students over to untrained teachers who don’t have to offer The New Zealand Curriculum is a social experiment driven by ideology, not research.”

At its annual conference in October, PPTA members voted to support a paper demanding the $19 million set aside for charter schools to be returned to the state school sector to fund programmes that raise achievement for at-risk students.

The union has also said its members will refrain from all professional, sporting, and cultural liaisons with the sponsors, managers, and employees of charter schools.

Ultimately, the PPTA perceives partnership schools to be a threat to public education, by their potential to take valuable funding and resources away from state schools.

However, others believe the union is short-sighted. Controversial right-wing blogger Cameron Slater has criticised the PPTA for failing to see choice in our education system as a positive thing.

“Why would anyone choose [to move to a partnership school] if their local school is world class? But – if parents believe that their allocated state school is not working for their child, the PPTA say they are not allowed a choice. Could their patch protection be more obvious and odious?” Slater states on his blog, Whale Oil Beef Hooked.

The new kids on the block

Interestingly, the five new partnership schools do not appear to have attracted much individual criticism. Aside from Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei’s dig that the standard of the applications was “poor”, details concerning the new schools appears to have allayed the concerns of many.

Across the new schools there appears to be a nod to The New Zealand Curriculum and registered teaching staff and a clear step towards providing education aimed at helping Māori and Pasifika students and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

It does not appear to be these five individual schools that PPTA members and other opponents find so offensive, rather, it is what these schools represent that is the cause for concern – that is, the tip of the iceberg.

The fear among charter school critics is that charter schools are set to grow exponentially, as they have in other countries. Pageau described it as an “invasion of public education”.

Those in support of the partnership schools programme will be hoping that the new schools opening their doors next year will prove to be successful and quash the concerns of those who fear them.

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