Well, it’s been a little over a year since New Zealand’s bold experiment in charter schools began. As John Key once said of MMP, now might be a good time to “kick the tyres”. But rather than rake over the troubling issues at Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru, it might be worth analysing the motivations for opening charter schools in the first place. And considering these motivations, I have come to the strange but rather refreshing conclusion that every single school in New Zealand is a charter school.
The mantra of the pro-charter brigade is that they offer ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ and that this will ‘raise the bar’ in terms of achievement. The dreadful Soviet-style Ministry of Education-led mass of state schools, on the other hand, is failing too many of our kids and is unaccountable to concerned parents blah blah blah.
So, let me channel my inner concerned parent and see if the maligned state system can offer any solutions to their requests for more ‘choice’.
I hate that confusing, namby-pamby NCEA nonsense – my child needs a different qualification which suits his/her needs.
Well, you could try Auckland Grammar (a state school) which offers the Cambridge qualification, or Takapuna Grammar (a state school), which offers the International Baccalaureate, for example.
I don’t want my child studying with members of the opposite sex – it’s distracting.
New Zealand has over 100 boys’ and girls’ single-sex state colleges.
I think a religious education is important for building my child’s values and character.
OK, we have 332 primary and secondary schools which are state-integrated with a special faith character.
I’m a raving lefty and I find uniforms so restrictive and controlling.
Well, there’s Wellington High School, “a perfectly good school down the road” according to Roger Moses, headmaster of the more traditional Wellington College, and I hear Onslow College is big on the old mufti too.
I think that living in a boarding house teaches independence and maturity.
Good-oh. Well, yes you got it, there are a number of state schools which take boarders.
I like the ethos of private schools, but I can’t afford the fees.
You could try Hutt International Boys’ School. Its
feevoluntary donation is over $4000 a year. And the website is pretty glitzy. You can pretend to the other members of your book club that you’re educating your sprogs privately, at a quarter of the price!
My local school’s ERO report is disappointing. Who is responsible for improving the school’s achievement?
You are. Sorry, but that’s the truth. Tomorrow’s Schools took control of schools away from the ‘monolithic’ Department of Education and vested it in an elected board of trustees from each school’s community. You could stand for election to the board. If you live in a low-decile area, there’s a good chance you will be elected without opposition. Then, you could grill the principal on the poor results. Hell, you could sack him if you tried hard enough. But, you would also see first hand some of the funding issues around providing a decent education and the other challenges facing your community. ERO will inspect every now and again, but will only get the Ministry to step in when things become diabolical. Oh, and you won’t get paid for your responsibility. Don’t be daft! Aotearoa runs on ‘volunteers’ (more on this in a later blog post). But if you have the time to help rebuild the school’s vision, focus and values, and then work with the principal to improve teacher professional development and parental interaction, the data suggests that you can turn a school’s performance around pronto (see Selwyn College for a good example). Alternatively, you could just move into the zone of a high-decile school and let someone else worry about it.
I just want the best education possible for my child.
Aha! That’s better. Of course you do. Indeed, that’s about the only thing that everyone can agree on. Well, with a state school and a charter school you can view NCEA results and ERO reports and make your choice. Oh, and the charter school can employ unregistered teachers. Yes, that’s right: unregistered teachers. Why would they do that? I dunno. It’s probably just a coincidence that refusing to renew a teacher’s registration is one way a school can get rid of an incompetent teacher. Where might such teachers end up teaching, I wonder? It’s also a little odd that National and ACT claim that the most important factor in student achievement is not decile or socio-economic status, but teacher quality. Odd because they then endorse a charter system which does not require teachers to be registered i.e. trained in pedagogy and classroom management. Weird.
And there you have it. The whole charter school agenda seems to be based on an ideology that is both incoherent and self-contradictory. I do not want the current five charter schools to fail. On the contrary, I wish them every success, as I do private schools. After all, they contain kids who want to learn and achieve. But I am not convinced that any case has been made for the state to support them. If they fail they will likely just be reintegrated into the state system, as happened with Wanganui Collegiate, to cite a recent example.
Perhaps the most disturbing attitude is the notion that providing ‘competition’ would force ‘failing’ schools to improve or close. The business analogy is depressing and dangerous. If a coffee shop or a car yard closes, I simply have to get my coffee and my car elsewhere. The disruption to everybody is trivial (except for the poor proprietors). A failing school, on the other hand, would mean several years of declining results affecting cohort after cohort in a given community. This is much more damaging to a community and its employment prospects than the demise of a business.
I am not shrugging complacently at underachievement. The answer is not to hope that a charter school might open and allow escape for some from a struggling school. By definition, charter schools are not centrally planned to deal with places of greatest need. Intervention, in the form of monitoring the performance of (and, if need be, replacing) principals and senior management at underperforming schools, is crucial.
National’s other incentive, offering a carrot after years of using a stick against those bolshy teachers, is similarly welcome but puzzling. Executive teachers and principals will be paid more to share their skills with other teachers. I am hugely supportive of collaborative initiatives, as is the PPTA, and ‘paying good teachers more’ as JK happily put it, is long overdue. But there is one touted solution which Investing in Educational Success claims to offer, about which I have my doubts. It is claimed that it will act as a stick to drive out underperforming teachers, because they will look enviously as other teachers rake in more money for being better / working harder. Nonsense. If a weak or lazy teacher is happy to take their current salary, then paying others more changes nothing. Again, only support and training, or something more drastic for the small minority of teachers who are irredeemably bad, will improve matters.
So, a raft of ideas and initiatives, some good, some bad, which are unlikely to provide the necessary solutions to poorly-understood problems: it’s the standard procedure for policymakers!