John Minto: Special deal for privileged pupils

The Government is quick to prop up a private school when many public schools are in serious need.

Collegiate trumpets its "wealth of purpose-built facilities and grounds which are in excess of the funded standard". Photo / APN
Collegiate trumpets its "wealth of purpose-built facilities and grounds which are in excess of the funded standard". Photo / APN

At a time when public schools and teachers have been told to tighten their belts, taxpayers have been informed we must pay an extra $2.2 million every year so wealthy parents can continue to send their children to Wanganui Collegiate School.

Last week the Government signed up for this private school to become integrated within the state school system.

Unable to attract enough students to remain viable, the school would have been forced to close without this injection of state funding.

In plain language, the Collegiate integration is a taxpayer bailout for a failing private school.

Under integration a school claims a "special character" and the state pays teacher salaries and the school's day to day running expenses while the school retains responsibility for its land and buildings. The school is able to charge compulsory attendance dues for such things as classroom maintenance but other fees are supposedly voluntary.

Last November, Education Minister Hekia Parata said the integration decision would enable more students to attend the school which she says is one of the top performing schools in the Whanganui region. She went on to say that "as an integrated school, the only compulsory fees will be attendance dues".

It would be astonishing if the school were not a top academic performer with its carefully hand-picked, socially-cleansed student intake. It is now universally accepted that the main contributor to any group of students succeeding is their socio-economic background. These students would be top performers anywhere and both the Ministry of Education and Treasury opposed integration and pointed out there were plenty of spare places at other local schools.

But the minister was wrong about the fees. Compulsory attendance dues at the school are $2760 this year and the "voluntary" donation is $2940, and if that's not enough to keep the riff-raff out then other compulsory charges ramp up the cost dramatically. Day pupils pay another $5200 for "meals, house activities and supervision" bringing their bill to $10,900 a year while for boarders the total is $21,850. The cost of things such as sports coaching and field trips are extra.

The minister's claim that integration will enable more students to attend the school is undoubtedly true but they will not be students from low or middle income families.

The school told parents last week that it "will retain a higher than standard ratio of teachers to students in order to optimise class sizes and the learning ability" (sic).

In other words, taxpayers are subsidising small classes for the children of wealthy parents while the Government argues fiercely against funding for smaller classes in state schools where the learning needs (and the Government's education priorities) are so much greater.

The school also smugly claims that it is "fortunate in its wealth of purpose-built facilities and grounds which are in excess of the funded standard for the Ministry of Education". Lucky them.

Ramping up the costs of boarding appears to be one way these schools maintain small classes and their "excess of the funding standard" facilities under integration. The Government has no control over boarding fees which then subsidise other parts of the school. In this way they keep all their privileged educational advantages compared with state schools while preventing "undesirable" enrolments.

Collegiate is not the first failing private school to be allowed to rort the system. Most private school integrations over recent years have followed the same pattern whereby they are resuscitated with big doses of taxpayer cash while retaining their privileges well above that able to be provided at state schools.

They effectively remain private schools while receiving big increases in taxpayer funding.

Enrolments also continue as previously. In the state system all students have an automatic right to enrol at their local school but integrated schools such as Collegiate retain the right to pick and choose students which means working class children are kept at bay.

It's been a great week for Collegiate which says it is now looking to "expand our market".

So what is the "special character" of this school that taxpayers are forking out millions to keep?

Nothing of substance that's not provided at any decent school. In practical terms its special character is more like "a school where the parents earn more than $100,000 a year".

It certainly includes being able to exclude students from enrolling on financial grounds.

Compare the decision to pump millions into Collegiate with the Government's attitude to state schools in Christchurch since the earthquakes.

Instead of offering support, the Government wants to close more than 30 community state schools, none of which is failing.

And consider the consultation. The Government has been meeting Collegiate for several years over integration but offered just a few months of questionable consultation to communities all over Christchurch about their plans to decimate the sector.

The Collegiate principal wasn't given a coloured name tag and herded into a crowded room to be told the school's fate after it was announced elsewhere.

It seems you have to be a failing private school before you get decent treatment from the current Education Minister.

New Zealand's supposed egalitarianism has suffered numerous body blows in recent decades and Hekia Parata's decision to reward failure in a private school while punishing successful public schools shows just how much damage has been done.

John Minto is national chairman of the Quality Public Education Coalition.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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