Scott Gilmour: Education hijacked by ideology

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The I Have A Dream mentoring programme should essentially give children high hopes for their future.  Photo / NZ Herald
The I Have A Dream mentoring programme should essentially give children high hopes for their future. Photo / NZ Herald

The education of our youth is the most vital function of a Government and community, but debate on this issue is being hijacked by ideology.

Several recent opinion articles in various publications have slammed the "ideology of commercialising and privatising education under the ACT and National parties, especially with the introduction of charter schools. These commentators are quick to question the educational experience of advocates of these programmes, but I question if they have ever visited a charter school, or worked with at-risk young people themselves?

I am concerned that the debate has descended into petty type-casting, such as one writer who recently described these programmes as being similar to the comfortable Victorian ladies who visited slums in an attempt to teach the poor manners, a work ethic and how to become bourgeois.

The results of the I Have a Dream programme that was established almost a decade ago are testimony to what can happen if you get the settings right. The group of 53 young people that we started working with in 2003 are now in Year 13. Forty of them are still living in Auckland (the other 13 have gone to Australia), and over 30 of the NZ-based ones are still actively involved with the programme.

Most of these are going to proceed to some form of post-secondary education, with about 20 of them likely to undertake diploma or degree level tertiary study. This compares to just one student in the control group (which we established from the outset for benchmarking purposes) who attained their University Entrance Qualification and only one other who passed NCEA Level 3 in their final year of High School.

How did we achieve this stunning result?

Unfortunately I cannot give you a single, silver bullet answer. It is the cumulative result of ten years' worth of investment in these young people which has involved two fantastic staff, a high quality mentoring programme, a structured after school homework programme staffed by volunteer student tutors, and a commitment from a range of outsiders to achieving a successful outcome for these youngsters. A speech I gave at a TEDx event in Auckland in 2009 provides more detail on the programme and the issues it's addressing.

While we have achieved these results by working largely outside the school system, we knew we could have a bigger and faster impact if we were in the classroom, not just focused on the after school time. We have met many wonderful teachers and principals in our ten year journey to date, but we have also observed many sub-optimal teaching styles and personalities, as well as school processes that are designed to steer certain students away from academic courses.

I'd noticed that many of the I Have a Dream sponsors in the US had gone on to found charter schools after their projects ended, so I recently visited some of them in New York, as well as the state regulator of the NY charter school system. What most of the columnists, commentators, bloggers, etc. have missed is that the US is not one education system but 50. Every state regulates charter schools differently, and this is what accounts for the widely varying results that are quickly pounced on as evidence of their failure.

What I found in New York were charter schools that were over delivering on every metric. Students were engaged in their learning, teachers were highly motivated and passionate and the system was delivering results that were truly outstanding. Also, they do not cherry pick their students - in fact, the Democracy Prep charter school enrols more Special Ed kids than any NY school (20 per cent of their students!).

It would be preferable to work inside NZ's already highly ranked education system to bring further improvements, but there are structural impediments to doing so.

So I am a strong proponent of charter schools and other worthwhile innovations in the education sector, such as Teach First NZ. However, I do not want to see them implemented in a hurried, un-researched and unregulated way. What we have seen with the finance companies, and indeed with the entire GFC, is that uncontrolled market forces are a recipe for disaster. Nor do I see this as a Trojan horse for privatisation of education.

No business people that I know see education as a profit-rich opportunity. It's a common misconception that charter schools are established for profit. They're not. They are funded to break even at best. No one is talking about a profit motive here.

I do, however, know many business leaders who have committed serious time and money to improving public education in NZ. People like Tony Falkenstein who established the Onehunga Business High School; Peter Maire who sponsored the science building for Rosmini High School; Steven Carden who founded the First Foundation Project; and then there are the millions that Sir Stephen Tindall has spent on education initiatives through his Foundation. Also, companies such as Mainfreight have been active supporters of local education initiatives.

In conclusion, can we please have more civilised debate on the issues, not the ideology, especially when it comes to improving NZ's educational outcomes. After all, this is the only way that we're ever going to be able to build a Knowledge Society, to create and grow innovative companies which can offer good jobs to our kids, and to generate the kind of wealth that can fund our admirably progressive society. No system is perfect, but there is plenty that can be done to improve the current system.

* Scott Gilmour is an IT entrepreneur, a professional director and the Project Sponsor of the I Have a Dream programme in Mt Roskill.

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