Politicians have embarked on a bold new experiment to set up profit-making, privately sponsored charter schools, replacing struggling state schools in poor neighbourhoods. All they need are guinea pigs - and Tamaki Intermediate could be one of the first. Nick Smith investigates.
What a difference a few kilometres can make. It takes only 10 minutes to drive from the gilded Auckland suburb of Kohimarama to Tamaki Intermediate School in Panmure.
During that drive, the palatial digs and flash apartments fade into houses of more modest means, including the dilapidated.
Along a strip of land hugging the Tamaki Estuary lives a community that, compared with its rich neighbours, is significantly deprived.
"We're decile 1A - you can't get any lower," comments Tony Horan, principal at Tamaki Intermediate.
The school will close this year, a result of falling roll numbers and other issues, although Horan says academic underachievement is not one of the factors.
"Our achievement levels, given where [the kids] start, are very good."
Any school that closes must be considered a failure, however, and it is this fact, underpinned by community deprivation, that makes Tamaki Intermediate a prime target to be replaced with the country's first charter school.
"It could be a charter school," Horan admits, "that's one of the possibilities that we're aware of. If we knew anything, I could tell you something but at the current point in time the Ministry and the Minister haven't told us anything."
Catherine Isaac, the chair of the Charter School Working Group, confirmed that co-opting an existing school is a preferred option for the first charter school.
"Most likely people will want to utilise existing buildings," she says.
"A school could be closing down because it hasn't done well and the school could convert to charter status."
Tamaki Intermediate is also an ideal candidate because Isaac is explicit that the experiment of privately run charter schools is to lift the academic achievement of the poor and underprivileged. There are plenty of those at Tamaki but she says no decision has been reached about location.
South Auckland and Christchurch had been mooted as ideal sites for future charter schools, but the proposal received a decidedly hostile reception when Isaac spoke to 400 people, mainly educationalists, at the Otahuhu Town Hall this week.
DERISIVE LAUGHTER and cat-calls punctuated Isaac's speech. Amid accusations that the Act Party's agenda was driving Government education policy, the party's former president and candidate insisted she genuinely wanted to help kids who were failing under the present system.
Of course, implementing charter schools is Act policy and is part of the confidence and supply agreement the party signed with the Government. The appointment of a former Act apparatchik, described as "cronyism" by Labour, is no accident.
And those factors set the tone for a heated meeting.
"It wasn't a community meeting; it was a political meeting," Isaac says now of the high tempers at Otahuhu hall on Monday night.
"They were a little unruly, especially since they were teachers. I don't imagine they behave like that in the classroom," she adds.
Otahuhu College principal Gil Laurenson was at the meeting and confirms "it degenerated into a bit of a slanging match".
He wanted solid information about the proposal but came away frustrated. "I don't think that meeting advanced the debate around charter schools."
For Laurenson, any change to education has to be underpinned by solid research and supported by a comprehensive evaluation programme.
"Second, if you're going to run a trial or pilot - can you scale it up? If it's successful, would we be able to resource this across the country so that every kid's achievement was lifted?"
He doesn't support charter schools, per se, but he doesn't dismiss them out of hand, either.
"I'm into partnership of any description which assists in raising levels of achievement. We work in partnership with a large number of organisations [including private companies] to have 125 placements with kids out in industry in different parts of South Auckland."
LEGISLATION TO establish charter schools will be introduced into Parliament before the end of the year, promises Isaac. The schools will follow next year.
She doesn't have a model yet - apparently the group is down to three possible types of charter school- but the plan will allow for companies, not-for-profits and public and private education providers to operate.
These entities will get the same amount of money as public schools but can raise additional funds privately and turn a profit. Isaac has ruled out charter schools being run as actual businesses, an apparent contradiction for which she provides no clarification.
Fees cannot be charged and nobody eligible to enrol will be turned away, she says, to distinguish the New Zealand plans from US scandals in which less-able students were shown the door to boost school results.
Isaac admits there's a mixed record for charter schools in the US, Britain and Sweden, and acknowledges some of the good-news stories that did emanate from Britain's charter schools (called "academies") simply resulted from the Blair government burning enough money to ensure success.
But do charter schools work?
Opponents and supporters brandish statistics as if they were pistols in a duel.
There are many measures of success and failure, and each side deploys these indices to support its argument.
According to the Stanford University Centre for Research on Education Outcomes, 17 per cent of American charter schools provided a superior result to state schools, 37 per cent were worse and 46 per cent were the same. In Sweden, there was no demonstrable difference, on average, between charter and public schools.
Isaac has been candid about international failures and says the working group will be picking the best practices for the New Zealand model.
It must be noted, however, that some of her criticism of the existing New Zealand education system is at best contentious.
She says New Zealand operates a "one size fits all" education policy, but supporters of the state system say it is internationally recognised for its flexibility compared, for instance, to the US and Sweden.
Teacher accusations that the policy is ideologically driven are given credence by her telling remark that "96 per cent of children go to state or state-integrated schools [and] it's unusual for an education sector to be so dominated by the state."
Actually, it's not rare internationally.
JOHN O'NEILL, professor in teacher education at Massey University, points out that New Zealand was an early adopter of the concept of charter schools - Tomorrow's Schools is essentially a charter agreement between a community, school and education ministry.
These arrangements allow Otahuhu College, for example to set up a health and science academy in conjunction with the private sector and for Onehunga High School to run its business school, service academy and construction training all within the state system.
Organisations such as the Forestry Industry Training and Education Council, which partners with a number of colleges to provide NCEA qualification within the primary sector, are crying out for funding to expand their services to more students.
O'Neill says the issue of failing students is complicated but is driven by poverty and disengagement from the education system. It is measures such as the school trade academies that should be funded, he argues, rather than charter schools.
Isaac says partnership with trade academies will be part of the picture - there could be a Carter Holt Harvey charter school under the new regime, she says.
Iwi, universities and Christian groups are also part of the picture, raising the prospect of, for example, a Destiny Church charter school in the public education system.
"People will raise that concern, for sure," notes Isaac.
But O'Neill is sceptical of Isaac's sincerity in pushing the charter school agenda. He points to the legislative change, which will effectively "take teachers out of the State Sector Act".
Under the act, teachers are deemed public servants and entitled to a collective contract.
By changing the law, charter schools will be able to employ teachers on individual contracts.
This is Isaac's real agenda, he claims: "to block the power of the unions".
Another proposal is to employ unregistered teachers, but Isaac says "no such decisions have been made".
Meanwhile, at Tamaki Intermediate, Horan admits to feeling some bitterness as the end approaches for his state school and the prospect of a charter school taking its place in the New Year.
"I have a view of charter schools. I think it's just the voucher system brought in under another guise."
Horan argues the state system provides value for money.
"It's probably the best in the world," he adds.