I hate the concept of charter schools. Charter schools are meant to release the power of free enterprise and market competition to ensure better outcomes for disadvantaged students.
An entrepreneur can set up a school and employ untrained staff. The Government provides funding.
These schools are meant to be more accountable than state schools. They will be closed if they fail to perform, but this has yet to happen, despite significant problems in at least one Northland charter school.
It is also very unclear how their performance will be measured. It is largely an exercise in ideology driven by political compromise.
I hate the concept of charter schools because they undermine the status of teaching as a profession. I spent many years and significant money gaining a master's degree and a teaching diploma to allow me to teach in New Zealand. I am required to meet the stringent requirements of the professional teaching body set up by this Government. The owners of a charter school can employ whomever they want. There is an inbuilt incentive for owners to employ cheap, unqualified staff to minimise costs.
I hate the concept of charter schools, but then I met Alwyn Poole.
Alwyn contacted me because I had written several articles critical of the charter schools experiment. We caught up recently in a local cafe.
I was expecting a sharp-faced, smooth talking entrepreneur. But Alwyn was dressed casually and was very matter of fact.
He had spent many years teaching in mainstream schools and he was well aware that they lack flexibility, particularly in meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged students.
Alwyn set up Mount Hobson middle school in 2000. It is a private school catering to year seven to 10 students. He felt strongly that this group was poorly served by the current system and that a school targeting this age group could better serve their needs.
Central to his philosophy is smaller class sizes with a maximum of 15 students. He believes learning should be integrated with an element of inquiry learning, where each subject area is linked to an overall theme, such as volcanoes, or architecture, or the Olympic Games. The students' lessons in English, maths, science and other subjects are then related back to this theme. It aims to make learning in each subject more relevant and integrated.
He says learning is best concentrated in the morning. Afternoons are dedicated to sport, project work, cultural events, guest speakers and community work.
Alwyn believes his approach has worked well at his Mount Hobson school, but he was frustrated that it was only available to parents who could afford the fees. So when the Government offered the chance to extend his educational philosophy to charter schools he grabbed it. His first charter school was in South Auckland and he recently opened another in West Auckland.
I'm a cynical man. I am deeply suspicious that the Government is providing extra funds to these schools to ensure their success. I quizzed Alwyn on the finances of his charter schools. He provided the figures for his South Auckland school - if his figures are correct, he is unlikely to make a fortune.
He assured me he employs only registered teachers and was paying above the state rate. I said I was dubious that he could do this as well as provide uniforms and computers for his students. He explained that leasing the premises and tight budgeting ensured a stringent control of expenses.
I still dislike the concept of charter schools. Entrepreneurs with the skill and passion to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students are a rarity and I have an uneasy feeling Alwyn may end up a casualty of political change. We should be closely monitoring his progress. He said he would welcome such scrutiny.
If his model works, then it should be replicated. We need to acknowledge that mainstream schooling does not serve the needs of the tail-end particularly well. They need an educational environment that provides a sense of belonging and a curriculum relevant to their needs.
Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom.