Editorial: Charter schools will give poorer parents choice

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The announcement yesterday of the framework for this country's model for charter schools did nothing to quell the indignation of opponents. Indeed, they were supplied with new information to fuel their opposition, most notably the fact that charter schools - or partnership schools, as the Government wants them to be known - will be able to employ teachers without qualifications.

"You wouldn't let an untrained doctor treat your child, or let anyone design your house," retorted Labour's education spokeswoman, Nanaia Mahuta. She would have been better served to save criticism for other, more questionable aspects of the framework.

As part of the many freedoms granted to charter schools, including the ability to set their own hours and term dates, they will negotiate the number of registered teachers they want to employ. One school may, for example, want to recruit a journalist to teach media studies.

In most cases, such people will not be as effective in the classroom as trained teachers. But the schools surely know this will be self-defeating if it is carried too far.

Although they are able to reshape the national curriculum, they will still be required to meet education targets set by the Government. If they do not, they will be closed. It would be folly to risk that fate by employing too many untrained teachers.

Such a policy would also discourage enrolments.

The main aim of charter schools should be to give parents in lower socio-economic areas a greater degree of choice in the education of their children. Typically, they will attract those who are motivated to have their children do well and want them to have the best-possible learning environment. Such parents can be guaranteed to be closely involved in their children's education - and to be repelled if a school has many teachers who cannot teach.

Originally, the Government indicated there would be trials of a few charter schools in struggling areas of South Auckland and Christchurch. That seems to have changed because of the degree of interest.

At last count, 18 organisations, including for-profit and non-profit American groups, charitable trusts, existing schools, a university, and community initiatives, wanted in. Noticeably, a number of religious groups, such as the Destiny Church and the Maharishi Foundation, are also on the list.

That is not what charter schools should be about. Their focus should be strongly academic. There is already a state-funded education option, integrated schooling, for church groups wishing to teach in the context of "special character".

There is no need for another. The choice available in the charter schools that the Government expects to open in 2014 should be built around a stronger learning environment, not an alternative avenue of faith-based teaching. The ultimate approval for such schools will be delivered by the Education Minister, Hekia Parata.

Therefore, she should be clear who they are aimed at and what they are seeking to achieve. Their target will not be, as she suggests, the one in five pupils who currently graduate without an appropriate education or qualifications. In most cases, these children come from dysfunctional families, or have parents who do not value education and do not offer support. Such parents are highly unlikely to go to the trouble of making the commitment required by a charter school. The "tail" of under-achieving pupils will be little disturbed. That, however, is no reason not to proceed with charter schools.

Many parents in lower socio-economic areas who feel their children are not getting ahead as they would like in state schools will welcome the choice. And their interest in their children's education means they can be trusted to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each charter school.

- NZ Herald

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