Catherine Isaac: Partnership Schools' strength in flexibility

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Would children benefit if an equally good application to run a Partnership School in Opotiki or the Far North - which have NCEA pass rates comparable to those of South Auckland districts - be turned down because of location? Photo /  Thinkstock
Would children benefit if an equally good application to run a Partnership School in Opotiki or the Far North - which have NCEA pass rates comparable to those of South Auckland districts - be turned down because of location? Photo / Thinkstock

The Herald's recent editorial on Partnership Schools is based on some misunderstandings. It argued that the policy is slipping from its original intent because the schools will not necessarily be located in South Auckland and Christchurch, have enrolment zones, or be secular.

None of these were conditions of the original concept as first set out in the Act-National agreement. Auckland and Christchurch were given only as examples, following the words "such as". Faith-based was specifically listed as a possible feature of a school's mission, and enrolment zones were never mentioned.

The policy has not drifted; indeed it has remained true to the original concept. Moreover, it is wrong to propose that limiting the concept in such ways could have improved the focus on helping disadvantaged children.

Educational disadvantage certainly exists in South Auckland and Christchurch, but not only in those areas. Would children benefit if an equally good application to run a Partnership School in Opotiki or the Far North - which have NCEA pass rates comparable to those of South Auckland districts - be turned down because of location?

As the Herald accepted, Partnership Schools will not be forbidden from using a geographical enrolment zone. However making them compulsory would be a backward step. Some specialised providers of alternative education take disadvantaged students from a wide area, and it would help nobody to rule similar operations out of running Partnership Schools by mandating geographical zones.

The policy is open on faith-based education because of the need to raise achievement for disadvantaged students. The performance of South Auckland Catholic schools in Metro magazine's league tables shows that faith can be part of the mix in a successful school, and that taxpayers already fund this in the form of integrated schools.

In these three areas, we have kept the concept open because we want the range of possible school sponsors and the scope for innovation to be as wide as possible. In fact the policy has a number of such features that the Working Group could have avoided in return for an easier ride. We could have ruled out for-profits, insisted all teachers be registered with the Teachers Council, and insisted on union employment contracts. We might have insisted on keeping the Board of Trustees structure of state schools, and that school leaders must be registered with the Teachers Council.

These concessions would have placated most of the policy's critics and made Partnership Schools little different from regular state schools. They would also have shrunk the universe of possible innovation. For example, these concessions would have made KIPP (Knowledge is Power Programme) type schools that the Herald cites impossible.

We believe each of these flexibilities can be used to solve our high rate of educational underachievement and the wide gap between those who succeed and those who fail.

That does not mean that every freedom possible under the model will automatically be granted to organisations approved to operate a Partnership School by the approvals advisory group and ultimately the Minister of Education. They will have to put forward a very high quality proposal with clear achievement targets, then achieve those targets year after year.

The location, character, teaching methodology and management of these schools will be driven by the sponsors rather than imposed by the Government. Where the Government will act is in setting a rigorous approvals process and holding them to account for their results.

The other constraint on Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua is the choices of parents, children and teachers. No child will be forced to attend a Partnership School.

No teacher will be forced to teach at one. They will require no more taxpayer funding than is spent on public education for the same children at a state school.

What we have is a new option for delivering public education, and the freedoms afforded Partnership Schools are and have always been designed to keep the range of possible innovations for raising achievement as wide as possible.

Catherine Isaac is the chair of the Partnership Schools Kura/Hourua Working Group and a former president of Act.

- NZ Herald

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