Russell Blackstock

Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Corporates provide schools with new operating system

Microsoft is sponsoring Kiwi schools to train up the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg — but some teachers are uncomfortable with big corporates guiding the curriculum

Nia Sky (left), David Officer, Alena Shedeka, Emily Kuang and Patricia Salcedo from Avondale College. Photo / Michael Craig
Nia Sky (left), David Officer, Alena Shedeka, Emily Kuang and Patricia Salcedo from Avondale College. Photo / Michael Craig

It is 7.40 on a humid Auckland morning and a dedicated group of wannabe IT experts is already lining up outside a classroom at Avondale College in the west of the city.

While waiting for their teacher to arrive, the students are busily updating their social media pages and browsing news sites on smartphones and hand-held tablets.

Most of their school friends are barely out of bed, still at home wolfing down breakfast.

The youngsters — aged 13 to 17 — are enrolled in the school's new Innovation Programme, a partnership with United States giant Microsoft. The kids are hoping for a headstart into computer industry roles such as software and game designers, solution architects and project managers.

Bill and Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs — the computer whizzes of the past taught themselves to code at home in their bedrooms, but the geeks of the future will learn in the classroom.

The classes run from 8am every weekday before the regular school day starts.

The students also attend for three hours most Saturday mornings and even during the holidays.

David Officer is just 13 but is already devising a programme to help teachers mark students' work.

Madeleine Day, 16, is developing a mobile asset-management system that she hopes will help the fuel industry make complex calculations about weights and measures.

"The course is fantastic and is geared towards preparing you for a job or further education," Day says.

"I would like to become a software engineer or work in the gaming industry, ideally for the likes of Microsoft or Google."

Avondale principal Brent Lewis believes the initiative prepares students for the digital workplace. Photo / NZ Herald

Avondale principal Brent Lewis introduced the free Microsoft classes this year. He recruited IT expert Paul McClean to run the course, instead of a regular teacher.

The qualifications gained count towards NCEA and are recognised worldwide by employers.

Lewis insists there is no cash funding from Microsoft. He believes the initiative is only common sense and is aimed at preparing students for the expanding digital workplace.

"Microsoft has given us access to advanced technology we otherwise could not afford," he says.

"We have also been given technical support and access to their specialist instructors, which is invaluable.

"Future employment opportunities will not come from building more factories but lie in intellectual property.

"The tyranny of distance for New Zealand is broken by IT, and we have a great opportunity to be at the forefront of that."


Schools teaming up with big business is uncommon but not new in New Zealand.

Bairds Mainfreight Primary School in Otara, South Auckland, has had a partnership with Mainfreight since 1992, and the company has helped the school buy equipment such as computers and whiteboards.

In 2012, schools in some of Auckland's poorer areas received $1.2 million from the ASB Community Trust for a world-first "e-learning" project.

In the 1990s, Avondale College accepted scholarships sponsored by Pepsi.

And the new charter schools are effectively state-funded private schools that are open to sponsorship from iwi, universities, the non-profit sector and for-profit businesses.

Botany Downs Secondary College in Auckland was the first New Zealand school to be accepted to the 10-year, $550m Microsoft Innovative Schools programme.

Other schools around the country participate but Avondale College is the first to introduce the initiative on such a scale.

Avondale is now in talks with Microsoft to become one of its "world tour schools", a flagship project that will see it being promoted overseas as an example of excellence.

Evan Blackman, education sector manager for Microsoft NZ, believes the country's future prosperity has to move beyond a reliance on traditional money-spinners such as tourism and the dairy industry.

"Software developers are the magicians of the modern age," he says. "What Avondale is doing is offering the students a direct path into the digital technology industry, which is an exciting career option and a great advantage.

"Of course we would be delighted if the brightest and best came to work for us but that's not the point. Anything that helps build digital technologies in New Zealand is great."

Former principal John Morris questions the Microsoft course counting towards NCEA grades. Photo / NZ Herald

Not everyone agrees that public-private partnerships are a good thing. The Post Primary Teachers' Association has expressed concerns at such ventures.

John Guthrie, senior lecturer at the University of Otago's Business School, warns that large corporations like Microsoft can simply use such courses to capture future customers and headhunt employees.

"It is not unlike a bank targeting youngsters and encouraging them to save with them," he says.

"The hope is that if they get them early enough, the kids will become customers for life. It makes good business sense.

"There is also the added problem of Microsoft versus Apple technologies. Some schools insist on only using one or the other and that can be expensive for parents if they have children who want electronic devices made by either company."

John Morris, former head of Auckland Grammar, is now an educational consultant. He questions the Microsoft course counting towards NCEA grades. "It is possible to get credits for NCEA just by working at McDonald's," he says.

"I have nothing against the private sector helping students but I have an issue with the credibility of the qualifications."

Back in Avondale, Lewis shrugs off criticism. There are 29 students in their Microsoft classes, he points out, and almost as many on a waiting list. He plans to more than double the numbers next year and bring in more specialist teachers.

The project is also attracting attention from big business, he says, and there have been "significant" inquiries about investment and assistance.

"There has been a good bit of cheque-book waving going on recently, which is encouraging and other schools are taking note," he says. "If the corporates are enthusiastic about helping us then great, as long as we manage the risks.

"I don't have a problem with public-private partnerships as long as the students are not being in any way exploited and everyone has their best interests at heart."

Personal computing pioneer Bill Gates, with wife Melinda. Photo / AP

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 03 Sep 2014 13:30:18 Processing Time: 551ms