There has been a wholly predictable reaction to the establishment of charter schools, part of the Act Party's confidence and supply agreement with National.

Teacher unions have decried the proposal, saying it will do nothing to lift pupil achievement. Their position is unconvincing. At heart, charter schools are all about giving parents in low socio-economic areas a welcome degree of choice in the education of their children.

They will be introduced in the struggling areas of South Auckland and east and central Christchurch, possibly within the next year. Under the process, entities such as private businesses, church groups, iwi organisations, charities or existing schools take over the management of failing schools but retain state funding. Charter schools' boards will be able to set extended class hours and introduce performance-related pay for teachers.

The pay plan particularly riles teacher unions. Already agitated by National's election policy, which includes making schools more accountable to parents and personality tests for prospective teachers, they see a substantial threat to the control they now exercise.


But parents who are motivated to have their children do well and are willing to become closely involved in their education will think differently.

The New Zealand charter schools will be based on the Kipp (knowledge is power programme) schools in the United States. These are underpinned by well-motivated teachers, longer periods in schools - commonly from 7.30 am to 5pm Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings - and committed parents.

According to New Zealand's teacher unions, this is a failed experiment. But, as the Teachers Council acknowledges, it is too early to judge the schools' impact in troubled inner-city districts of the US.

A criticism of them is that they cream off the best pupils from state schools in their area. Undoubtedly, that will happen in some cases because parents keen to see their children do as well as possible will see an opportunity to enrol them in a better learning environment.

If a state school is losing many pupils, it will be up to it to improve its performance and persuade parents that their children will fare better there. In that way, the whole education system can benefit.

It would be wrong, however, to see charter schools as some sort of panacea. The most damning statistic in the education system is the "tail" of under-achieving pupils.

It is common for these children to come from dysfunctional or one-parent families, or to have parents who have little interest in their children's education and offer them no support.

Such people are unlikely to go to the trouble of taking their children out of state schools or show the level of commitment necessary for involvement with a charter school.


Critics also claim the National-led Government has no mandate to establish such schools. The Prime Minister has dismissed this with a curt "that's MMP for you, isn't it?" Indeed, it is. Charter schools, and other aspects of choice in education, have been a part of Act's plank, and were given a more substantial foundation during the short-lived leadership of Don Brash.

Choice is also a key ingredient of National's philosophy. If the inclusion of charter schools in the Act agreement was a surprise to some, it can hardly be painted as a bolt from the blue.

Nor should they be the subject of prolonged opposition. It can hardly do any great harm to assess their impact in a few lower socio-economic communities. Some parents are bound to seize the opportunity.

Indeed, a great deal of good may come from it. Perhaps that is the teacher unions' greatest fear.