Approximately 1400 students will be attending New Zealand's charter (partnership) schools in 2018. They are, by and large, Maori and Pasifika children and many come with records and backgrounds that clearly show that what was previously being provided for them was not working.
All of the schools are able to demonstrate significant progressions for the children attending. That the current schools have succeeded so far is actually a great "against the odds" story in New Zealand education.
They began facing considerable political and interest group opposition that got a huge airing in the early media. On average they began on a very low establishment fund, they had a four-month lead in to opening in which every aspect of a new school had to be established (18 months for a state school).
One school was authorised for reasons no one can understand and when it predictably failed it was revealed it had received years of property funding in advance and bought a farm. It put huge pressure on all of the other schools by association.
However; the other charters have succeeded. Families choose to attend as there are no zones and in some of the less affluent areas this move away from one-size-fits-all is almost revolutionary.
Most of the schools have also used their funding to break down barriers for families with a provided uniform, stationery, IT, trips and the like, asking for no donations or course fees. The extremely positive perception of the schools will be clearly shown when the ministry and new Government actually release the 2017 Martin Jenkins external evaluation into the schools.
Three weeks ago the new Prime Minister met four Villa Education Trust students because they have turned their lives around so much they were awarded Prime Minister's Scholarships.
Publicly Jacinda Ardern and the Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, have talked about a "transition" to them becoming special character schools. I find this highly ironic as on July 30 last year I met briefly with Ms Ardern. Her clear and obviously considered response was, "You have shown us the inadequacy of our special character school policy."
At present there has been no hint of changing the policy to make it "adequate" and the Ministry for Education are telling different stories to the ones presented by the Prime Minister and Minister of Education. In fact last Thursday Mr Hipkins made an "agree to close or I will close you anyway" announcement.
In question time in Parliament late last year the Prime Minister put some conditions on continuation from the Government perspective that are easily, and already, met by these schools. These were:
• The schools should have registered teachers. This is already the case with exceptions similar to the recently expanded state school exceptions for limited authorities to teach.
• The school should teach the NZ Curriculum. This is also already the case.
• The schools should operate on the same cost to taxpayers as state schools. This is the case already in terms of annual operations for the equivalent size, decile and year level.
Given that the Prime Minister has mentioned no other change requirements for the schools and has acknowledged the inadequacy of the special character policy, the changes needed to the policy and legislation become very obvious and easily implemented through changing the special character school legislation.
The changes should allow the continuation of the ownership and governance structures of the current charter schools which are meeting a clear need, allow the continuation of bulk funding for these schools (this is what gives the schools choices with provision of services to families and the structure of the school day and the like) and allow teachers in these special character schools to be outside the national award, ie able to be individually contracted.
Again, individual contracting gives the flexibility that allows a more differentiated model (including day structure, contact hours and providing incentives to work with "priority learners"). This creates no extra cost to the taxpayer. There may be examples of the charter schools who want to opt into the award – that should be no problem either.
This is a policy that needs growth and enhancement. The changes required are cost-neutral and highly beneficial to the children and families who are clearly making progress under this model.
The Government may have to also look at better establishment and expansion funding and processes which are a mess under that current partnership schools policy.
• Alwyn Poole of the Villa Education Trust and is involved with two charter schools, South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland.