A Northland charter school that faced intense scrutiny opened its doors exclusively to the Northern Advocate for this two-part story. This article is part one after our education reporter visited the isolated Whangaruru school.

A Northland charter school that has been heavily criticised says it has overcome early issues after it faced "insurmountable" pressure from the Government to open on time.

Trustees behind Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru said they were proud of how far the school had come since it opened on February 10.

The kura, located on a farm 65km northwest of Whangarei, is a bilingual co-ed high school with mainly Maori students, many of whom had fallen through the cracks of mainstream education.

Sponsored by Nga Parirau Matauranga Charitable Trust, the school is one of five charter schools, or "partnership" schools, that opened this year.

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In the first term the school faced many issues, including student drug abuse on campus, students using gang signs, bullying, declining enrolment and the resignation of a co-director.

It also faced criticism from the Education Review Office after a visit in April, which found fault with many areas, including curriculum and school morale.

The trustees said they had refrained from responding to media inquiries until now because they wanted to focus on addressing those issues.

Trustee Robert Carpenter said opening the school had not been without problems but most were no different than those mainstream schools faced.

"Some of the issues and some of the problems we've had with our students are social issues that you find in any community," Mr Carpenter said.

Some Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru charter school students travel from Whangarei every day to attend the school. Photo / John Stone
Some Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru charter school students travel from Whangarei every day to attend the school. Photo / John Stone

The name of the kura means "double-hulled canoe", which represents a second opportunity for students who otherwise may not have stayed in school.

"What we have here is [some] students who come to the school who have not been to school in three years, who have lived on the streets, literally," Mr Carpenter said. "Just where do you start with a child like that?"

However, not all students fit this mould, with many choosing to attend because of the emphasis on Maori education, he said.

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The successful charter school applicants were announced in September last year and were required to open in February, despite concerns in December from the ERO that Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru would not be ready in time. Charter schools are funded by the Government but set their own curriculum, school hours, holidays and pay rates. Opposition parties and teaching unions strongly oppose them. If he were to go through the process again, Mr Carpenter said he would plead with the Government to extend the timeframe.

"It's ridiculous and it's ludicrous to expect anybody, it doesn't matter how good they are, to open a school in such a compressed timeframe," he said.

"The pressure is almost insurmountable and you're really lucky if you come through the other side."

Ten days before the school was due to open on February 10, the prefab buildings were still not in place, Mr Carpenter said.

Ministry of Education head of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said the charter schools did have to start at a "brisk pace" but the trust knew the requirements when they entered the contract.

"One of the key challenges in getting established in time for the new school year was the trust's decision to build a school from the ground up, on a farm in a comparatively isolated location," Ms Casey said.

Charter schools were part of the Act Party's confidence and supply agreement with the National Party. In September, Education Minister Hekia Parata announced four more charter schools, starting in 2015.

They will open within the same timeframe as Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru. However, the ministry said the new schools would benefit from what has been learned from the establishment of the first round of schools.