The government is proceeding with the initiative incorporated within the Confidence and Supply Agreement with ACT to allocate "school charters" in Auckland and Christchurch. Hopefully this policy initiative this electoral term won't become the flash point to government's education policies as national standards was during their first term.
The charter school initiative was developed, I suspect, by the ACT party within their long held policy principal of providing "choice" to parents for education services and consumers for social services generally. Rather than banging on about choice ACT sensibly provided a specific initiative which, if successful, could initiate widespread change within the school sector.
An important difference in terms of the charter school initiative to national standards is the government's preparedness to proceed to the implementation stage only after a consultation and planning stage.
Government will argue that the key difference in these two initiatives is scale in that the intention right from the start with national standards was to roll it out to all primary and intermediate schools whereas charter schools will be limited to two locations and a small number of schools at least initially. This is true but hides the real political motivation behind national standards, which was a policy within a political manifesto back in 2008, designed to appeal to parents as voters.
The government in 2009 then used Executive Order to impose national standards on schools and within a fraught implementation attempted to create a nexus between what is essentially an evaluation process and the very desirable objective of improving student literacy and numeracy levels.
There is fault on both sides on national standards. On the government side there was an unwillingness to debate the issue and where the policy fitted within government's overall plans for education and on the school sector side there is the extraordinary situation that we now have schools that are so belligerently opposed that they are willing to break the law.
What is encouraging with the charter schools initiative is that to date the pronouncements reflect a different and more constructive approach. Importantly the new Minister of Education has stated that this initiative is not a "silver bullet" to overcome educational failure. Hopefully too the minister is aware that government initiated educational improvement programmes often founder because educational failure generally reflects larger inequalities and problems in society.
The difficulty that Government faces with its major change initiatives in education and in other areas of social reform, like welfare reform, is that the initiatives are subject to oppositional political forces, which often reduces the debate to a cant. Another issue is that ministries of government are poor at strategising and often hopeless at developing and implementing a suite of inter-related initiatives to a long term objective.
There is a subtext to the charter schools initiative. What is the real objective? How will the success of the initiative be measured? The Government's inclination is to measure success in education policy by the change in literacy and numeracy outputs, now formalised as a goal of 85 per cent of school leavers achieving NCEA Level 2. This is a laudable goal but arguably not the issue to be directly addressed either through national standards or charter schools.
The most significant youth issue that results in educational failure is youth disengagement from school. This is represented by both a physical disengagement as reflected in the truancy number and the number of youth leaving the school sector at the earliest opportunity. There is also intellectual disengagement as young people can be attending secondary school but not advancing academically. Will the charter school initiative address the disengagement issue?
Unfortunately the reality is that the way a secondary school can most effectively deal with the disengagement issue is to try to avoid it. A common procedure to charter schools in the United States and the United Kingdom is to ballot entry. This has the effect of connecting the school at the time of entry directly with parents with educational aspirations for their child.
There is provision for balloting within the plans for the New Zealand initiative. There is the proviso that students must be accepted irrespective of academic ability and conditions in terms of rejection of disadvantaged students but if I was putting a wager on it, my bet would be that entry to the first South Auckland charter school will become by ballot.
There is this potential disconnect. It is of value to the school to attract a preponderance of engaged students with supportive families but from the governments and the taxpayers perspective what we want to see is evidence of school processes which can take the potentially disengaged student and develop a qualified and contributing member of society. Otherwise we are just moving the achievers from public schools to charter schools.
This task is of major importance to Auckland and the nation. We have one in five leaving school at the earliest opportunity, uneducated. We should reflect on the human and opportunity cost of this. What is foregone is not just two years of avoided secondary school and potential tertiary stage learning. The opportunity lost is that in this formative period the pathway is potentially closed to a lifetime of continued learning and the consequential benefits from that capability being shared with society.