Community workers have welcomed the Government's plans for charter schools but one expert says the experiment will be a waste of time. Andrew Laxon reports

In the American documentary film Waiting for Superman, poor families gather anxiously in a crowded hall for the live public draw of the charter schools entry lottery.

The winners hug each other and sob with relief. The losing families sit dejected, knowing their son or daughter is condemned to a lifetime of educational failure in the public school system.

All of a sudden that portrait doesn't sound so foreign any more. It's more or less the way Prime Minister John Key presented the Government's surprise plan this week to trial the privately run but state-funded schools in economically depressed South Auckland and earthquake-ravaged Christchurch.

One in five students left school with poor levels of literacy and numeracy, Key said, and the state system was not serving every child well.


"There's plenty of failing schools, particularly in poorer communities, and we want to resolve those issues."

Under the charter school pilot agreed by Act and National, a variety of organisations, including charities, churches, businesses or other schools, will be able to set up new schools or take over existing ones.

They will get the same funding as state schools but have much more freedom in curriculum, staffing arrangements (including performance pay for teachers) and operations (such as longer school days, weekend lessons and different school terms).

At first glance, South Auckland schools look overdue for some sweeping changes. NCEA pass rates and university entrance levels are climbing but remain below the national average and the drop-out rate is alarming. A youth health survey estimated about 1000 primary and secondary-aged children in the area were out of school in 2006.

Hundreds of others go to poorly funded alternative education centres but most never return to mainstream schools or reach NCEA Level 1, the lowest secondary qualification.

One of the alternative education centres is Back to Learning, run by Crosspower Ministries, a Christian organisation which has worked with at-risk youth in South Auckland for more than 20 years. It's the kind of group the charter school plan seems to be targeting and founder Sully Paea admits he's interested.

"I've always wanted to run a school because I really feel that from a community perspective our kids are failing school ... They're going in the gangs because they can't read and they feel that they're useless and the only alternative they can think of is to go and sell drugs.

"We live here, we know our kids. It's not just a nine to three for us. I find that if kids are learning well on a Saturday afternoon, then we're going to set something on a Saturday afternoon. So we're not boxed into mainstream stuff."


Mr Paea says struggling kids often relate better to a former gang member or prisoner than a qualified teacher. "I know some people frown on that but hey, I'm a fisherman and whatever bait that the fish wants, I'll give it to them."

Adrian Schoone, chairman of the national body for alternative education, says he uses tutors with expertise in areas such as art and business but makes sure they have guidance from trained teachers.

This gives alternative education a broader professional mix to draw on.

"It's not throwing the teachers out. I'm a trained teacher myself. It's creating learning communities, with the trained teachers but also drawing from the community."

He sees other advantages to the charter school trial, such as bulk funding (control of their own budgets) which could allow schools to experiment more with class sizes and new subjects.

Like Mr Paea, he feels "something's not working" for struggling teens who drop out of high school.

"It could be the constraints around timetabling. I know the kids that we deal with get lost in it, the way kids move from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher. We find that having that relational basis is really important."

An alternative scenario - pushed by right-wing education reformers for decades - is for one of Auckland's heavyweights such as Auckland Grammar to set up a franchise operation in South Auckland. Former headmaster Sir John Graham had some success turning Mangere's troubled Nga Tapuwae College and its feeder schools into Southern Cross Campus in the late 1990s.

Asked this week if the charter school proposal could make a difference, Sir John was non-committal, saying there was not enough detail yet to know either way.

Many crucial questions do remain unanswered for such a major shift in Government policy. It's still unclear if schools will be able to hire untrained teachers, as many American charter schools do, and who will set standards and check that they are met.

The Act-National coalition deal also says charter groups will "compete to operate a local school or start up a new one", suggesting that if a local state school is deemed to have failed its management contract will be opened up to tender.

A spokeswoman for newly appointed Associate Education Minister - and sole Act MP - John Banks said all these details would be worked out as the policy was developed.

For education researcher Professor John Hattie, the fine print won't matter much anyway - he sees the whole exercise as a politically motivated waste of time and effort.

The former Auckland University academic, who now works in Melbourne, made headlines last year when, after initially advising the Government on a national standards policy, he rejected the outcome as a good idea gone badly wrong.

Professor Hattie's international expertise lies in analysing the evidence of what makes children learn better. He ranks charter schools 114th out of 150 factors surveyed and says it measures 0.2 on his effectiveness scale, which ranges between 1 and 0.

His data include a Stamford University study - heavily quoted by teacher unions this week - which showed only 17 per cent of US charter school students did better than their public school counterparts, 46 per cent were about the same and 37 per cent did worse.

The main reason for the lack of improvement, says Professor Hattie, is that contrary to many parents' belief, school choice has relatively little effect on students' achievement. The biggest differences occur within schools, not between them.

Charter schools run into the same practical and financial problems as any other school, says Professor Hattie, as US businessmen hoping to turn a quick profit have discovered.

The main aim of the Act initiative, he believes, is to break the perceived hold of the teacher unions.

Although it would allow performance pay - which the unions oppose but he supports in principle as a way to retain and attract teachers to the profession - he doesn't see this or the possible introduction of untrained teachers as the main issue.

"There are schools within our state system that are stunningly successful. They just don't happen to be called charter schools.

"I think it's a false wish that we fundamentally believe in New Zealand that creating a different school is going to make a difference, when there's no evidence for that at all," Professor Hattie says.

Otahuhu College principal Gil Laurenson is one South Auckland principal who's fed up with being called a failure.

He's furious Mr Key and Mr Banks have implied local state schools show no flexibility to take on innovative projects and strongly denies this. "A lot of the things they are talking about are already happening."

He says schools love the Gateway scheme, which allows students to get work experience with local firms, but the funding doesn't match demand.

Most of all the veteran teacher rejects the Prime Minister linking South Auckland and student failure.

"At [Otahuhu College] - we've doubled the number of kids getting UE and we've more than doubled the number of kids getting level 3 NCEA in the last three or four years. There's some really good stuff happening but nobody's giving any credit."

What we know

* Can be run by a variety of organisations, including charities, religious groups, businesses or other schools.

* Will not charge fees and will receive the same funding as state schools.

* Will have freedom to change the curriculum, alter the length of the school day or term and introduce performance pay for teachers.

* Can set up new schools or take over existing ones.

What we don't know

* Whether schools will be allowed to use untrained teachers, which is common in US charter schools.

* Who will be in charge of setting and enforcing standards.

* What level of "failure" would trigger a charter group taking over an existing state school.

New education chief set up similar system in UK

The charter schools plan seemed to come from nowhere but suspicious minds have linked it to the arrival of the Ministry of Education's new British chief executive, Lesley Longstone.

Longstone was appointed in July and started work two weeks before the election. Her last role was overseeing the introduction of free schools - the UK version of charter schools - in Britain.

A YouTube video from January shows her speaking enthusiastically to a free schools conference about increased flexibility over staff pay and conditions, as well as the length of school days and terms. She also mentions the "amazing experiences in the US" and the moral purpose underlying the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Programme) charter school network, cited in the Act-National agreement as the main inspiration for the New Zealand project.

Asked what role, if any, Longstone had played in the deal, a Ministry of Education spokesman said there would be no comment on coalition negotiations.