A small Remuera private school points the way for innovative teaching in low-decile areas too

This week I saw a charter school. Mt Hobson Middle School is in Remuera where plenty of parents can afford its $12,000 annual fee and $900 of sundry charges, but it wants to offer the same education to kids in West Auckland.

The principal, Alwyn Poole, contacted me after a column that lamented an apparent lack of interest among teachers in the pot of money the Government will set aside for two new independent and innovative schools in low-income areas.

"If you would like to see a very good model for a charter school," said the email, "come and see us."


I made a date and then began to regret it. 'Middle School' sounded like a modern state intermediate and his message had been terse. I feared I was in for a tour of industrious classrooms cluttered with pupils' art.

Or worse, the school could be dedicated to the denial of evolution or to some pedagogic theory of play. It looked like the latter when I went to the address and found a converted house.

But Alwyn Poole turned out to be a quietly serious teacher, previously at Tauranga Boys College, Hamilton Boys and St Cuthberts.

Ten years ago he and wife Karen sold their house to set up this private school for what he calls project-based learning.

As best as I could understand it, they teach all the subjects in New Zealand's required curriculum through 32 projects, such as plants, animals, architecture, great books, a foreign language ...

Under those themes each class has visiting speakers and gets out a great deal to see the knowledge in real life.

I'm not qualified to judge the merits of this. I can see how geometry might be taught through architecture but maths in plants escapes me.

Then again, it doesn't sound very different from methods outlined in national curriculum documents these days.

Poole says it is not very different but reckons that under state control he couldn't do what he is doing. Something to do with "structures" and "inertia".

As a private school it has to pass inspections by the Education Review Office and receives a Government subsidy of $1500 a pupil.

It has room for only 50 kids, a dozen or so in each class. (Middle schools, for readers of my vintage, are intermediates with third and fourth forms added.)

Poole says he does not select the students, "first in, first served".

He says they have a normal range of ability but almost all do well. He claims a 95 per cent pass rate in Level 1 NCEA when they go on to high schools.

I took the tour. Each room of the old house contained a small class in uniform, seated at desks in front of a teacher at a podium with a board or screen behind her. Two rooms had banks of computers for pupils' use.

There were no playgrounds. They used local parks and all the facilities in nearby Newmarket for swimming, phys ed and sports.

He had a second school in Parnell for a while and another based on the model has opened at Upper Hutt.

The next, with charter funding, could be in West Auckland. He has approached the Waipareira Trust with a proposal for a joint application under the trial that Act negotiated with National in its coalition agreement.

Poole believes that funding at the level state schools receive ($8500 a child, he thinks) would enable him to do most of what he does for $14,400 in Remuera because overheads in the West would be lower.

He doesn't like the name charter school because American ideas are not welcome in his profession, and he visibly despairs at peers who suggest he is in it for a profit.

"You don't make profits in education." The Pooles are still in a rented house.

On the day I visited the news was of "white flight". Figures had shown Pakeha were disappearing from the lowest decile schools.

The profession's response was to suggest decile ratings be kept secret because parents didn't understand them.

Parents understand them perfectly. No amount of decile funding can compensate for a poor neighbourhood. The equality that zoning regulations and decile grants aim to produce will always prove elusive.

When my kids were little their nearest school was in the middle of a post-war state housing project. We didn't know its decile, the state of the neighbourhood was enough for everyone in our street to send their kids to the next school.

Would I have sent them to one on Poole's model? Probably not, I like big schools with playgrounds and plenty of opportunities on site. I don't care as much for tiny classes and personal attention, but others have different priorities and their kids different needs.

Charter schools will spend public money differently and give more people more choice.