Critics of charter schools, and the political leaders considering their fate, should look carefully at the students these schools are serving, and what they are achieving. At the very least they should visit the schools and assess these things for themselves before passing judgment.
As a former member of the Kura Hourua Partnership Schools Authorisation Board, and now a cultural adviser to it, I have had the privilege of visiting many of the schools and observing their progress.
I recently visited Te Aratika Academy, a new kura established in Hastings this year by Te Aratika Drilling. Te Aratika (the right path) is a Māori-owned civil construction company with a history of providing cadetships to help young, out-of-school, unemployed, "going nowhere" Māori and Pacific boys to get the vocational qualifications they need to get a job in the construction industry.
Through this experience they saw the need to reach these boys sooner, by establishing a senior secondary school. They have the backing of Ngati Kahungungu in doing this.
It is still early days for the school, but they are succeeding in engaging with a group of our rangatahi who would otherwise most likely not be in school at all.
Their roll is 100 per cent "priority" (disadvantaged) students. Three quarters of the students have already been involved in the youth justice system. Some have dropped out or been kicked out of previous schools, and most are well behind educationally. Some have significant learning difficulties.
So what is Te Aratika Academy doing for them? For a start these boys are in school. They have an 85 per cent attendance rate.
The school collects them at 6.30am and the day starts with exercise and breakfast. The school's teaching and learning approach is to blend developing the boys' foundational numeracy and literacy skills, with subjects that excite and engage them, be they vocational, cultural or academic.
I watched them working on electronic music composition and robotics. The powhiri they greeted us with was breathtaking. They were both friendly and respectful in demeanour, and there is a sense of manaakitanga and whanaungatanga about the school.
The challenges Te Aratika face in enabling these students to get the qualifications they need to achieve their dreams are, and will continue to be, very great. They may not all succeed but by using the freedom and flexibilities available through the Kura Hourua model to do things differently, and by meeting the requirement to be accountable for their results, Te Aratika is at least giving these students a chance.
And the school will stand or fall on its results.
Te Aratika describes its students as "atypical stars", young people who, for whatever reason, may have had a difficult start in life but who are nevertheless capable of greatness. The school's mission is to enable them to be life ready and career ready, with the skills they need to lead purposeful, fulfilling lives.
This in essence is the purpose of Kura Hourua. It is to acknowledge that despite the very best intentions of those who run them, regular state schools are not always able to meet the diverse needs of all their students, and too many children are falling through the cracks. A large proportion of these children are Māori and Pacific.
Kura Hourua must enrol at least 75 per cent priority students. They must also commit to high standards of academic achievement, student and whanau engagement, and financial management. In return they have significant freedom to use their resources (which are equivalent to the per-child rate spent in regular state schools) in innovative ways to achieve these standards.
Early academic results from the schools are very encouraging and in many cases outstanding.
Looking across the 10 Kura Hourua, we see great diversity in how the schools are achieving this. They differ markedly in their missions, ethos and teaching models, as well as in their management, community partnerships and property arrangements.
Some are bilingual. Some offer Māori immersion. Sponsors (the group that operates the school and is accountable to the Crown) include iwi, an urban Māori authority, community groups, businesses and teachers.
This diversity of offering, albeit on a small scale at present, is surely reflective of our country's increasing diversity, and the need to acknowledge and respond effectively to the wide range of differing needs and preferences of our communities and their children.
It is for this reason that at a 2015 meeting of the Iwi Chairs Forum, iwi leaders resolved to actively support the establishment of Kura Hourua in their rohe, and to advocate publicly for the concept in our communities and with the Government.
While Kura Hourua are but one of many initiatives aimed at closing the educational achievement gap between Māori and non-Māori, they offer the greatest scope for communities to be part of the solution. And they are working.
It is noteworthy that charter schools in the US, and academies/free schools in the UK, enjoy the active support of both sides of the political spectrum. Let us hope that our new Government, with its commitment to reducing poverty and disadvantage, will look at the facts dispassionately, rise above politics, and acknowledge that this initiative is one that should be preserved and embraced.
Heoi ano, nga mihi.
Dr Sir Toby Curtis, Ngāti Rongamai and Ngāti Pikaio, is a member of the Iwi Chairs Forum and cultural adviser to the Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua Authorisation Board.