Charter schools wait on their fate

The children at South Auckland Middle School won't know the fate of their school until after the election. Photo: Supplied

When partnership schools were first set up some of them struggled to reach the guaranteed minimum rolls for which they were funded, but with several hundred students now on their rolls, the management of the schools (popularly known as 'charter schools') are holding their breath until the election and hoping a Labour-Green government wouldn't have the heart to follow through with shutting them down.

Eleven partnership schools have been set up since a law change in 2013 allowed private businesses and charities to apply for government funding to run 'charter schools'. Ten are left standing after the Whangaruru school in Northland failed. Last year's Budget included funding for several more.

Three of the biggest are Vanguard Military School (which was still slightly under its guaranteed minimum roll of 154 at the time of its last ERO report in August), South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland.

The two middle schools, which teach Year 7 to Year 10, are both run by the Villa Education Trust.

Alwyn Poole, trust board member and academic advisor, said South Auckland Middle School was full at 180 students, "with 80 on a waitlist but no policy means or incentive for expansion," while Middle School West Auckland was at 205 "and growing fast towards its maximum of 240 in its third year after a difficult first year."

Don't play ping-pong with the kids

Poole argued that, with the partnership schools now part of the educational landscape, opposition politicians needed to stop using them as the latest 'dog-whistle' issue.

Projecting ahead to that anticipated full roll, he said: "someone stands up in parliament and says 'we will shut them' – but there are now 420 children that are in our schools. If you talked about shutting down 420 children in state schools, you'd have people on the street with pickets."

"That's 420 families who have gone 'this is working for us', therefore this is what we want. And what the families have loved – and we have got a huge waiting list – is that the kids have a full-on academic morning that virtually nothing interrupts. They like that we make it entirely free, so we provide their uniform, we provide the stationery, we don't make them bring their own devices.

"They like that we have only 15 kids per class and they like the mode of work in terms of their kids producing projects."

Yet, Poole claimed, politicians use the schools as "political ping-pongs", ignoring the wishes of families and the potential impact on students if the partnership schools were forced to close.

He gave the example of Labour Education spokesperson Chris Hipkins addressing a public meeting in Palmerston North: "We have got a good relationship with Chris and he has seen the school and he appreciates it - but he says 'we'll abolish charter schools' and everybody in the audience starts clapping. Well, Palmerston North doesn’t have a charter school, they probably don't know what one looks like, they don't know the kids that we are working with – it just becomes this way of saying something," Poole said.

It's not just talk

But much as Poole likes to think it is just dog-whistle rhetoric, Labour and the Greens remain determined the schools will go if they win the election.

The two parties are united in their position on shutting down the schools. New Zealand First is also opposed to partnership schools; its policy is to "end public funding for these privately-owned profit making opportunities."

Hipkins' response to Newsroom was simple: "Labour's position on charter schools hasn't changed. They won't continue under Labour."

Rejecting Poole's other claim that the partnership schools were good value for money as the government paid much less than to build a new state school, ("these schools start on an oily rag"), Hipkins said there was "a massive imbalance in the funding model for charter schools that sees them get significant more than comparable state schools."

"The numbers speak for themselves. They might claim they aren't better funded but the numbers say otherwise."

The Green Party was also unmoved, although left open the chance the schools could be absorbed into the state system as 'special character schools'.

" The Green Party will close charters but will transition the schools to special character schools wherever possible," said Greens Education spokesperson Catherine Delahunty.

"Charters are an experiment in privatisation, one of which has collapsed and others are highly controversial. If the resources that have been spent on these contract based unaccountable schools had been given to existing state schools it would have benefited more children."

The Maori Party's policy is to support the continued funding of partnerships schools, which it says are "having a positive impact" for Maori children.

Would they really do it?

Asked what he thought families would do if the schools face closure, Poole said he still didn't think a new government would follow through.

"Should there be a change of government, I do not believe they will be shut down as such. They are high demand community based schools that are making a huge difference for the 400 plus students and their families. They are innovative, positive places that the families invest time and energy in.

"We have significant respect for Chris Hipkins and he has taken the time to visit South Auckland Middle School and get some understanding of the model and the effects. There could be some alterations to the policy but we believe that Mr Hipkins understands why parents are making choices about the schooling of their children at the Charter Schools. If there was actually some kind of plan to shut the schools I am sure there would be many families massively upset as they have found a niche for their children."

Poole took the approach he honed at the private Mount Hobson middle school in the heart of upmarket Auckland to the very different demographics of South and West Auckland when the trust set up the two partnership schools.

The schools offer a highly academic programme, featuring lots of Shakespeare and advanced science, which Poole compared to low decile state schools where, he said, students were not challenged or extended because schools had gone too far in choosing to "teach to their level, teach to their interests".

The ERO's first report on Middle School West Auckland found it had "made a successful start" with the children "responding positively to the teachers' high expectations".

Things are not going so well at South Auckland Middle School. In its latest report, in August last year, the ERO said the school was "not yet meeting all the obligations outlined in the Agreement with the Crown." In 2015, three students were suspended and one excluded, and the ERO reported a high number of unjustified absences. But it also found students were "highly engaged in their learning and respond positively to the challenges inherent in the programme."

Entering into the arena of charter schools means entering into heated debate, as Poole has found. Before its positive ERO report, Middle School West Auckland was the focus of media reports claiming fighting and students bribed with junk food. "It was a good year inside, not so good from the outside," Poole said.

It's only going to heat up more if there is a change of government. But it looks like the question may end as: will there be protests and pickets outside the schools or will they shut up shop quietly?