More innovation or wacky ideas? And how does the government square a commitment to quality teaching with its decision to let anyone's Uncle Jim teach struggling kids? Just a couple of the questions posed by charter schools. But wait, there's more...

Charter schools. Sigh. You get the feeling that everyone -- except Catherine Isaac and the teacher unions -- is going through the motions on these, mouthing the right words but without genuine passion. It's a promised honoured, but that's about it.

The government announced more details this past week -- the schools will be called partnership schools (although I don't seen anyone rushing to use that new moniker) and those employed to teach the kids will be able to be unregistered and unqualified. The schools will be free to innovate, which means able to go right off curriculum. And they'll be able to be run for profit. This new type of school will appear in 2014.

The government insists none of the obvious concerns that stem from that are anything to worry about because they'll all be strictly monitored. But that won't stop the teacher unions pointing out the risks to teaching quality and child safety that comes from letting just any old Tom, Willie or Harriet take over a classroom.

None of those launching this policy did so with any real gusto, however. You see, it's awkward for all and sundry.

Education minister Hekia Parata flew in from Samoa to be at the announcement, but she was perfunctory in her comments, eager to hand over to her associate minister John Banks.

National is fulfilling its coalition duty here -- charter schools was what ACT really, really wanted from Santa after the election -- but they seem to be lying back and thinking of England on this one. Just look at how Key stressed any failing charter schools would be quickly closed down. Parata was refusing interviews saying this was just a tiny part of her portfolio covering no more than a handful of schools.

The big tangle for the government is that just a few months ago it was dying in a ditch over teacher quality. That was SO important, it said, that class sizes had to be sacrificed to ensure better trained teachers.

Just weeks later, it's relaxed about entirely untrained folk teaching our kids. At the same time its spent years fighting for national standards, which compel schools to focus on reading, writing and maths at the expense of art, science and the rest.

Now, all of a sudden, breadth and innovation is a good thing and if some schools want to ignore the curriculum altogether and teach lots of meditation or culture, well that's just super.

And what about child safety? Back in February Parata was shocked when a convicted sex offender was found to have worked in schools. You might think she'd be feeling the pressure from parents to have a closer eye on who gets to care for kids in schools, not loosening the rules.

You can understand why National's not exactly singing this from the rafters.

John Banks would have liked to have been more enthusiastic, I imagine. But with his credibility hanging by a thread following the donations saga, he seemed to have other things on his mind as well. He too didn't want to actually speak publicly about how great his great policy win was, turning down interview requests. Which must raise questions about his ability to operate as a party leader, if not as a minister. Former ACT MP Deborah Coddington was tweeting today that it was "disgraceful" Banks wouldn't front for interviews on these schools when he plans to spend taxpayer dollars on them.

The message from ACT -- and National for that matter -- is that this is all about new ways to rescue the failing "tail" of pupils, which they put at anywhere from 20% to 31%. Speak to education academics and they put the "tail" at more like 10-15%.

Which makes you wonder if there hasn't always been around 10% of kids who simply don't fit into the mainstream and have never been much good at reading or counting. Is this really the modern crisis it's often portrayed as?

The government likes to parade school failure as something that's new and getting worse. Cue action. The response has been that it's the education system that's failing that supposed 20%. Hence the need for their reforms and innovative new schools.

But isn't it worth stopping to consider that the "tail" may not be suffering at the hands of their schools, but rather their parents and community? Tweak the system as much as you like, but if the child is getting beaten at home... or isn't getting enough food or sleep... or isn't encouraged... or is moving often as their parent moves relationships or jobs... then perhaps all this attention and effort is being focused on the wrong place.

And one last thought. Fans of charter schools are playing down the risk of more extreme folk opening new schools -- they must despair when the transcendental meditation crowd and Destiny Church show an interest, as they play so easily into many people's fears of wackiness.

It's fair to say the government will keep a tight rein on who it allows to open a school, of course. But with the best will in the world, it's not going to be an easy line to draw.

Consider Mt Hobson middle school in Remuera. It's considered a great little school, with registered teachers, small classes and no profit motive. It's got a Christian ethos, but most of its pupils come from non-religious homes. The folk behind that want to open charter schools.

So all well and good? In some ways. But they'd also like to teach intelligent design alongside evolution at those schools. That's straight out of Kansas. Is it OK for tax dollars to fund that? Is it OK for children to be taught that, if that's what their parents want? And what other non-curriculum stuff could creep into charter schools and where do we draw the line?

Innovation is great and maybe these schools be find ways of engaging hard-to-reach pupils; but too much freedom is an opportunity for bad teaching and even extreme ideologies. So while the ruling parties are fulfilling their duty to each other, there are still questions to be answered as to whether they're doing their duty to our kids; especially the most vulnerable kids these schools will be targeting.

Comments (17)

by Dave Kennedy on August 06, 2012
Dave Kennedy

It is frustrating that underachievement is still being substantially blamed on teacher performance. The internationally recognised academic, Margaret Wu, claims that teaching makes up only 10% of all factors that contribute to a child's achievement. Factors like socio economic background have a far greater influence than anything a teacher can do.

No matter how good schools and teachers are they must still manage the huge deficits that children can bring through their school gates. Surely the fact that many schools are having to spend community funds on food and shoes for their children, rather than educational resources, speaks volumes.

It has been claimed that 50% of all children will experience poverty at some time during their childhood (Maori families have lost $40 per week in income over the last 4 years and Pacifika families $65), we have one of the highest levels of working mothers in the OECD (61% of mothers with children aged under 12 months work) and a growing number of children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Surely these are the areas that we need to prioritise rather than making huge changes to an education system that has consistently ranked in the top 5 internationally.  




by Chris de Lisle on August 06, 2012
Chris de Lisle

Fact of the matter is that teachers can go off curriculum anyway, if they feel deeply passionate about it - they aren't being watched at all times (This isn't Britain).

For instance, my strongly Christian fifth form science teacher insisted on teaching intelligent design alongside evolution, even though he was teaching at a public school. I imagine that he wouldn't have done it with an ERO representative in the classroom, but that was a rare occurence. Really, he enjoyed plenty of freedom of action, without any charter.

by Richard Aston on August 06, 2012
Richard Aston

While I abhor every that that Act stands for I think the Charter Schools idea has merit.

Don’t you think it’s kind of arrogant to think that only people trained by our current teacher education can be effective teachers? Do you think in arrogant to say education can only be achieved with the current curricula systems design by a collective of unknown educationalists?

I like the idea that our education system has room for different approaches that could provide some innovation.  Now saying we should change the whole system but allow at least a part of it to try something different. It is a parents/student’s choice to step into a different educational model so what’s the harm.

Tim your assumption that all those failing in the current system needs testing.  Yes no doubt many from dysfunctional families will struggle but not all and I have seen to many BComs in business who still cannot think, communicate or relate.

If you think of education as training – yes it’s debatable - then current curricula is being challenge by many in business as out of whack with current industry needs.  There are collaborative projects in place attempting to bridge the huge gap between industry and education.

Aside from this idea being tarnished by its association with ACT I don’t fully understand the resistance.

by Deborah Coddington on August 06, 2012
Deborah Coddington

I cringe to see Act pushing Charter Schools as the answer to rescuing students who are struggling in the current system. Remember, Charter Schools (and let's forget this nonsense about giving them another name and hoping the controversy will go away) are, I believe, for secondary students, so isn't it a big ask to try and rescue students then?

Act, back when I was education spokesperson, was focused on choice. If these schools give parents and teachers another choice, then why is that bad? Why is Act so hell-bent on having unregistered teachers? Why buy a fight there? State schools already have unregistered 'teachers' from the community come in part time and teach music etc, so what's the big deal? Why didn't Act copy that model?

Actually, I did a story for North & South a couple of months back on Charter Schools and they're not all they're cracked up to be, about the same results (in the USA) as state, and private, schools so no surprises there.

It's not just the school, it's the principals, the board, the teachers, the parents, etc. I think Act is setting itself up for failure by declaring these schools will save all these children who can't read, write and do maths. They won't. And on Q & A Catherine Isaac didn't say anything to prove they would.

John Tamihere actually put up a far better argument in favour of them, when he brought out the Kura analogy. Someone like him should be driving them, someone who actually knows what he's talking about, at grassroots, away from the ideology.

At the moment they're doomed to fail, which is a pity, I think, not because I'm particularly in favour of them (my study at Wolfson was different, I didn't touch on Charter Schools) but because I do think innovation is a good thing.

But Act - in particular John Banks - is baggage.

by Richard Aston on August 06, 2012
Richard Aston

Dave -- you make some good points around the social work needed in some areas to support education but why can't the schools be part of this and in fact are they part of the problem? I visited a school cluster in the far north this year running a Parent Mentoring programme aimed explore ways for school to engage with parents before their kids come to primary school. The truth is a lot a whanua just don't trust the schools or understand the culture. Engaging with these parents earlier brought them onboard with the idea of education. Yes the majority of these whanau would be very low income but it wasn't the poverty itself that stopped then supporting education it was a lack of understanding appreciation of what education could do for their kids.

This was all driven out of conversations with parents who felt alienated from the educational culture. If you have no education yourself and your kids go off to school and become educated a gulf can be created between whanua and children. The kids become aliens at home.

I have seen some very sad examples of this in Queensland with aboriginal kids , educated but completely alientated from the communities they return to. 





by Tim Watkin on August 06, 2012
Tim Watkin

Richard, I'm not sure what assumption you're referring to. I wasn't so much making a case one way or the other on this, but rather pointing out the political risks/costs.

What happens if one of those unregistered teachers turns out to have a criminal record? What if intelligent design gets taught and then exposed on Close Up or Campbell? How long before we can judge whether the charter schools are making a difference to that bottom tail? Doesn't National seem to be contradicting itself on teacher quality? The answers to those questions have political implications.

I tend to think trained and registered teachers are a good idea, as with any professionals who would have such significant care for my kids, but I do see the point that many others may have something to offer.

My major criticism is the whole premise for the need to innovate/experiment. The claims is that 20% can't read or count and I don't believe it. I don't believe the number's that big; I suspect (though this is based on gut rather than evidence and I'm open to being convinced otherwise) that we've long (maybe always) had such a tail; and I don't think teachers and the current system are the most obvious culprits when it comes to that tail. If you want to save more of those failing kids, look at the home and the community, not the schools. That's where you'll get more results.

by Dave Kennedy on August 07, 2012
Dave Kennedy

Richard, I agree with you about the need for a closer relationship between whanau and the school. I personally believe that all children should have an IEP (Individualised Education Programme). These are use to support children with high needs but their collaborative approach would work with any child. Despite this our system is still a strong one and you only have to teach outside New Zealand to realize how great our teaching approach is here. We don't need systemic change, as Anne Tolley claimed at the 2011 National Party conference, but greater professional support for teachers. If we raised the status of teachers as an occupation it would attract more able people and retain the good ones. 

Tim, when you take of the children with disabilities and high learning needs (we still have to assess them against the National Standards) and those children with English as a second language or have a very different cultural background, the tail is considerably smaller. 



by Tim Watkin on August 07, 2012
Tim Watkin

Alwyn Poole from Mt Hobson has been in touch to say they include intelligent design in their existing science classes -- but only for an or hour so. The appeal of charter schools of him is to be able to create new schools mimicing what they do in Remuera in other parts of the city, but using state dollars rather than private fees. He says people who cannot afford it otherwise will have access to private school quality education and resourcing.

One of the obvious questions, I guess, is that if the state can pay him to run such a school, why wouldn't it do it itself - ie do what he's doing with existing state schools?

by donna on August 07, 2012

"if the state can pay [Alwyn Poole] to run such a school, why wouldn't it do it itself?"

Exactly, and that is the heart of the issue. And the answer is that ACT and its fellow travellers on the nutty right (and that appears to include almost anyone working in Treasury at the moment) are more interested in milking a profit from the state system than actually providing equality of opportunity to disadvantaged kids. Charter schools also undermine the very notion of state provision of social services, especially education. Choice, schmoice.

And these are not the children of the well-heeled residents of Mt Hobson, Parnell, or central Wellington. Oh my gosh no. No untrained teachers or large class sizes for them. These are children in neighbourhoods like mine, with parents who can work 2 or 3 low-paid jobs that offer no flexitime (a middle-class luxury), children who often have no English at home, are likely to have to shift house every six months or so, and suffer ill health. Why anyone thinks "innovative" schools will be able to deal with that when trained dedicated people within the current system are struggling is beyond me.

But on the bright side, the first couple of charter schools will do very well. They will get to pick the cream off the top, and for political showcasing, they will produce good results. It's the dross that comes after that will be the worry.

by Richard Aston on August 07, 2012
Richard Aston

Re literacy stats there is the Adult Literacy in New Zealand: Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey. 1996

That rates on average 20% of newzealanders with  literacy level of 1

Their defination of Level 1: "People at this level have very poor skills, and could be expected to experience considerable difficulties in using many of the printed materials that maybe encountered in dailylife."

Looking at NZQA stats the above number is reflected at year 11 , worsed in low decile schools.

I have collegues working in prisons where the literacies levels are well know to be very low.

So the problem re literacy is very real and has consquences

I agree that trained teachers are a good idea but I am challenging the notion the training is sourced from one approach or perspective on education, ie the mainstream teacher training programmes.

Why do we assume the current teacher training source is the only valid one. Are there other approaches to education that need to be trialled ?


by Richard Aston on August 07, 2012
Richard Aston

"If you want to save more of those failing kids, look at the home and the community, not the schools. That's where you'll get more results."

Based on what evidence or experiance ? The above is a useful opnion to start with but does it stand up?

Yes I agree a supportive home enviroment will help improve educational achievements for some kids but what does it mean to "look at the home ... " who is going to do that ?Can schools not play some part in that ? After all if education of the child is the school's aim why not enage with the whanua if that will make the difference, why separate whanua from education?

On another more radical note if a whanua or community cannot or will not support the traditional acedemic focus of education why not change the education approach to suit the needs of those whanua and community .

Kura kaupapa are a great example  - and that movement is fighting government attempts to "train" their teachers , because they never wanted teachers with the traditional acedemic approach to education in the first place.

The kura approach is current seeping into mainstream schools in places , driven by principals looking for creative ways to enage with students.

Sorry for the rant but I feel quite passionate about the state of education and really struggle with almost blanket resistance to changing anything about it at all.



by Richard Aston on August 07, 2012
Richard Aston

Deborah - absolutely agree with you that ACT are the wrong people to be championing alternative educational approaches. Their motives appear to be entirely poliltical and based on the old tired free market ideology. Its an embarrassment. 

But I do think we need to have the debate and perhaps the first task is to take it away from the ACT/charter schools media mush pit .



by Tim Watkin on August 07, 2012
Tim Watkin

Richard, I can't lay my hands on my notes now but I've spoken to several academics who put the figure at around 10-15%. From memory they relied on the OECD, on Otago University longevity figures and various education studies/journals.

I'm not saying literacy, as one emasure, is not a problem. I'm doubting the scale and whether it's new. For example, do you know if that figure from the literacy survey is getting better or worse over the decades?

I've also seen evidence on the home situation and how it matters more than schools- but will have to hunt it out. Did Hattie grade that in his list of impacts, perhaps? Donna makes the points I'm getting at and gives good examples of the home-life realities that stop kids getting a good education in the current system.

by Richard Aston on August 07, 2012
Richard Aston

Its unfortunate this debate has been generated by ACT's charter school ideas - whatever their motivation, ACT will of course be gone by next election along with their charter school idea. But for me the need to question and debate the status, quality and scope of our mainstream education system will remain. Am I hopeful we will have that debate, no, the resistance to questioning the established education system is huge. Which puzzles me. We have endless debates on what is wrong with our social welfare system , which is run by well trained and qualified experts, but education it seems is untouchable, other than to say we need more of it, more participation in it or the system needs more spent on it . 

Bye the way is it just me or is that CAPTCHA especially difficult to get first time?





by Tim Watkin on August 08, 2012
Tim Watkin

I guess one difference between education and welfare is that we've long had an education system considered world leading and innovative; not sure if that's as true in welfare. Some will say the teacher union strength may be a factor in the status quo, but a) we've actually had quite a lot of radical change in NZ education since Tomorrow's Schools and b) the teachers have been open to at least some of the change.

Sorry about the captcha - we're made it easier, then harder, then eased it back again. It's not case sensitive any more, for example. But the good thing is that it does seem to be keeping some of the scammers at bay at the mo.

by DeepRed on August 11, 2012

<a href=>Scientology</a>, Wahhabism, and the Texas State Board of Education's textbook revisionism, also come to mind.

by danniel on March 21, 2013

I guess time will tell how the charter schools are going to affect our education system, but I think for that to happen we should give them a try. We can't know they are bad unless we see them in action, it's a risk we have to take. I have graduated from an online college and I remember everyone used to have second thoughts about them too, but in the end they proved to be a great opportunity for working students.


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