Charter schools & mixed messages -- is this an intelligent design?

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.