JUDE BARBACK checks in on New Zealand’s first charter school nearly three years on to find out how it is progressing, in spite of ongoing opposition to the partnership schools model.
I call Alwyn Poole the morning after Labour’s Member’s Bill to abolish charter schools was defeated in Parliament. I thought he’d be pleased – after all, his trust, Villa Education Trust, runs two of the eight partnership schools. But he is dismissive.
“That Bill has been in the ballot for so long. I think Chris Hipkins was probably a bit embarrassed that it was drawn out. He’s visited our school and seen what we’re achieving here,” he says.
Apparently the visit by the Labour education spokesman to South Auckland Middle School was well received. Poole speaks highly of Hipkins. I sense he appreciated that the MP took the time to come and see what the school was about and ask some “very astute questions”.
It has been almost three years since my visit to South Auckland Middle School, New Zealand’s very first charter school which opened in February 2014. Since then, Villa Education Trust opened a second partnership school, Middle School West Auckland in February 2015.
I’m eager to hear how both schools are performing. Of course, I’ve done my homework before the call, so I know from the public Education Review Office (ERO) reports and annual reports that the schools are both ticking along nicely.
But I was surprised to hear the extent to which the schools have been embraced by their communities. The trust has already requested, and been granted, the opportunity to extend its maximum roll from 120 to 180 at South Auckland Middle School. But even that isn’t cutting it. Poole says they’ve still got 100 students on the waitlist.
Poole says Middle School West Auckland has had a comparatively more difficult start than South Auckland Middle School. The initial principal failed to disclose some disciplinary proceedings he was involved with and resigned two weeks after the school opened. Then a teacher was killed in a car accident. However, the school is now in “outstanding shape” according to Poole, with its roll heading rapidly towards its maximum of 240 students. Its roll currently stands at 190 with some levels having wait-lists.
I jump on the schools’ Facebook pages and the community engagement is apparent. Posts about open days, school camps and local heroes are interspersed with clips of students discussing their learning and images of their work. Each is peppered with likes and comments. There are posts about research relating to learning, about tertiary study – encouraging parents to take a broader view of their students’ education.
I ask Poole whether South Auckland Middle School’s popularity is down to parents seeking alternatives from state schools that haven’t worked for their child, or down to its burgeoning good reputation.
“I think it’s a mixture of both,” he says. “The early adopters felt strongly that the local schools weren’t working for them. But now we have people seeking us out due to our reputation. We have fifteen kids per class – you know, it’s appealing.”
Not everyone is a fan, however. While the initial controversy surrounding charter schools has waned a little, the teacher unions and some political parties remain staunchly opposed to charter schools. Criticism is generally not directed at the individual schools per se, rather the partnership schools model which affords their existence.
The PPTA spokesperson Education Review spoke with expressed some relief that the schools emerging from New Zealand’s partnership school system did not appear to be emulating American charter schools and thus becoming the “worst possible version” of the model.
However, their original objections to charter schools still stand. The union still feels strongly that charter schools are an unnecessary drain on precious education funds that could be better spent on public schools. Their view is that the existing school system in New Zealand, which includes special character schools, can accommodate “alternative” schools, without the need of going down the charter school road. It is “criminal”, in the union’s opinion, to open up charter schools in Whangarei, for example, where there are spare places already in existing schools.
The PPTA also feels the evaluation of charter schools is very weak, and it is very difficult to draw comparisons with public schools. Until the maximum rolls are reached for the charter schools – and although the Villa Trust schools have done this, many others haven’t – comparisons are going to remain hard.
I ask Poole whether the union opposition still bothers him.
“There will always be some who are genuinely ideologically opposed – and we just have to live with that. At the end of the day we are focused on keeping our head down and doing a great job.”
He says this would be the trust’s focus regardless of whether they were operating as charter schools or not.
“We’re not advocates of the model.”
He says while the charter schools keep in loose communication with each other, they are each intent on achieving their own goals. Poole views the failure of the Whangaruru charter school as a blow – not because it was a charter school, but because “no one wants to see a school fail”.
Poole views the biggest challenge facing New Zealand charter schools as the lack of available funding for setting up and expanding schools, especially when compared with state schools.
The trust received around $1.3 million to set up South Auckland Middle School – an amount that pales in comparison to that allocated for new state schools like Rototuna Junior High School, says Poole. A year later, in the second round of partnership schools, the trust received slightly less than that amount to set up Middle School West Auckland, a school double the size of South Auckland Middle School.
Rounds three and four have seen schools allocated around $400,000 for set-up. Poole says Villa Education Trust would love to open more schools, but it won’t entertain the idea with such low set-up funding allowances.
The PPTA points to the small class sizes, teacher salaries and school uniforms as evidence that the funding levels for the first charter schools were perhaps too high.
While Poole is pleased and proud that his schools have been able to achieve these things, I glean that he is similarly frustrated by the lack of clarity from the Ministry of Education around the ability to expand the existing schools, although he is careful when discussing the trust’s relationship with the Ministry, hinting at contractual obligations.
The human element is what frustrates Poole the most about the brakes being put on the expansion process.
“We have parents desperate to enrol their child, and we have to tell them, ‘Sorry, you’re number 22 on the list’,” he says.
However, the Government has indicated there is unlikely to be any additional funding to the annual per-student amount the schools currently received.
The way Villa Education Trust operates its schools demonstrates that there certainly does appear to be sufficient funding to allow the schools to run effectively. Its ability to pay teachers more – “about five per cent above state schools” – and keep class sizes as low as 15 students per class and afford school camps to Northland and Wellington are all indicative of sufficient operational funding. This is what frustrates the unions and is perhaps why there is a reluctance to increase capital funding for set-up and expansion.
ACT party leader and charter school advocate David Seymour told Radio New Zealand in August that it was up to each of the schools to decide how to use their funding in the best interests of their students. He said it was entirely appropriate for the schools to make savings on property so they could spend more on other education expenses.
The better teacher salaries appear to be attracting good teachers, however Poole believes the schools’ conditions and approach to learning are what really appeals to staff – the low student: teacher ratios and the project-based integrated curriculum approach.
“We have good working conditions, but hard working conditions too,” he says. “We don’t have teacher-only days, there is no down time. We work right up to the last minute of term.”
Teachers have had their eyes opened to the many and varied backgrounds of their students. Poole says they relish the opportunity to broaden their students’ horizons. A recent camp to Northland revealed that of 30 children, 22 had never crossed the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Of the 40 students to attend a trip to Hawaii, many had never been on an aeroplane.
“We’re producing some great kids,” says Poole. “Our year 10 students are outstanding.”
He is eager to ensure their students have a smooth transition to high school. Collaboration with other local schools is still a work in progress it seems – “we’re working on it,” says Poole, rather drily.
He feels they’re making good progress in this area. The local high schools have been impressed with the calibre of their year 10 students, which has certainly helped.
In focusing on just two of the eight partnership schools, it is fair to say this is not a comprehensive overview of all New Zealand’s charter schools, or even the partnership schools model. An article on a different charter school would likely paint a very different picture. Like state schools and private schools, each school has its own strengths, challenges and goals.
The ideological opposition to charter schools will remain – and indeed there are some valid concerns about their implications for public education in this country that we shouldn’t dismiss – however, it is fair to conclude that South Auckland Middle School, regardless of its model or funding structure, is making a positive difference in the lives of many young people.