One of the challenges for the relatively new Government in 2018 is what to do with charter schools.
The Prime Minister and the Minister of Education appear intent on transitioning charter schools to becoming special character schools. This is highly ironic, as the Villa Education Trust investigated the special character school pathway years ago (under a previous Labour government) and was firmly rebuffed. Further, on 30 July last year I met briefly with Jacinda Ardern, who said, “You have shown us the inadequacy of our special character school policy.”
During question time in Parliament recently, the Prime Minister put some conditions on the continuation of charter schools that are easily – and already – met by these schools. These are that the schools:
- have registered teachers. This is already the case, with exceptions similar to the recently expanded state school exceptions for Limited Authorities to Teach.
- teach The New Zealand Curriculum. This is also already the case.
- operate on the same cost to taxpayers as state schools. This is the case already in terms of annual operations for the equivalent size, decile and year level.
Given that the Prime Minister has mentioned no other change requirements for the schools and has acknowledged the inadequacy of the special character school policy, the changes needed to the policy/legislation become very obvious:
- Allow the continuation of the ownership and governance structures of the current charter schools. They have shown a clear need in New Zealand for privately operated and state-funded niche schools effectively reaching students and families who are otherwise failing.
- Allow the continuation of bulk funding for these schools. This is what gives the schools choices with provision of services to families and the structure of the school day, etc. This comes at absolutely no extra cost to the taxpayer and has not been mentioned as being any issue by the new Government.
- Allow teachers in special character schools to be outside the national award; i.e. able to be individually contracted. Again, this gives flexibility that allows a more differentiated model (including day structure, contact hours and providing incentives to work with ‘priority learners’). This also creates no extra cost to the taxpayer.
This is a policy that needs growth and enhancement. The changes required are cost neutral and highly beneficial to the children and families who are clearly making progress under this model.
The Government may also have to look at better establishment and expansion funding and processes, which are a mess under the current Partnership Schools policy. Charter schools are woefully funded for establishment (approximately five per cent of state schools) and not funded at all for expansion. Hence, for example, South Auckland Middle School has huge wait-lists but no adequate contractual provision to solve this.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins has done a good thing by publicly guaranteeing the future of the nine-student ($330,000 per student) Salisbury School in Nelson. He attempted to state that he was also being generous by guaranteeing the continuation of the charter schools until the end of 2018.
In fact, under the contractual structure he had very little choice. The 1,200 children/families currently attending charter schools need the same intelligent compassion he has shown Salisbury.
He needs to publicly declare that the changes above will be worked through and that he, the Prime Minister and the Government will ensure that this type of school continues to thrive.
Alwyn Poole is the founder of Villa Education Trust, which operates charter schools South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland.