24 Jul 2015

Another chance for troubled charter school

8:29 pm on 24 July 2015

The Government is giving a troubled charter school at Whangaruru in Northland one more chance, and increasing its funding.

Education Minister Hekia Parata said she was allowing the school to stay open out of concern for its students.

The charter school about a week before opening in February.

The charter school about a week before opening in February 2014. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Documents published today showed the Education Ministry recommended closing the 39-student school, after a special audit in March concluded it was not capable of fixing its problems.

It said the school had fallen short on performance measures for student achievement, had breached some of the performance standards in its contract, and had inadequate financial practices.

The auditor said the problems were the result of systemic shortcomings.

But last week, the ministry advised the minister that many of the students were at risk, and the best option for them was to keep the school open for at least the rest of the year.

Ms Parata said that the school remained open in the interests of the students.

"This disruption in the middle of a school year to find other options for them would be greater than proceeding with this school.

"In the interests of these young people, I have made this decision. The board is aware that it is for the balance of this school year only, at this stage, and is subject to a further review in October."

The ministry said one of the students had no record of formal schooling, four had not been to school for several years, and others had discipline problems at other schools.

However, the school has had to agree to major changes to its governance and management.

Ms Parata said the Government would give the school an extra $129,000 this year to help with its improvement plan. She said the school's long-term future was not assured and it would be audited again in October.

The Government would get back some of its money if it closed the school, she said.

Hekia Parata

Education Minister Hekia Parata Photo: RNZ

Te Pumanawa o te Wairua at Whangaruru in Northland used its government funding to buy a $1.3 million farm, and it is unclear what would happen to the land if the school is closed.

"I have reached agreement with the trustees, that we would expect to be able to realise their assets and chattels, in order to recoup as much of the government funding as possible," Ms Parata said.

"That has been very clearly discussed but at the moment, it is absolutely part of the property of the trust."

The school opened last year with 71 students and the name Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru, which it later changed to Te Pumanawa o te Wairua.

But there were doubts about it even before it accepted its first students.

The Education Ministry told the Government in 2013 the school's owners needed more time to develop their proposal.

When it was given the green light in September that year, the deal included a "governance facilitator" to help the owners with the set-up.

But the school soon ran into problems with allegations of poor behaviour, truancy and drug use, and criticism of its purchase of the farm.

Because it is so small, its base funding means it has a very high rate of funding per student - about $30,000 per student compared to an average of about $7500 per student at regular state schools.

The school's figure rises to more than $45,000 per student if property funding is included.

Audit finds serious problems at all levels

The audit conducted in March by Deloitte found serious problems at all levels of the school.

"The breaches and failings noted in the report are continuous and are a result of systemic process shortcomings with the kura's governance, operation and financial management practices."

It said the school had poor financial systems and staff did not follow its financial policies. It warned that the school was not insolvent, but careful management would be needed this year.

The report said the school had failed to meet minimum and agreed requirements in several areas including the number of qualified teachers, police vetting of staff, and for disciplining students.

It said only two students gained an NCEA qualification last year and, at the time of the review, only one of the four teachers was registered.

It also said it was hard to be sure the school was safe at all times, and its trustees acknowledged they did not have the experience and capability to run the kura to the required standard.

At the start of this year, the ministry advised the Government to allow the school to continue only if it quickly replaced its leadership team with experienced staff.

In February, Ms Parata gave the school four weeks to improve, citing concerns about low enrolments and poor attendance.

She said she had the power to close it at any time if it failed to act on its improvement plan.

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