16 Dec 2015

Govt to negotiate over charter school assets

6:34 pm on 16 December 2015

The failure of a Northland charter school does not reflect wider problems with privately-owned and publicly-funded schools, Education Minister Hekia Parata says.

The charter school about a week before opening in February.

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

Ms Parata has announced her intention to close Te Pūmanawa o te Wairua at Whangaruru, one of nine charter schools contracted by the government.

She said an audit in October showed major changes had happened at the school but the standard of teaching and learning had not improved by much.

National MP

Education Minister Hekia Parata Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

"Teaching and learning, which does take somewhat longer, in my judgement is not getting to where it needs to get to. That is the core responsibility of a school, and so on that basis I've begin discussions with the board to look at terminating the contract."

The school had some challenging students and ran into early difficulties that it could not resolve, Ms Parata said.

"This school is not one that is some kind of indicator of more structural problems with the model.

"It just happens to have been hostage to a number of very difficult challenges, and they found it a real challenge to be successful."

She said the government would have to negotiate over assets bought with public money, including a farm bought with the school's government set-up grant.

"There are provisions in the contract for this kind of outcome and they would be the subject of commercial negotiations - again, ones that I don't want to predetermine.

"In the event that the school closes, we would go into negotiations with them, in the same way as when a mainstream school closes we determine what the disposal mechanism might be."

The school's owners have been given until 15 January to respond to her proposal, which would close the school from 7 March.

School on notice since February

The school was put on notice in February, when the Education Minister required owner Ngā Parirau Mātauranga Charitable Trust to take immediate action to address areas of serious concern.

In May, a special audit identified financial, administrative and governance issues at the school that provided grounds to terminate the agreement.

In July, Ms Parata decided to allow the school to continue operating because of concerns about the school's 39 students, many of whom faced significant educational challenges and had been excluded from other schools.

She announced at that time that another audit would be conducted in October, and she would consider the school's future after she received that audit.

The school is one of five charter schools set up at the start of 2014.

Decision 'based on ideology'

NZEI national secretary Paul Goulter said it was obvious from the beginning that the Whangaruru school and its backers were ill-equipped to take on the task of running a school.

He said the Partnership Schools Authorisation Board, which recommended setting up the school, should take responsibility for its failure.

"The decision to establish and fund the school was wrong in the first place. It was a decision that appears to have been based on ideology and political agendas instead of on the best interests of children and their education," he said.

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ACT's David Seymour said he supported Ms Parata's proposal. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Green Party education spokesperson Catherine Delahunty said charter schools were an experiment that should be stopped.

"The resources that went into propping up a school that was never ready to open was a waste that could have been spent on supporting these students properly."

ACT's David Seymour is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education, with some responsibility for charter schools - a policy initiative his party helped introduce in 2011.

In a statement, he said he supported the minister's proposal and that the possibility of occasional failures was accepted when the policy was developed.

"Overseas evidence shows that closing failing schools and allowing successful schools to expand improves education outcomes as the charter or partnership model matures.

"Education innovators should continue to be commended for their bravery, supported in their efforts, be accountable for their failures and congratulated for their successes."

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