23 May 2024

The deal with charter schools

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 23 May 2024

A return to charter schools is again a leap into the unknown, with educational institutions wanting to see the details of the new legislation before they change back

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Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

By the time term one starts next year up to 35 state schools will be open as charter schools, six years after the model was abolished the first time around.

They have just six months to get ready for the change but even the old charter schools haven't decided whether they'll make the switch back.

"We're at the point that we'll wait and see what comes out in the legislation," says Karen van Gemerden, chief executive of Villa Education Trust which runs South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland for years seven to 10.

South Auckland Middle School.

 South Auckland Middle School used to operate as a charter school before they were changed to a designated character school under Labour. Photo: Supplied/Google Maps

"I think it's very likely to be a very positive thing but until the details are announced I think it would be hard for anyone to say straight out that they're going to convert when they don't actually know what the model looks like."

Villa was among the first to be granted charter school status for its schools under the previous National government but changed to a designated character school under Labour.

Van Gemerden welcomes the revival of the charter schools but says Villa is working well as a special designated character school.

"Switching to be a designated character school did give us more availability to some of the ministry resources for some support of the students etc that we weren't entitled to as a charter school," she says.   

It was no surprise when the Associate Education Minister and ACT leader David Seymour last week announced charter schools' reinstatement, after promising to revive them during last year's election campaign.

The Government will allocate NZ$153 million from the 2024 Budget to convert 35 state schools into charter schools next year and create 15 new charter schools between 2025 and 2026.

Most of that money will be spent on the 15 new schools over the next four years, RNZ education correspondent John Gerritsen tells The Detail.

Called partnership schools or kura hourua, the model horrifies the critics who say there's no evidence that they are public money well spent. Supporters say they give schools autonomy and flexibility to educate students who are failing in the mainstream system.

Some of them have also been at the centre of some wide-ranging controversies. 

What's not known is which state schools will convert and what scrutiny they will face, Gerritsen says.

"There's a whole lot of potential fishhooks that worry some people," he says. 

Reports from the Ministry of Education after they were abolished by Labour in 2018 highlight the lack of independent scrutiny of the schools and the success rates of the students, while teacher unions and principals are against the profit-taking model of charter schools by the privately-run sponsors or trusts.

"It is contested who they are really serving," Gerritsen says.

David Seymour makes an announcement regarding charter schools at Vanguard Military School.

 Associate Education Minister and ACT leader David Seymour announced there will be 50 charter schools by 2026. Photo: RNZ/Nick Monro

As for the argument that they are an alternative to mainstream education that fails some students, Gerritsen says it "depends on how alternative they're being and are they really catering for the kids who are missing out or are they simply getting the best students of the surrounding schools?"

He explains how charter schools are privately owned with the "sponsor" such as a charitable trust receiving government funding, hence their label 'publicly funded private schools'. They receive the same public money per child - about $10,000 - as state schools but they have a lot more freedom with the money and unlike private schools they are not allowed to charge fees. They can set their own curriculum, hours of attendance, how much they pay teachers and they can recruit non-teachers.

The funding model is similar to the bulk funding formula in the 1990s that was taken up by hundreds of state schools, Gerritsen says.

"The big question is are these schools actually attracting students who struggled elsewhere and getting better performance for them, or are they just taking kids who actually would have done really well at a state school?

"This is why these schools need very close scrutiny to make sure that we are getting something innovative, something successful rather than working the system."

Seymour says the schools will face scrutiny but not immediately. He also says schools are already showing interest in the charter model, with a board of education and business leaders appointed to work on the details. 

Karen van Gemerden of Villa Education Trust says the criticism is unreasonable given the schools had run for a maximum of five years before the model was scrapped. She concedes there were no independent assessments, but the schools had to report to the ministry every term.

"There was data about how students were doing but it was a very small period of time because you need longitudinal data to really be able to assess that properly. We still had ERO (the Education Review Office) coming through, so there was a lot of assessment."

She says negative publicity hasn't stopped parents enrolling their children.

"At South Auckland we take in 45 students each year and the wait list is roughly 80 or 90 students who want to come."

She says the smaller class sizes of 15 pupils is a big attraction.

"We have differentiated days, so they have a very academic morning and then an activity-based afternoon. So it's a different model and parents look at that and they like the smaller class sizes, they like the philosophy of the school, the way that we teach and the outcome of the students."

The head of Whangārei's Te Kāpehu Whetū, Raewyn Tipene, also says her board hasn't decided whether it will revert to a charter school.

"Until we really see the detail in the policy we won't be able to make a decision," she says.

Her school also switched to a designated character school in 2018. Tipene says Te Kāpehu Whetū had high academic success and attendance rates until the change, and she has returned as principal to rebuild the school and its roll after student numbers plummeted from 500 to 140. 

She says the charter formula gave her school the freedom to work closely with the 28th Māori Battalion and form a military academy for the boys. Students have been in Italy to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle at Monte Cassino.

"The history of the 28th is a way of linking them back to themselves and to the people and men who fought for us and it's been really, really, really successful," she says.

Tipene says the mainstream system does not work because of the heavy load of red tape that is not relevant to her school.

"Everything's about mediocrity and ticking boxes and making sure the ministry is satisfied with whatever they want and you lose track of the children, you lose track of the kaupapa and chasing excellence. It just starts to dissipate.

"As a charter school we were very very tied to achieving and when that changed and we went back to people who thought education's about doing your nine to three, teaching whatever is required of the day and not thinking about the kids...that's when things started to, I think, go downhill," she says.

*You won't hear Karen van Gemerden in the podcast, as we only got hold of her after recording the episode.  

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