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Partnership Schools deserve a fair chance

As expected, there has been considerable reaction to Education Minister Hekia Parata’s announcement of the five successful applicants for Partnership School contracts on September 17, 2013.

The schools to open in Northland and Auckland in 2014 are Vanguard Military School, Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa, Te Kura Hourua ke Whangaruru, The Rise Up Academy and South Auckland Middle School.

The cumulative roll will initially service 369 students, building to a capacity of 840.

Here is a round-up of what has been said about them so far.

Stringent rules

The Government and the Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua Authorisation Board
Minister Parata has
announced, welcomingly, that the operators will be subject to rigorous accountability measures. She also noted, in alignment with the comments of Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua Authorisation Board Chair Catherine Isaac, that there would be sanctions for operators who did not meet their obligations, and that there would be some measure of transparency, insofar as the public would be able to access each school’s performance targets.

As for the successful applicants, Alwyn Poole of the Villa Education Trust, which will open South Auckland Middle School next year, said that the School will serve students from Years 7 through 10, accommodate no more than 15 students per classroom, offer uniforms free of charge and deploy advanced IT platforms.

He said, “The purpose of the proposal is to work with children who are not otherwise succeeding. We do not get the right to pick and choose, and hence whoever wants to come to the School has the ability to apply.”

Mr Poole also spoke on behalf of Te Kāhui Kura Hourua o Aotearoa, the Association of Partnership Schools of New Zealand (TKKH Aotearoa), which comprises Vanguard Military School, Rise UP Academy and South Auckland Middle School.

Flexible learning

He said, “TKKH Aotearoa will explain the role of Partnership Schools and how they work within the community, creating a more versatile and flexible learning environment to better meet the needs of their students. While the current system works for most kids, it does not work for all, and that is what we aim to address.”

Supporters include Dr Toby Curtis and Pem Bird of Te Maru o Nga Kura-a-Iwi o Aotearoa. They write: “We can surely no longer tolerate and condone failure that has become the accepted norm for too many of our mokopuna and for far too long now. That failure is intergenerational for Maori and a sad indictment of our system.”

The advent of Kura Hourua marks a significant milestone in our history and we should prepare to celebrate those whanau who are now opting of their own free will into a model they believe can make a difference.

Critically, the exercise of choice is a fundamental right of citizens in a democratic society and hence, good luck to those whanau who will be choosing to exercise those rights in the months ahead.

The opposition

On the other hand, the two Teachers’ Unions have reacted strongly to the announcement. The Post-Primary Teachers’ Association led with an article entitled, “We will fight Charter Schools every step of the way” and outlined their possible modus operandi in a Paper, including, “Instructing members to refrain from all professional, sporting and cultural contact with the schools and their sponsors and advising them not to apply for positions in them.”

Heartless attack

Mr Poole responded to these threats (after receiving letters from the New Zealand Educational Institute and the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association warning him from opening a Partnership School in early August):

“I would like to think that they (the Teachers’ Unions) have the interest of children at heart, but their statements throw that into doubt. I hope that they will see the schools approved and think a little more about how that will affect those children and families.

There have also been critical responses from Labour and the Greens. Newly appointed Labour leader David Cunliffe called the schools ‘barking mad,’ while Greens Co-leader Metiria Turei labelled the initiative as an ‘attack on public education.’

She said, “The announcement is a body blow for public education in New Zealand as the fundamentals of a strong, free and quality public education are attacked by the Government’s plan for a second-class schooling option for disadvantaged kids.”

Biased approach

There is an important point to make here. The straight equation of public education with quality education is not supported by evidence on the performance of all public schools within New Zealand, or failing public schools overseas, especially in US, not to mention historical examples, such as the little red schoolhouses of East Germany.

Lastly, neither Labour nor the Greens will guarantee the survival of the Partnership School model, should there be a change of Government in their favour next year.

The concerning aspect of this announcement is that even if Partnership Schools achieve their objectives, which will be publicly announced and tracked, they may be closed down regardless.

In all, it seems somewhat incongruous that union and party representatives label Partnership Schools as an “ideological experiment” of National and Act, given that their own posturing betrays biases as well. And these biases, if acted upon, could be detrimental to children’s education in the communities that Partnership Schools serve.

Dr Luke Fenwick is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland

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