Just as educators had feared, charter schools have brought trouble to South Auckland” they’re proving divisive and are soaking up resources that are urgently needed by local schools.

“We had no idea there was a plan to license a new school in our neighbourhood,” says Fiona Cavanagh, chair of the Mangere Principals’ Association. “There are 23 schools in our Mangere cluster and the professionals who work in them know, more than anyone, the educational needs of our community. Yet we were not consulted.” “Schools in Mangere are very focused on student success,” says Cavanagh. She points to cross-school professional development as an example of innovations being made across Mangere.

“We are about to hold a workshop of 130 teacher-leaders who will develop a strategy for schooling improvement across our low-income community. The Ministry of Education ought to be putting its resources into supporting initiatives like this, rather than pouring money and energy into a small school that will cater for a limited number of students.”

Lagi Leilua from Southern Cross Campus agrees. “It’s scary, the new schools have the power to split the Pasifika community. “We want the same thing” to improve student achievement” but by opening these schools, it is saying that what we are trying is not right.” Leilua is a teacher representative on NZEI Te Riu Roa’s Auckland Pasifika Komiti.

Doubts

Leilua visited one of the charter schools and noted a “corporate swing” to it. “If these people are so concerned with achievement of Pasifika, why aren’t they on the boards of the mainstream schools trying to help out. “It’s been an issue for a long time, since Tomorrow’s Schools began ­– and I don’t want to disrespect the boards” that skill sets have been lacking. “If we were given the same resources in our schools as these, we could make lots of headway regarding student achievement.”

The community also has doubts about how long the schools will last. “It’s fresh in our minds that government opened ECE centres here but they didn’t put in the infrastructure and now many of them are closing down.”

Hard hit

A group of local schools in Manurewa stand to be hard hit by the new charter schools. “We’ve been struggling for years,” says one principal there. “And if we asked for anything” it took years. Now we’ve got charter schools here in six weeks. “The ministry has bent over backwards to get them open.”

In particular, the schools had been struggling around issues of recapitation” (whether or not schools could take year 7 and 8 students)” and had been asking the ministry all year to help resolve the problems, without success. The unresolved issues have left the schools facing a great deal of uncertainty. “The charter schools have simply been plonked down among these existing schools without any planning or consultation” of course they’re causing trouble,” says former principal and NZEI Te Riu Roa staff member Louis Guy.

Tension

The charter schools are pitting principal against principal as they face losing students to a slick marketing campaign from the charter schools. “They’re offering free uniforms and free stationary” we simply can’t compete with that,” said another principal. “Principals are desperate” they’re going to have to get rid of teachers and support staff.”

EA decided not to quote these principals by name as three high-performing principals who spoke out strongly against the introduction of National Standards in EA have been placed under statutory intervention.

Parents not fully informed

The new South Auckland Middle School, which will take up to 220 students, has found premises in former Jehovah Witness buildings. “They look like an Ivy League school” two-story brick buildings with wrought iron fencing set in more brickwork. If you didn’t know any better, of course you’d want to send your kids there,” says Guy.

Local intermediate principals were initially told that the middle school would be opening in Mangere and that their rolls would not be affected. But this proved not to be the case.

“We wouldn’t mind if we were crappy schools” but we’re not. A high proportion of us are on four or five-year ERO review cycles,” said a principal.

“But with the very short notice, we haven’t had any time to put together a response for parents. It’s a very busy time of year. Parents won’t be getting the other side of the argument. They won’t be fully informed [about unregistered teachers and inexperienced operators].”

He wasn’t opposed to alternative schooling, only that it should be subject to the same rules as other public schools” “and these ones aren’t. They’re like private schools except the government is paying for them.”

Principals report that students from “strong church families” and other “fabulous children” are withdrawing enrolments from local schools to go to the new charter schools.

Skimming

The Minister of Education Hekia Parata says the schools are for “priority learners”, which includes “Maori and Pasifika” students. But in effect, this means the charter schools can enrol high achieving, middle-class Maori and Pasifika students and claim them as “priority learners”.

“It seems that local children from very successful families are planning to put their children into the charter schools,” says Guy. “It’s going to attract the engaged and enthusiastic parents” not the parents who really do need help.”

The middle school’s website reports it is taking students on a “first in, first served basis”, and it appears the school won’t be balloting as had earlier been stated.

“Counselled out”

Guy says, “As a former principal I know you can avoid enrolling children through˜counselling out’ because I used to get parents coming to me who’d been told by a school that it˜really couldn’t cater’ for their child.”

Principals see both of the new charter schools, which have conservative Christian values, as being able to use religion as a filter for more difficult students who challenge their values.

“You can bet your bottom dollar they won’t be taking the odd bods,” says the principal of thriving decile 1 South Auckland school that’s been held up by the current government as a role model for other schools.

She says her school’s remarkable success with Maori students results from learning being delivered in a strong cultural context, and from teachers having a good knowledge of “where the students have come from”” which will be difficult for the South Auckland Middle School to replicate as its experience has been in Remuera .

The principal is upset at the amount of money going to the five charter schools – $25m over four years. Three charter secondary schools are also opening in Auckland and Northland, and already one has been criticised for spending over $1m on land.

“What we could do with even a little bit of that money” smaller class sizes, more support staff! We’ve been really successful and we need to scale up” but the ministry doesn’t want that. It would cost money.”

More to come

Instead, the government is calling for applications for a second round of charter schools, for schools to open in 2015. Priority will be given to primary schools that “make effective use of the flexibilities offered by the model”. The focus will be on primary schools in areas of roll growth and Years 0-8

A spokesperson for the minister’s office told EA there was no pre-determination on the number of new schools. The new round was “an opportunity for those schools who weren’t successful to go back and strengthen their applications”.

A release of ministry documents in September revealed that there were “serious reservations” about all of the applications, including the ones that were subsequently successful.