Like gifts under the Christmas tree, some of the proposals in the Education (Update) Amendment Bill are predictable, like the NELP (National Education and Learning Priorities), for example, which is all about holding schools, kura and ECE providers accountable to student achievement.

Like gifts, some proposals are welcome, like the proposal to allow new entrants to start school on the first day of a term closest to their fifth birthday. Some we are less sure about, like the possibility for the Ministry to merge school Boards to help resolve ongoing issues.

And some are completely unexpected and controversial – like the new Communities of Online Learning (COOLs).

Education Minister Hekia Parata says the COOLs will be open to as wide a range of potential providers as possible. She says there will be a rigorous accreditation process alongside ongoing monitoring to ensure quality education is being provided.

“This innovative way of delivering education offers a digital option to engage students, grow their digital fluency, and connect them even more to 21st century opportunities.”

However, not everyone shares the Minister’s enthusiasm for the idea.

NZ First does not support the proposal. MP Tracey Martin says Parata has missed the point regarding what the IT sector was looking for in terms of incorporating digital technologies into learning at school.

The PPTA describes the move to allow corporate entities to enter the education market as “blatant privatisation”.

“Learning online is already here, ask any parent with children at school,” says PPTA President Angela Roberts, “What this does is open up a market for any provider to get public funding to offer online education, in competition with public schools.”

NZEI president Louise Green agrees. She says New Zealand schools already offer online learning integrated with face-to-face teaching. The main issue in her view is providing more support and resourcing to improve equity of access.

News of the COOLs comes at the same time as the possibility that the funding review might result in a standardised per-child amount being provided in a cash sum to schools. Roberts is concerned that there is the potential for student vouchers to be used to fund private online schools.

She also questions the rationale behind the COOLs.

“There are two wildly incorrect assumptions that underpin this idea,” says Roberts, “One is that online learning can substitute for face-to-face, and the other is that a more competitive market in education is going to lead to better results. Both of these fly in the face of all the evidence.”

Iain Taylor, President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) agrees, describing the COOLs proposal as “ridiculous”.

“The literature is bulging with studies showing the importance of social engagement and building relationships with teachers and peers as precursors to successful learning, especially for struggling learners. Employers are telling us kids need to be team builders, engaging and have a developed sense of civic and community service and be creative and critical thinkers. How will they learn these skills shut away at the kitchen table with a tablet?”

The union leaders point to international evidence where similar approaches to education have failed.

“Experience of online schooling in the United States is woeful and all the evidence is clear that high-quality teaching is the single biggest influence in-school on children’s achievement, particularly for our most vulnerable learners,” says Green.

However, the COOLs proposal has drawn support from Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura) correspondence school, which would become an accredited online provider under the scheme.

Te Kura board of trustees chair Karen Sewell welcomes the changes, which she says will bring more flexibility to the education system.

“The quality of schooling in New Zealand is very high, but some students struggle to achieve success in a traditional school setting,” she told Stuff. “Students could choose to learn online or face-to-face, or a mix of both, and have access to a much broader range of subjects regardless of the size and type of school they’re attending.”

Labour supports the initiative if it is used as an approach to modernise Te Kura, however the party is not keen to see the emergence of online charter schools.

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