Alwyn Poole was as surprised as anyone when the name of his school was announced by the Ministry.
“When we heard South Auckland Middle School announced, we looked at each other, and said, ‘is that us?’” recounts the academic adviser of Villa Education Trust, the trust that operates South Auckland Middle School.
The trust also operates Mount Hobson Middle School, so it would appear the Ministry saw fit to extend the format to the name of the new partnership school, the very first to open in New Zealand earlier this year.
Entering the school is interesting. The site itself appears very established with a grand, gated, red brick entrance to a matching brick building that once housed the Jehovah’s Witness publications operations. The view from the building is serene, looking out over fruit trees and the Wattle Downs waterway.
However, once inside, it is clearly still a work in progress, with tradespeople working away, converting the building to suit the needs of the students who now attend New Zealand’s first charter school.
In its few weeks of operation the school has hosted a swathe of politicians, media, and unionists. Poole relishes the opportunity to share what they are doing and dispel some of the negative perceptions held around charter schools.
In particular, Poole finds it hard to swallow claims that New Zealand doesn’t need to change, that its education system is working for everyone. He shares with me a range of statistics for state schools where the Level 1 NCEA failure rates are over 50 per cent.
To the argument that charter schools are leading to re-segregation, he points out that the rolls of many state schools are already vastly dominated by Māori or Pasifika students, or conversely by New Zealand European/Pākehā students. Nearby Mangere College, for example, has approximately 97 per cent Māori and Pasifika students. The ethnic composition of South Auckland Middle School is approximately 75 per cent Pasifika, 15 per cent Māori, and 10 per cent Pākehā.
As for the claims that teachers won’t be qualified, Poole says all the teachers on the school’s teaching staff are not only registered, but highly qualified. There were 105 applicants for just eight teaching positions. Salaries – another source of contention – are on a par with those paid to teachers at private schools.
Then there is the criticism that charter schools are a vehicle for religious organisations to set up schools, something Villa Education Trust came under attack for due to its alignment with Christian values. However, neither South Auckland nor Mount Hobson Middle Schools offer any formal religious instruction. Poole says they’ve had no problems with this aspect in the 11 years they’ve been operating the Mount Hobson school and does not see how it could be a problem at the South Auckland school.
For all the criticism launched at the charter school movement, it seems apparent that parents have perceived there was room for this school in the community. The minimum funded roll for South Auckland Middle School is 90, the maximum 120; it currently stands at 110. Poole shows me a map of Auckland with little dots highlighting where their students come from. As expected, there is a large cluster near the school, but I’m surprised to see dots as far away as Mt Albert and the Te Atatu Peninsula. The much hyped argument for ‘choice’, a card played many times over by advocates for charter schools, has certainly appealed to some.
Meanwhile charter school opponents have derided the new schools as ‘experiments’ and certainly it is a legitimate fear that a new and unproven approach (the international research and evidence can be twisted either way) could be to the detriment of Kiwi kids.
However, the approach taken to running South Auckland Middle School feels far from experimental. The school follows a rigid structure, with 120 students divided neatly into eight classes of fifteen students.
The school’s academic programme is based on the model that has been used at Mount Hobson Middle School for 11 years. Poole, whose previous teaching career included positions at Tauranga Boys’ College, Hamilton Boys’ High and St Cuthbert’s College, has created a programme that hinges largely on guided independent study revolving around 32 projects. Each project encompasses around 25 hours of a student’s work. The various strands of The New Zealand Curriculum are integrated so that the core subjects (English, maths, science, social studies, and ICT) are all taught across a range of themes. Each student has an Individual Base Plan to help enhance strengths and overcome weaknesses.
On my tour of the school I meet a group of teachers and the principal (who also teaches) in a classroom, in full planning mode. They are enthusiastic about the projects. On the walls of one classroom I see evidence of the architecture project in full swing; in another – human circus; in a third – flight in space.
The low student/teacher ratios, coupled with the innovative approach to teaching the curriculum, certainly looks and sounds appealing. Poole credits this, along with the proven success of the Mount Hobson school, as the reasons why the new school got through the Ministry’s demanding application and selection process.
“I can see that some principals could be lured into a package that has misleadingly been presented as an attempt to further sponsor leadership and collaboration within the sector.”
He describes it as a “very rigorous process” involving a 160-page application document covering everything from curriculum to budgeting to statutory knowledge. The presentation to the partnership schools authorisation board in Wellington included a 15 minute précis of the proposal followed by 75 minutes of unprepared questions.
Poole says even though it was stressful at times and that he had to develop a thick skin, he has enjoyed the process of getting the school off the ground. He agrees that the process should be robust and rigorous so as to maintain high standards, and not to fulfil the cynics’ expectations of partnership schools.
Even so, the unions, and the PPTA in particular, have made it very clear that their members will not collaborate with partnership schools. There are some valid arguments to be heard here, particularly around keeping promises of delivering education.
“These charter school operators are being funded, very generously, to offer a full curriculum – if they are not, then the question needs to be directed back at them. They have been given public money to provide education to students – if they find themselves unable to do that, they must give the money back, not exploit the good will of local public schools,” says PPTA president, Angela Roberts.
However, Poole believes there is potential for collaboration with other schools to be more of a two-way street and points to instances where charter schools could be of benefit to state schools. Some schools struggle with one or all of the following, he says – disruptive kids, too many kids, or bright kids for whom they can’t do enough. Poole says if such a school were to work with a sponsor partnership school, which could take on some of the kids who are struggling, for example, this might prove to be a helpful solution for both the student and the school.
There is a strong focus on engaging with the community and to this end they have employed a community liaison manager, who is responsible for building relationships between the school and the families, developing links into the local community, and supporting students through their Year 11–13 schools, where they will be seeking their higher qualifications.
The school also has the support of All Black Keven Mealamu and his wife Tai as official ambassadors for the school.
Poole is realistic that there will always be opposition. Charter school operators have been faced with criticism, mistrust, and even antagonism since they were merely a twinkle in John Banks’ eye. He recounts a visit to the school from an eminent education professor and staunch charter schools opponent.
“After his visit he said although he really liked what we were doing here, he would continue to view it as the Trojan horse for the destruction of the New Zealand education system.”
Such opinions do not appear to throw Poole off his stride; if anything it seems he is more motivated than ever to prove the cynics wrong. He even saw the PPTA letter promising social disruption as a chance to rebut their claims about charter schools.
“The unions’ criticism has given a chance for partnership schools to assert themselves against their claims,” he said.
Poole describes his style of leadership and communication as “purposed, but not dictatorial”. He strives to give his staff freedom to be creative but is also intent on delivering on promises. It is useful having the Mount Hobson school to show as the evidence that what they are doing has the potential to not only work, but work well.
“You have to set the bar high,” he says, “but if something isn’t working you need to address it right away”.
Eventually he would like to expand South Auckland Middle School to enable a roll of 180 or even 240, adhering to the 15:1 student: teacher ratio. He says the trust is also likely to express interest in setting up another school.
“We want to continue to put schools where families would like them and where there is need.”
Of course, the school has yet to prove itself. As a partnership school, South Auckland Middle School will be subject to a high level of scrutiny from the Ministry, and most likely ongoing attention from the public as well. Poole appears undaunted by the challenge ahead and confident New Zealand’s first partnership school will be successful and continue to grow.