Hard News by Russell Brown


Political palatability and charter schools

Kirsty Johnston's story in the Herald today presents a range of claims about the management of West Auckland school Middle School West, including that it appeases students with junk food on a weekly basis, which, acording to one staff member's letter to the Education Review Office, "highlights a lack of leadership management and lack of effective teaching practices."

More seriously, the same staff member claimed bullying and drug use were rife and that there had been a suicide attempt by a student – the school's management denies these things happened – and cited a draft ERO report which raised further concern about the physical and cultural safety of children at the school.

Further, Johnston cites documents which appear to show the school's management deliberately misled the Ministry of Education about its relationship with another school with which it shares a site.

It's the kind of thing you'd think would be a sitter for the right-wing blogs, but you won't be reading any damning denunciations of the system in those places –  because Middle School West Auckland is a charter school. And because they've invested far too much time and energy cheerleading for the people who run it.

In the Sunday Star Times in February, Simon Day reported the problems suffered by an autistic boy and his family at Mt Hobson Middle School, the private school run by Villa Education Trust, which also runs Middle School West Auckland and South Auckland Middle School as charter schools.

It was a sad and troubling story, which raised questions not only about thousands of dollars of teacher aide funding which was not used for the purpose for which is was provided, but about the school's grasp on basic special education practice.

On the same day, Whale Oil ran an "open response" from Villa Education Trust spokesman Alwyn Poole to what it described as a "hit job" by the Star Times. Poole's open letter is a meandering affair in which he trumpets the school's methods,  flatly refuses to address the parents' specific claims and and warns Day "you should be very ethically wary of exploiting a vulnerable child – even when the parents are complicit."

Poole also says this:

Sometimes people read the prospectus, come to the interview, sign all the contracts and then ask us to change or compromise our methodology. That won’t happen. Twenty plus years or research into it – and practice of it – means I will always back it.

Poole has also been given space on Kiwiblog to expound at length on his theories, including in a guest post headed Educational Aspiration in Crisis:

Solutions have to be found. There are a lot of tyre-kickers in education in NZ. People who criticise outcomes, criticise attempts at solutions, attack all manner of people who are doing the job but do nothing to assist. The kids who are missing out don’t need theoreticians – they need on the ground solutions. The vast majority of those solutions involve people and not flash buildings. People who understand the new learning paradigm understand that all children, given quality teaching/coaching, repetition/practice and opportunity can develop remarkable skills and knowledge sets. These young people need to be surrounded by adults who understand aspiration and change.

And this rallying cry for the charter school concept:

As I think back to the readings of systemic failure thrust upon me in 1988 through to misguided people today stating that schools can achieve nothing because of socioeconomic disparity – I see a light in the tunnel that is not just a train coming the other way. There is growing hope of a genuine means for Partnership Schooling to be a part of systemic change and a quiet revolution in the provision for children who are otherwise not doing well. Like all changes and challenges it will not be smooth at every stage or with every establishment – but for the children and families that need innovation and choice the necessity to persevere and enhance the model is clear.

For those who doubt and have genuine interest in the well being of the young people of New Zealand our doors are very open and we are willing to collaborate and share our experiences. For those that criticize from a distance – have some courage and come and see.

It's not only the usual suspects in the blogosphere. This year NBR afforded Poole yet another unchallenged opportunity to expound at length on his ideas and make claims for his schools.

It's abundantly clear that Poole believes in what he's doing, but whether we ought to is another matter. The trust's website offers almost nothing in the way of background to or evidence for its practices and Poole's default response to what are now very substantial and troubling questions seems to be to claim he's misunderstood.

I think it's time for Poole's ideological enablers to stop providing space for his long, muddled manifestos and acknowledge that mere political palability is not an excuse for obscure, arbitrary and possibly damaging educational practices.

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