6 August 2012
So now they are to known as “Partnership Schools / Kura Hourua”. Jolly good because that is what a school, any school, is meant to be.
But the further detail about Partnership Schools / Kura Hourua (aka Charter Schools) released emphasises flexibility and freedom and details the areas in which these freedoms will exist as curriculum, qualifications, employment (code for who gets to teach), hours of operation and school leadership.
It is something of a sad commentary that it is thought that such a development is necessary to give expression to freedom and flexibility when any school in the country could operate with these freedoms and flexibilities had they a mind to.
The curriculum in New Zealand is permissive and expressed in broad terms open to local interpretation. But experimentation and innovation in curriculum design is still the exception and not the rule that it should be. The secondary schools can develop pathways and emphases that both better meet the needs of students and give character and identity to the school. Some of this is now happening through the academies and none more so than the health academies that are giving a shape to science and mathematics for many students.
That secondary schools have chosen to reinvent the old examination system using NCEA is entirely a matter of choice on their part. The compression of NCEA into a three year annual cycle is neither necessary nor in the best interests of students. The flexibility is there waiting for schools to exercise it. New programmes, multilevel study and new qualifications are all made possible by the National Qualifications Framework and the National Certificate of Educational Achievement – Charter Schools will not introduce flexibility other than by starting with a clean sheet and being freed from the old ways of working and having perhaps personnel who bring different thinking to the task of designing a programme.
As for hours of operation has always been a little piece of silliness where two hours before lunch and two hours after lunch constituted half-days and terms were twelve or so weeks long and there were three of them and then for no reason that was obvious there were four of them. It is high time that students in schools were treated in an age-appropriate manner with regard to attendance and this suggests that the daily fixed-hours regardless of activity might not be as appropriate to senior secondary school students as it is to new infants.
Corralling students into schools for fixed hours only creates the pressure on schools of occupying them regardless of the usefulness of what they are doing. Students in secondary schools should be there when they need to be – I already hear the swelling tones of protest that they would vote with their feet and not be there. Let’s set out to have them vote with their minds and be there so as to continue along pathways that brings them success and the prospect of a future that is both within their grasp and that they want.
That leaves two areas – employment and school leadership.
The suggestion that people other than a registered teacher might teach in a school brought out some protest pretty quickly. I rejected as amusing the suggestion from the leader of a national organisation that such a move would threaten New Zealand’s reputation as having a world class education system. Could a “small number” of schools threaten the reputation of 2,548 schools which the same leader would claim are excellent?
And we easily forget in these discussions the not insignificant role played by people with a limited authority to teach in our schools. Schools rely on them to varying degrees. Interestingly, I could not find on the web the exact number of such teachers – would it be 10%? Schools need a variety of people as teachers and as the curriculum expands, as it must, a greater variety of skills and knowledge will be needed. If there are to be meaningful relationships between secondary and tertiary providers there will also have to be greater variety in who get to teach the students.
School leadership. I would imagine that the key leaders in these Partnership Schools will be educators with the support of people with other complementary skills required to run effective operations. This reflects what already is happening in many schools especially large schools. The real impact on leadership will be at the governance level which has proved to be problematic over the past 23 years. Providing the kind of informed governance leadership for such large organisations is a huge opportunity to strengthen the leadership at a Board level of these important public “companies”.
That leaves one area of opportunity where flexibility will certainly not only be required but also essential – student achievement.
The only clear reason that we should contemplate a “Partnership School” in New Zealand would be if it could clearly raise student achievement among those who currently do not succeed. It will require firm leadership from the government to see that this becomes the key criterion by which a “partnership school” proposal is judged. If it will simply provide a different opportunity for students who already are successful then the whole development will turn out to be without purpose or honour.