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Pathways-ED: Chatter about the charter!

Stuart Middleton
2 February 2012


I really thought that the whole Charter School thing would simply die away but no, the Government is keen to pursue the idea.

Well let’s get a few things straight. The development of Charter Schools in other countries was intended to produce a new kind of school that could challenge the conventional schools. So what are the key characteristics of a Charter School?

1.    Charter Schools are freed from the direct control of a Department of Education or an education board or a local authority.

In the USA and the UK schools are typically under the tight control of a department of education, a schools district or board. The charter schools were set up to free them from this and to give to each school some autonomy.

Tomorrow’s Schools gave to New Zealand schools exactly the same level of autonomy that Charter Schools have.

2.      Charter Schools have a charter.

So does each and every New Zealand School. Unlike New Zealand schools where the Charter is between the Government and the local community (as represented in the Board of Trustees), the overseas Charter Schools could have such Charters between any number of groups and the Government. But actually there is some evidence that where the Charter is with a community-based group, the Charter School is likely to be more successful so we are already on the right road!

Our integrated schools and independent schools have a similar arrangement where the “Charter” is between the “proprietors” and the Government.

 3.    Charter Schools have the freedom to appoint their own staff.

So do all New Zealand schools. We forget that New Zealand schools have an autonomy that is unparalleled in other English speaking-countries.

 4.    Charter Schools are bulk funded.

So too could New Zealand schools be bulk-funded and indeed that was the intention some time ago but ideology won out in the end and it was withdrawn. It remains the last great freedom that New Zealand schools could have and there will be little accountability in the schooling system until it is achieved. So let’s not think that we need Charter Schools to achieve this.

 5.    Charter Schools have a special focus or special character.

So to can New Zealand schools and indeed some have in their charter the right to focus on a special character. We have not exploited this to any great extent. Charter Schools in the USA especially have a special character that is related to an interest (performing arts etc) or a discipline (STEM is popular) and so on. We could be much more adventurous in this area and the only progress we have made is to see a handful of primary schools have a special focus on technology. Of course the church schools have a special character, so too do the kura kaupapa.

 6.    Charter Schools select their students usually by ballot.

We use this where there is demand but the difference is that Charter Schools have no zone and they compete for students across a wider range of the community. Since it takes a certain kind of parent /caregiver to seek these opportunities for their children (and I have no issue with that) it is a selection of a selection that finally get to go to them.

 7.    Charter Schools attract private money and sponsorship.

This is a peculiarly American thing. Private money flows easily to US schools and colleges – it is simply the American Way. Indeed Bill Gates set out to put right what he saw as one of the key things wrong with the entire world – the American High School. The other thing wrong with the world was, in his view, communicable diseases. He has this week announced that his sole focus would now be on these diseases.

There is no tradition of private funding of state schools in New Zealand and what examples we have are valuable to the schools but relatively minor in nature.

8.    Charter Schools have been set up to be the panacea.

What Bill Gates discovered was that there was no panacea in education. Quality is quality; good is good and better is better.

Like most school systems, Charter Schools are a mixed bag – some work well, some fail and most are indistinguishable in their outcomes from the government system they sought to replace. We do not need an experiment or trial in New Zealand to find out all that is abundantly clear already.

The risk we take with the Charter Schools effort is to be distracted from the facts. All New Zealand schools have the advantages of a Charter School and the challenge to those who would make changes is to see that they are all, without exception, excellent Charter Schools.

And that is the big wake-up call. It is the Government that is the body holding the Charter for each New Zealand school and with that, comes responsibility. We are a small system and well within our grasp to get things right in every school. Then we can hold our heads high and say that New Zealand got the Charter School thing right.


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Pathways-ED: Yes, Minister. It's not quite as simple as that!

Stuart Middleton
15 December 2011


There is always interest when the captain of the team tells who will be playing in what position and the announcement of the cabinet posts earlier this week was no exception.

In fact this single theme could well serve this government right across the array of education sectors. Accountability in education in New Zealand is not one of our strong points – no-one is clearly held responsible for failure and disengagement. If we are to have National Standards for the schooling sector, the close scrutiny of NCEA results and accountability measures and levers for the tertiary sector then let’s develop a scorecard for the performance of a government in education and the performance of the Education Ministers as a team.

The Auckland Council has set the pace in this by building into its Auckland Plan clear goals , targets and priorities in education that are centred on three clear statements well familiar to readers of EdTalkNZ – 100% access to quality early childhood education, Level 2 NCEA for each and every young person and postsecondary qualification for all school leavers. The team of government education Ministers would do well to focus on these as a measure for the difference they make while in office.

And as they should be measured as a team, it will be no good if each of them simply gets on with their patch while ignoring the fact that young people have to navigate a system characterised by transitions and tracks that seemingly lack continuity. They will have to work together. So what about each Ministers role?

The continuity in the Tertiary Education portfolio is welcomed and Hon Steven Joyce will bring the sort of focus that is critical to continuing the progress to towards a system that is accountable for results and measured by them. Without the distraction of ships sitting on rocks and trains running under the rocks in Auckland, the Minister can with profit focus on working with his Minister of Education colleague to make Youth Guarantee (something of a flagship policy for this government) reach full expression.

The Minister of Education, Hon Hekia Parata, brings wide experience in the state sector to the role and provided that there can be a clear focus in her tenure in the role, she will do well. The being-all-things-to-all-people-approach has never worked and will never work. I would not think that Minister Parata will fall into that trap. Schooling is a simple process – students arrive at school ready to go – well more of them would if we got the ECE business right – and over 9 years lay the foundations for future learning.

A focus in the nine years of a general education simply has to be on essential skills and knowledge. We get it brilliantly right with the top end of the cohort and the challenge is to get it right for all young ones. To achieve this, schools will have to do more by doing less. Focus will be everything.

The new Minister can be expected to bring to her role an understanding of the importance of first languages and their impact on literacy development. Her colleague Hon Pita Sharples knows about all this with regard to Maori young ones and should be given scope to get on with doing what is necessary. As Minister of Education, Minister Parata might direct a lot of attention to the language needs and development of Pacific Island young ones (useful here that she is also Minister of Pacific Island Affairs), the migrant communities and Pakeha whose start in life simply hasn’t prepared them for school.

New Zealand is blessed in having an educator of the calibre of Hon Pita Sharples in the role of Associate Minister of Education. He talks about this being his last term. He must be given the opportunity to make a lasting impression as an Associate Minister of Education (and appropriately as Minister of Māori Affairs – he has much to offer to us all.

And completing the team of Education Ministers is Associate Minister of Education, Hon John Banks. I do not think for one minute that his call for charter schools was anything more than the exuberance of the agreement between ACT and the Government and his appointment to the role. It certainly wasn’t based on the ACT Manifesto, the needs of young people or the evidence that is available to us from other countries. If he wants to make a contribution he should realise that all New Zealand schools have the attributes of a charter school and set about helping the team assist all New Zealand schools to be high performing and results driven.

This concept of a team of ministers will be critical. I have written many times of the disastrous lack of connection between the parts of school in New Zealand (simply because we want so much to be like the US, the UK. Australia, and parts of Canada). If our Education Ministers can act like a team in which developments and decisions are assessed against a template of a connected and seamless education system and are measured not only for their effect in one Minister’s patch but also for their effect across the other patches, we might start to make progress.

Systemic discontinuity is clearly the greatest obstacle faced by learners in New Zealand. Any serious effort to address it at the delivery end has to be matched by an even greater effort in the approach the Government takes to education in its team of ministers. Actually it has also to be matched by a set of seamless relationships between the MOE and NZQA and TEC and ERO.

All this sounds like a Royal Commission or must they be reserved only for physical disasters?  

We wish the team of Education Ministers well.


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Pathways-ED: Charter Schools – what would they add?

Stuart Middleton
8 December 2011

Who would have predicted that the idea of Charter Schools would have emerged from the volatility of an MMP election? It is a time for quiet and calm reflection on the matter rather than our usual search for the boxing gloves for three rounds in the ring.

Charter Schools go back to 1988 in the USA when the notion that the introduction of autonomous public schools with a clear focus on student achievement would address the stubborn issues in English-speaking education systems (and especially the USA) of the poor performance of too many students who seemingly were clustered in too many schools. Nothing unusual in that and New Zealand then and still (like the USA) continues to address that very same issue.

Charter Schools were to have a charter, an agreement between the state, the government, and the school, increased autonomy, a more flexible reach for students that went beyond the mandated zones and an ability to access funding from outside the conventional public / state funding.

Does all this sound familiar? It should. Because in 1989 the New Zealand government handed to all New Zealand schools the very same degree of autonomy. Every school was to be a charter school, there was to be increased flexibility of access (the zoning system was to challenged), funding could be used by the school flexibly (it was called bulk funding) and relationships between schools and business was to be allowed to flourish. All this followed the development of state integrated schools – early precursors of the charter model.

No education system in the world gives schools the autonomy they have in New Zealand but it is beyond the scope of this short piece to provide a commentary on what happened to all this but the point is that the notion of a “charter school” is not new to New Zealand and the concept has by and large been found to not be a silver bullet.

The critics of the charter school idea are silly to claim that the idea has been tried and has failed in the USA and the UK. It is just as silly to claim the idea has been an unqualified success. The truth is that charter schools have been about as good and as bad as public / state school systems. The jury is out on this idea. It would be foolish for us to go chasing after the concept at this time and there is no sound educational argument that we should.

Of course, the ideological argument which is really no argument at all, might win the day and we could continue the tradition of New Zealand claiming what it sees as its God-given right to suck up ideas from other education systems regardless of evidence of success or appropriateness. As for a trial or two – the road to hell is paved with good intentions and failed / stalled / forgotten education pilot programmes from New Zealand.

We need step changes at this time if we are to more successfully get on top of the issues of student achievement and success and the irony of the charter school proposal in both its nature and its timing is that the current government is on some productive tracks towards making progress in doing just that.

Regardless of whether teacher unions and principal associations like it or not, National Standards or something like it is essential to maintaining public confidence in state education. It was a lack of confidence in public education in the USA that unleashed the charter movement. New Zealand has never experienced the comprehensive lack of confidence in state education that other systems, the US, the UK and to a lesser degree Australia, have had to cope with. But it is not a given and we need to work at it. The primary sector needs to get on with the job of making National Standards work and the secondary sector should look forward to their introduction in some form or other for Years 9 and 10.

At the senior secondary school the government (and its MMP partners) would be advised to have confidence in its Youth Guarantee policy setting that seems likely to not only address achievement issues but articulate the school system into the wider world in ways that will enhance student success.

Continuing access to a free education in places other than the secondary school is both equitable and already successful. This is achieved within the existing education and training system at about the same cost as the conventional tracks in which so many of the students would simply fail.

The development of alternate ways of completing secondary schooling through mixed mode programmes (such as trades academies and secondary tertiary programmes) or through programmes such as the Tertiary High School are already leading increasing numbers of students to successful outcomes and qualifications.

The development of Vocational Pathways within NCEA is adding the sophistication to NCEA that was always meant to be there but was thwarted by the pressures to turn it into another examination system.

Meanwhile the performance of students at the top end of academic achievement is simply second to none in world terms.

In short, given continued commitment to the directions currently being pursued, we are likely to have success in addressing the issues of educational outcomes. Not only that, we will have found ways of doing this which are a good fit with the way we work – this is New Zealand and this is how we do it! A new maturity will emerge in an education system that has in the past lead the way.

One final point. There is neither the tradition nor an appetite in the New Zealand business and philanthropic communities to use its money to take over what it sees as the responsibility of the state in the ways that there is especially in the USA. Relationships? Yes. Lending complementary skills? Yes. Partnerships? Yes. Picking up the tab for failure? No.

We have some frameworks in place, now we need focus and commitment, not distraction.


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EDTalkNZ: Joining Some Dots

 Today’s guest writer is Karl Mutch, Manager, Team Solutions, at The University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education.

When I was a young boy in the 1960s, a long time before computer games and even before space invaders, there used to be things called puzzle books which children would inevitably receive as Christmas or birthday presents. These books, usually an inch thick and printed on poor quality paper, were useful for amusing ourselves on a wet weekend or in the winter school holidays. They contained pictures you could colour in, quizzes, crosswords, lists of interesting facts and, my favourite, join the dots. Using a pencil, you would begin to join up the hundreds of apparently random dots on a page until some kind of shape emerged – if I remember correctly it was usually an elephant, a cute dog, a palm tree or a clown. The easier join the dot pages even had some of the picture already provided so you kind of knew what was coming. Even if you could anticipate the final image, there was something satisfying about completing the picture, joining up all the dots and seeing everything connected.

What would it look like if we could join up some of the dots to help connect schools more strongly with our communities? What would a truly community connected school look like, and feel like – for students, for teachers, for school leaders and for members of the community? What sort of picture might emerge?

A couple of months ago I sat in the main auditorium at the Telstra Clear Events Centre in Manukau with over 200 people who were asking a similar question. What was exciting about this was not just the name – Raise Pasifika Fono – but the fact that it was a rare attempt to connect the education dots across a large and diverse community – to improve outcomes for Pacific students. There were specialist groups – students, early childhood, primary and secondary teachers, principals, tertiary educators, government ministry people, business people, church representatives, some MPs, union representatives, health sector representatives, counsellors, local community members, parents and people from local government. At times, we talked within our specialist groups, at times we re-grouped to engage with a range of perspectives. For a moment, it felt like a whole community coming together to talk about education connections and how these might be aligned to benefit students.

Of course there are already numerous examples of schools, kura and communities working together to benefit students – iwi have created and are implementing education plans and exploring education partnerships; parents are involved in school reading and homework programmes; businesses and sports clubs provide mentoring, work experience or sponsorship. Local councils have community development programmes and community trusts fund a wide range of school-connected projects. There are youth workers in schools and programmes that connect schools with artists and scientists. Trades academies allow secondary schools to engage in new ways with employers and tertiary institutes. Somewhere amongst all of this is the potential for more coherence in how schools and communities connect – perhaps across a suburb, town or region – and I haven’t even touched on the potential of virtual communities to revolutionize the ways schools ‘connect’.

Government can play a role. There are increasing connections between iwi and the Ministry of Education through iwi education partnerships. This week, Child, Youth and Family has established a direct hotline for teachers to help encourage reporting of suspected child abuse. Although there are worries there may not be enough staff at CYF to follow up those concerns effectively, it is at least an example of a direct connection between schools and a government agency that could make a difference for children. Why wasn’t it done years ago? What other hotlines do we need?

How can local government increasingly play a role here? It could start by providing more infrastructure for agencies and organisations to make connections. This would ensure that agencies intersecting and participating in education would know who was playing what role or delivering which services. It would allow the community to access the information they need in a timely way. In Auckland, the Education Summit held earlier this year was an attempt to kick start that process.

I know that community means different things to different people, but exploring ways for schools to connect in increasingly innovative and coherent ways with their communities seems like a really important job. What sort of picture, what sort of vision, might emerge if we actually start joining up more of those dots?

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Pathways-ED: Nudge it, Budget, Fudge it!

Stuart Middleton
20 May 2011

We are a strange mob in education all right!

Yesterday we had a budget that was relatively sobering for most in the community, modest gains if any and cuts to our savings scheme. In amongst all that there was a glimmer of good news in the education area. But still the response was negative.

2.92% increase in operating grants. “Not enough. Won’t keep up with inflation.” No, but it gets closer to it that would a zero increase.

Money into the ECE area. “Not enough, centres will have to raise fees.”

And so it went on. Are the education organisations in New Zealand and the media that constantly seeks views from them incapable of noting the things which deserve praise from the levels of muted to wholesome?

The targeting on the increased spending is worthy of quite wholesome praise. Increased spending on the much vaunted Te Kotahitanga programme. It has been one of the success stories in Maori education with significant flow on to all students. It changes the way we behave and the way we think and the way we teach all of which can bring better results for students. Are we reluctant to praise this simply because an implication of it that we as teachers can do better? I hope not because we don’t know what we don’t know and programmes like this expand our knowledge and broaden our horizons and sometimes even turn us in the right direction.

The continuing support and increased funding for the Youth Guarantee is also worthy of wholesome praise. This government appears to understand something that continues to escape other governments in other countries and quite a number of researchers and educators: the issue with disengagement and educational failure can only be addressed by our working differently. Do the same and get the same. That is not only unpalatable from a social equity position but also a considerable risk from an economic point of view.

To support the new and growing focus on secondary / tertiary interface programmes such as trades academies and service academies and on pathways that have the potential to ease the passage of some students away from possible and perhaps probable failure to success seems to me to be a good investment which will avoid continued waste of resources (cash and human) and teacher effort not to mention the downstream costs of social dysfunction and dislocation.

The broadband investment – good.

The history of education demanding additional resources without a commitment to improve results started back in the 1960s when school were under pressures due to numbers. Once we were on top of the reasons changed but the cry remained the same – “Give us the resources and we will do the job!” Well, fifty years later is apparent across the English speaking world that the education system has done what it can do exceedingly well and, in fact, in New Zealand as good as any system in the world. But increasingly the areas in which performance has not been sound, and these are now explicit and widely understood, we have simply continued to do what we do with the same results.

The budget directs resources at key pressure points in the schooling sector – ECE and pathways through senior secondary schools. Similarly in tertiary education, the increased funding the funding addresses English language issues, the general increase (Ok it is only 2.0%) for degree and postgraduate courses, the strengthening of export education initiatives and the provision of more doctors each seem worthy and well-directed.

Our colleagues in Christchurch are recovering from disaster, it might have been a time when the rest of us understood the need for lean pickings in terms of additional funding and new money. So on the whole, a fair analysis of the budget from an education point of view might conclude that education did not do so badly.

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Pathway-ED: Do we need standards for professional discussions?

Stuart Middleton
14 April 2011

There is a lot of talk these days about reporting. Most public is the debate about National Standards. The subtlety of most of it is lost on the public that includes parents and grandparents who simply continue to be confused by public statements which trumpets out that Group A or Association B are “opposed to National Standards”. At one level this is Gilbertian and to argue that schools will not report on a child’s standard of achievement because of issues they claim to have with a government brings a new dimension to the word “professional”.

I have some questions about this:

  • Do parents wish to know or even perhaps have a right to know this information?
  • Has this been done effectively and diligently in the past?
  • If the current system of National Standards is flawed, then who would you expect to be able to design a better approach – dentists, panel beaters or school principals and teachers?
  • Why have Principals not embraced the intention of National Standards and come up with a better approach?

 The intent of the government is clear – parents have a need and a right to know how their children are doing. Schools are good at assessment and evaluation (this is constantly stated by the Minister) but less good at communicating to parents about this information.

The other members of the ESES (English-Speaking Education Systems) Group have decided to go down a testing route and there are serious issues with this that are well-known and are becoming apparent. New Zealand has chosen a reporting route. The spokesperson of the principals who told national radio that “we were adopting this system just as other countries were dropping it” simply didn’t know what those other countries were doing nor did he appreciate the critical differences.

Some years ago I wrote about an analysis I had done of all the school reports that a single child had received over thirteen years from his various schools. I can reveal now that the child was me. My parents received almost no information about my academic growth and progress. The single exception was a Form 4 English teacher who stated that “Stuart writes quite well.”  A plethora of test results, the assignment of As and Bs and Cs all without much explanation, had to do.

As a result I suspect that my parents focussed on the things they understood – behaviour, politeness, enthusiasm, and so on. They beamed with pleasure when those were As or Bs and any discussion of reports that took place simply ended with their conclusion that there was room for improvement. I never received a gift for outstanding achievement or “passing” this that or the other. You went to school for a purpose – to learn things – and the teachers were trusted to do what they had to do to see that done. But that was a simpler time when teachers were trusted and the relationship with a community much less fraught. Parents sent you to schools and teachers did what they were best at doing. Trouble at school meant trouble to the power2 at home.

It’s much more complex these days. For a variety of reasons there is less trust in the system to work its magic with all children as the evidence grows that there is significant failure matched only by marginal and incremental improvements in achievement, there is a discontinuity between education and employment, there is a generation or a fairly large group of parents and caregivers who themselves are dislocated from the process. It is very much harder for everyone wrapped up in this equation.

What we do need is to nail the issue of reporting to parents and caregivers – National Standards or some better system if the principals and the schools they represent can come up with one. Bland refusal at the first fence is not enough.

What we do not need is increased confusion in the community. Eventually we have to have parents centrally involved in the decisions about educational pathways for their children. On what basis are they to make these life-critical decisions, provide guidance to the ones they love most dearly and, in a system committed to equity, be able to do all this with the effectiveness of other members of the community?

This week the legal profession went public in a discussion of legal aid. Compare the style of this discussion with that of national standards from the different professions’ perspectives.