Thursday, January 28, 2016

Charter Schools are an expensive mistake

When the Government introduced Charter Schools through pretending it was just part of an Act Party coalition agreement, it was actually a long term attempt to break New Zealand's public education model. The privatisation of public services is always a goal of National Governments and there has been a long time animosity towards the education unions. NZEI and PPTA are two of the strongest, high density membership unions in New Zealand and any system that could weaken their collective agreements and reduce their influence was worth a try.

Lesley Longstone had been appointed to head the Ministry of Education well before the ACT coalition agreement was being negotiated. Her past job was the implementation of the Charter School system in the UK and it was clear at that stage what the Government's intentions were. The simplistic approach of the National Government blinkered them to the wider functions of the Ministry and Longstone struggled to get to grips with leading the New Zealand system.

Te Pumanawa o te Wairua was one of the original five Charter Schools chosen as flagships of the new public/private system. The quality of all the Charter School applicants was concerning and although there seemed to be a lack of experience within the Te Pumanawa o te Wairua Trust it was one of the better ones of a bad bunch and there was obviously the belief that it could be supported into a successful operation.

Right from the beginning the school caused concerns, it spent $1.3 million on a farm with some of the setting up funds and struggled to meet basic expectations as a school. The original 60 students that started in the expensive experiment quickly dropped to 40 and the schools was allowed to bumble on for two years while providing a substandard education for the remaining students.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has finally pulled the plug on Te Pumanawa o te Wairua and many of the problems she listed that led to the failure of the school are problems that all public schools in low decile communities experience, such as recruitment and retention of staff.  The Government's theory of shifting outside the public system to find solutions for supporting struggling children in low decile communities was similar to buying a ticket in a lottery, there was always a slim chance that one or two may be successful. Without relying on professional experience and a fully-qualified staff, the chances of failure were actually so much greater than within the public system.

Taking a gamble on a system that has had mixed success in other countries (ranked beneath us in international assessments of achievement) seemed dodgy at the time, and dodgy it has proven to be. Ideology has always trumped evidence for this Government and although promising not to introduce more Charter Schools until the original five proved their worth we now have nine and 25 more schools have applied.

Over the two years of Te Pumanawa o te Wairua's operation the expenditure amounted to around $60,000 per student each year. When the overall expenditure per student in New Zealand is only between $7,000 and $9,000 per annum one can only wonder at how that money could have been better used if directed to existing schools. Parata says that the setting up of any new school costs a considerable amount, however many of the Charter Schools are being funded to set up where public schools already exist. Surely those schools would benefit from the money going to them and provide better value than spending it on a new school in the same area that may or may not deliver good outcomes.

Over the last few years the National Government has squandered over $110 million on Novopay and over $14 million on a handful of Charter Schools. At the same time special education is underfunded, leaky schools are going to cost $1.5 billion to fix and around $6 billion is needed to build new schools and to address maintenance (often delayed) of existing ones.

The amount of energy and expense necessary to further drive an ideological idea, with such a poor track record, is unjustifiable when so much is needed to maintain existing public schools and support the children in them. New Zealand's public education system continues to be attacked by National.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Embracing Diversity

While New Zealand has made considerable social progress over the past 100 years we are still a country where affluent white heterosexual males dominate. Our laws may prohibit discrimination related to gender, sexuality, race, culture and income but it takes more than a law to change thinking.

Two stories since the New Year has made me aware just how far we still need go as a society.

The first regarded a Portuguese visitor to our country who was deported back to his home as soon as he arrived here. This man met all requirements as a visitor to our country, he had a return ticket, insurance, money and did not need a special visa. Airport immigration officers refused him entry because they believed he was intending to work here despite a lack of concrete evidence that he was.

Not only was this a humiliating experience for the man and his friends but it exposed possible cultural bias on behalf of immigration officers. I am fairly sure that had he come from the UK, Holland or the US there would have been little problem. I have heard a number of similar stories from people of different cultural backgrounds who have suffered because of a clear bias in our system. A local medical specialist, who happens to be Libyan, discovered that his brother was not allowed to visit him purely because of the country he came from.

In the colonisation of New Zealand we did have a white only policy and although the written policy has changed it seems as if this has really been to accommodate the likes of wealthy Chinese and cheap labour from the Pacific islands and the Philippines. The bias against ordinary people who may not come from the previously preferred nations seems to have continued to some extent.

Mai Chen has been leading a Superdiversity Stocktake and is recommending we embrace diversity to enrich our culture and to energise our economy. After a very successful and high profile legal career Chen still finds that she is treated as a visitor by many European New Zealanders (this is despite the fact that there has been a substantial Chinese community here for well over 100 years).

It seems that the knowledge and skills those from different cultures have are not properly appreciated. Recently the Invercargill City Council sent a team to China to negotiate the purchase of some new Christmas lights and it was never thought advantageous to include a local Chinese person as part of the team.

The other story involves two top former students of Auckland Grammar who had to wait until they had left the school before coming out as gay. Despite their academic excellence and general success (one was the 2012 Dux, the other was the Head Prefect for the same year) both had to hide their natural sexuality and suffered considerable stress because of it.

The school website describes a safe environment for students of different cultural or socio-economic backgrounds but makes no mention of sexual orientation or individual emotional needs. Sadly we have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD and many of those who take their own life are young members of the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual) community. Given that around 5-10% of people would identify as LGBTQIA it would mean that up to 251 students would feel challenged and not supported by Auckland Grammar's dominantly heterosexual culture.

I remember discussing a student as part of the senior management team of a local intermediate some years ago. Others of the team were concerned about a male student who openly stated his wish to have a sex change. He was a very popular student whose personalty enabled him to rise above any potential teasing through a great sense of humour and a very likable personality.  Most of the senior staff questioned the naturalness of the boy's behaviour and wanted him to receive psychological counseling. I voiced the opinion that the teachers needed counseling more because they couldn't accept that the student concerned was managing his sexual identity extremely positively. I can imagine many schools would still have staff that would hold similar concerns in the same situation.

Henry and Joel have since created a website to support others like themselves but I can't help wondering why in this day and age the school leadership couldn't display greater awareness and compassion.

The world didn't end when we had female Prime Ministers just like it wouldn't end if we had one who was Gay or possibly Iranian at birth. Talent just doesn't come out of white European heterosexual males and by not celebrating and accepting the diversity within our population we are effectively limiting our potential as a nation.