Will Partnership (charter) Schools ever get off the ground in New Zealand? The bones and entrails are not favourable.
The government education system in New Zealand retains a strong monopoly on all things educational in Years One to Thirteen schooling. Independent education providers struggle because their parent constituency has to pay twice for their children to attend an independent school, free from government interference and control.
Parents pay for everyone else's education via their taxes for the state education monolith; then they must pay directly for their own children to attend schools where the government system does not ram its dictums and controls into the school via countless rules, regulations, pettifogging supervision, and mandatory reports. Meanwhile the government education system continues to graduate far too many students who can neither read nor write after thirteen years in the loving embrace of government schooling. The upshot--more rules, regulations, and pettifogging supervision. Result: no change.
The potential introduction of charter schools offered a glimmer of hope. But the further things have gone, the less likely this will be the case.
In the first place, there is little political will or support for the initiative. The reform was the brainchild of the ACT political party; it received support for the initiative by National as a condition of ACT entering into coalition with National to enable it to have a majority in the Parliament. ACT has one MP. His particular record is not great. One gets the strong impression that as far as the National Party is concerned, charter schools are a necessary irritant to maintain control of the Parliament. There is no real commitment to the reform within government ranks.
Secondly, the monolithic government education system--controlled by educrats, bureaucrats, and teacher unions--has brayed its opposition and resistance to charter schools at every turn, as expected. The government has repeatedly demonstrated its naivety with respect to these vested interests of its own making. It has foolishly sought to "engage" the government school sector and its attendant vested interests in a vain attempt to get them onside. It persistently underestimates the implacability and strength of the opposition. It demonstrates it does not understand the bureaucratic mind arrayed against it.
We heard the other day about a principal who was delivering a guest lecture at one of Auckland's government teacher training academies. On the one hand he was lauding the esteemed flexibility of the current education syllabus, but at the same time was slamming the charter schools initiative. Flexibility obviously has its limits. This is the classic prejudice of the bureaucratic mind: freedom for me (and us) but prohibitions and restrictions upon everyone else. These ignorant prejudices are so ingrained in the government education system that few are now conscious of them. Group speak dominates. Successive government have simply failed to understand the visceral hatred of anyone who would change the system, except those changes which reinforce the power and control of the current educrats, unionists, and Ministry of Education operatives.
Thirdly, charter schools are now looking like they will be a small pilot scheme which will run for a few years, carped at incessantly by monopoly establishment interests, then shut down as a failure. It would appear that there will be around no more than four or five charter schools in the pilot. This reinforces the impression that there is little enthusiasm in government ranks for the initiative.
Fourthly, we have reviewed the draft contractual terms into which charter schools will be bound. Granted, each Partnership School will have its own specific terms and conditions. Precisely what these are will only be discovered after negotiations have been completed. But the mandatory reporting requirements to the Ministry of Education are so frequent (quarterly), plus a whole bunch of extra reporting at the whim of government functionaries, that it appears that the Ministry is doing what educrats and government functionaries always lust after--uniformity, compliance, and control. This would suggest that in New Zealand Partnership Schools will be government schools in drag--leading to the inevitable conclusion that Partnership Schools should be quickly placed in the "Why Bother" category.
For example, it appears Partnership Schools will be subject to a dual inspection regime: the normal ERO government inspectorate regime will apply, but the Ministry will apply a separate inspection, audit, and review regime as well. Double the reporting and regulatory burden faced by the government schools.
One of the prevailing criticisms of teachers in the government school system is that increasingly they get less and less classroom time whilst more and more reporting, responding, form-filling duties are imposed upon them every year. Meeting ever burgeoning compliance obligations means that teachers are less and less teachers, and more and more mere bureaucrats and government functionaries. It appears that the Ministry of Education is not just going to want the same levels of destructive interference in Partnership School operations, but more!
With such a controlling mindset the Ministry of Education has demonstrated once again that it cannot deny itself. There is ever possible only one size that must fit all. There is only one kind of education and it is government education.
Someone will doubtless object that since the government is paying for tuition in Partnership Schools it has a right to monitor compliance with government rules and regulations. But that mindset is the very point at issue. If government is going bureaucratically to control all operations of Partnership Schools, why bother? If government compliance makes for successful schools, why is the government school system becoming expert in graduating illiterates and innumerates? Why would you keep foxes out of hen houses? If governments succeed only to incompetence in every other area of human endeavour, why put schools in a distinct category?
The best option by far would be for parents to be allowed to enrol their children in any independent school of their choice and for the government to issue a voucher for payment of school fees up to the level of per capital funding for a government school pupil. This would allow at least some competition in what is currently a monolithic oppressive and increasingly dysfunctional government education system. As far as education goes, New Zealand now operates like an Eastern Bloc communist country back in the sixties and seventies. It is so controlling and repressive that it is like living in a time warp.
It is possible that our fears will prove unfounded. It is possible that when the actual contracts for respective Partnership Schools are negotiated with the Ministry there will be plenty of diversity and difference with the establishment. We will see. Anyone holding their breath?