Open Response to SST hit job by Alwyn Poole

I saw the Sunday Star-Times hit job this morning, on Mt Hobson Middle School by Simon Day.

It had all the signs of a pre-prepared hit job where the journalist has already pre-supposed the outcome and only seeks comment to try to ‘balance’ the article.

I contacted Alwyn Poole this morning offering a right of reply to the Sunday Star-Times that would be much more fulsome than anything that they would allow.

He has emailed his response.

?Mr Slater

Thank you for the invitation to respond to the Fairfax media article relating to the Villa Education Trust. I have to acknowledge that I won?t be reading the article but after interactions with reporter, Simon Day, during the week, I am aware that there would be two main thrusts ? and a broader implication. Although I will not be reading it people who look after our interests no doubt will and I hope Mr Day has taken all care (he chose not to meet or come to the school to clarify his points). I will reply here only because the quality of Mr Day?s methods and questions left me in significant doubt that he would be accurate and/or fair.

The thrusts:

1) That Mt Hobson Middle School did not meet its obligations with a child that attended during term 1 of 2014.

2) That special needs funding was not fully used.

The implication ? that because the Villa Education Trust runs Partnership Schools there could be a problem with that model.

On the specific student situation I will not comment on the child or the family. Clearly we consider we work very hard and skilfully with every student. In 2014 the family did question that through a formal channel and the school was found to have fully done exactly as they specified they would. This information was given to Mr Day ? it was inconvenient for him so he ignored it.

On funding. I doubt that there is an organisation that works more closely with official bodies such as the Ministry of Education and ERO than the Villa Education Trust does. We take all care with systems and when in doubt, or when we get things wrong, we take full care to clarify and correct. We are an organisation that is audited financially and fully reviewed by the ERO. As a Charitable Trust and an organisation operating Partnership Schools ? we take massive care. In this case we will pro-actively ask the Ministry to re-check if there is any legitimacy to the claim the parents appear to be making through the media ? which conflict with written understandings we had with them. If any detail is found to be needing to be rectified that will happen immediately as would be our normal process.

Why the confidence? ? ??

Mt Hobson Middle School is a remarkable school for children of any background and ability level. It is a school that has existed for over 12 years now. We do some things differently that has lead to our outstanding results.

– We have a maximum of 12 children in a classroom. This is important for a number of reasons. It means that teacher can get to know each child well and spend considerable one-on-one time with them. It also allows a teacher to differentiate the learning across the ability and personality levels. A fully explained point of difference is that at MHMS we have never had teacher aides in the three formal morning classroom hours as we want our fully qualified teachers working directly with the children. Teacher aids can work during our independent times and afternoon programme.

– We operate a project based curriculum which means that the children work in a supervised independent situation for an hour each day. This is on defined projects with set tasks (e.g. Architecture, Flight and Space, War, The Oceans, etc). The children do 32 five-week projects over their four years in the school. They are demanding but can be modified to meet the needs of the child when they are too difficult.

– The children get Individual Base Plans (but not full IEPs). These begin as very simple documents and then can be developed and modified during the time the child is at the school. This is a process largely driven by parents ? along with staff input. It is a fully explained process (to parents that attend interviews) that in term 1 of a child?s first year that teaching staff are fully briefed on any safety aspects to do with a child?s attendance but that, until the end of term 1, their previous reports and documents should not be read except by the Academic Manager. This is through considerable research around the role of teacher expectations in determining the outcomes of the child. This is always explained to the parents who attend the interview and in our experience, for many children their sense of ?new start? has helped them turn their learning around. Sometimes things are found in keeping with previous reports ? but, far more often than not, our staff find new skills, strengths and level of knowledge within the child ? and new ways of getting the best from them.

– We also believe in the plasticity of the brain. If/when a child who comes to us has been struggling in the past we 100% back the child?s ability to grow and improve. At times this is an area where we most disagree with parents.

– We differentiate our day structure. We have a four hour academic morning ? followed by an activity based afternoon (Art, Music, Sport, Community Learning, Community Service).

Every time a family comes to us the above is what they read in our Prospectus – with more and detailed explanations given during a formal interview. We have a caring, expert and hard-working staff that it is a privilege to work with. We do not always get everything perfectly right but we are willing to do all we can with every student that we have the privilege of working with. Has every parent/family that has come our way during the past 12 years been 100% satisfied? No ? of course not. But – being a Private School – we are a school of choice ? if it is not working then one choice is to leave. But we do put our heart and soul into it and it is very unusual that a child does not do well and we have a huge pile of testimonials from the overwhelmingly vast majority that have simply thrived. Many of those attest to the life changing and future enhancing nature of the child?s experience.

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.

As to Mr Day?s broader implication. The model described above is the one that has been taken to South Auckland Middle School, starting in 2014, and Middle School West Auckland, beginning 2015. Both schools have made remarkable starts. South Auckland Middle School is full with waiting lists after only one year ? with a very positive ERO report. The model and methods are those of MHMS and there are already some remarkable improvements for children. Middle School West Auckland has started with 134 children, after only a 4 month set-up, and we expect similar progress. In those Partnership School situations we are doing exactly as the Minister asked ? working for the betterment of learners who are otherwise struggling in State schools (i.e. what she termed priority learners).

The Minister of Education and the under-secretary for Education are showing considerable courage to bring about change and improvement in NZ for children who are otherwise struggling. This is through interventions such as IES and the Partnership Schools model. Clearly it is gaining momentum with nine schools now operating, increasing rolls and some highly exciting international interest?.?We are delighted to be playing a small part in this ? but clearly it has annoyed some people.

My last statement is just a little reply on what I would consider to be worthwhile traits & behaviours for someone reporting on education.

– you should know your field well and understand education theories.

– you should be prepared to meet with educators and go to their place of work, see the situations, observe methods, clarify your story and ensure accuracy.

– you should be very ethically wary of exploiting a vulnerable child ? even when the parents are complicit.

– you should respect business ethics and privacy and not attempt to sound extortive in your demand. No one is obliged to talk to the media and when you don?t get what you want anger and raised voice petulance is not likely to enhance your chances. There are appropriate channels. Emailed demands/statements such as the following are unlikely to be effective:

?At this point you are refusing to say??

?You are refusing to provide written statements??

?I don’t have time to visit the school??

?For this story I need you to provide statements??

?A visit this week isn’t going to be possible??

Alwyn Poole
Villa Education Trust

There is no way Simon Day would have allowed all that in his hit job article.

I guess this is the beauty of modern media…no space constraints.