‘Talking to a wall’: Two Charter schools still in limbo about their future

Two Auckland charter schools still have no idea if they will be open next year or not as the Ministry of Education and the Minister of Education continue to delay what they were promised would be an easy transition. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the delay is intentional and that its purpose is to force the schools to close down. Quote.

This is the story of one man, his two schools and a six-year struggle with education officials. National correspondent Steve Kilgallon reports on the making or breaking of two fledgling schools.

There are 15 weeks left in the school year. These could be the last 15 weeks in existence for two fledgling Auckland schools. Or not.

Alwyn Poole established the Villa Education Trust in 2002, launching Mt Hobson Middle School the following year. Then, in 2013, the trust was chosen by the National-led government to start a charter school. The decile-one South Auckland Middle School in Manurewa came first, followed by the West Auckland Middle School in Henderson.

Since the Labour Party took power last year, charter schools have been on notice to either change or shut down.

Poole is seeking ‘special character’ status for the schools to stay open. He was told in writing by Education Minister Chris Hipkins on May 15 he should have a decision by the end of July. But he’s still waiting.

The delays leave Poole five months to either cease all operations or hire staff and recruit students for the 2019 academic year. That should be enough, according to the Ministry of Education. It isn’t, according to Poole.

“We can’t advertise a place for next year, we can’t offer certainty to staff, and we’re worried for families who’ve found a niche for their child they don’t want to lose,” Poole says.

So what’s the holdup?

Alwyn Poole with pupils of South Auckland Middle School.

Alwyn Poole with pupils of South Auckland Middle School.

In order to be re-designated ‘special character’, the schools must show in some specific ways it’s different from the character of ordinary state schools.

The schools cap class sizes at 15, offer free uniforms and no fees. They cover the regular curriculum each morning, then have ‘activity-based’ afternoons based around project work. Poole says it’s clear they are very different.

According to the ministry, a “multi-disciplinary team” reviewed the two schools’ applications and signed off most of them. But the group wasn’t satisfied the schools’ curriculum met the special character requirements.

Hipkins ordered an independent evaluation, which was carried out the consultancy Cognition Education. It gave the schools a glowing report and recommended they be allowed to continue under the ‘special character’ provisions.

The Cognition report points back to another report filed in April by a different consultant, which notes the schools are using “good and innovative practises [not usual in the state sector] ? while still meeting high-quality standards”.

The ministry did nothing between May 29 and July 3 to ask for extra information to help their decision, Poole says.

“It would have been very easy to ask,” he says.

“Cognition took less than two weeks to research and consult and file a comprehensive report that makes it clear that our curriculum is different to that of an ‘ordinary state school by a very significant margin.’ “

An exasperated Poole describes the ministry as “astonishingly incompetent”.

The ministry, which would not be interviewed, said in a statement the schools could now expect a decision on their future within a fortnight. end quote.

Given the previous track record of the Ministry with regards to how these two schools have been treated, we can only hope that this time they will keep their word, do their job properly and put an end to the incredible pressure that they have put these school communities under.

[…] Baller is deeply frustrated about the delay in decisions about the school’s future, because she knows it will take months for Logan to successfully transition to a new school. She also fears that if the school remains open, class sizes will increase and Logan will lose the individual attention that has seen his behaviour and achievement improve.

“We spent months and months going around South Auckland trying to find the right place. [If SAMS closes] it doesn’t leave many other options for him,” she says. She doesn’t want Logan in a bigger school where he would get lost, leaving home schooling or special schooling, neither of which are the right fit for her son. “All he ever wanted was to have a friend: it’s quite sad for an 11-year-old child to say that. But now he has got a friend.

“He can walk around school and everyone high-fives him, and it’s that closeness being built up that is just unreal for a kid that had no social skills and, being honest, because he is autistic, doesn’t grow social skills very easily. He’s developed that in a school environment he doesn’t get anywhere else.”

Baller has written twice to Hipkins, but was disappointed at his “bland” response. She says: “I know there is a lot of judgement about charter schools? but for kids like mine who have struggled in state schools, there has to be a place for them to go to have a chance of success.”

Poole and the ministry have been arguing since the schools were established. He says they are a continual handbrake on his schools’ success. The handling of the move to special character, he says, has been “unbelievable”.

[…] It is a massive bureaucracy … there should be some accountability.”

When the first contract was signed, Poole says he only saw it for the first time on the day, and was told it had to be done as the then education minister, Hekia Parata, was due to make a public announcement naming the first wave of charter schools.

The contract included a clause stipulating how many year seven and eight students had to be above-average for national standards in reading, writing and maths.

Poole says his average student was some 30 months behind the average on their first day and only 35 per cent were at standard. But the contract included rising targets, with 85 per cent of year seven and eights expected to be above average in 2017.

“At that time, Remuera Intermediate wasn’t above 75 per cent … that standard wasn’t being applied to state schools,” says Poole. He says he signed under dispute and was promised a full review of the clause, which he says never happened.

That’s one of six existing unresolved disputes between the ministry and Villa. The other, most serious one relates to South Auckland’s expansion from 120 to 180 pupils: Poole says the ministry reneged on an agreement to fund the expansion, a claim it denies. end quote.

The Ministry of Education's Katrina Casey would not be interviewed, instead issuing a written statement.

The Ministry of Education’s Katrina Casey would not be interviewed, instead issuing a written statement.


With their future up in the air, the schools are pressing on regardless and have?partnered with Mike King to fundraise for their future.