The agreement between the National Party and the ACT Party eventually led to the authorisation of five partnership schools in 2013, and getting underway in early 2014, with four more approved to start in 2015.

South Auckland Middle School is one of the initial five schools to begin in NZ, and it is beginning to prove the doubters wrong.

Located in the socially and ethnically diverse suburb of Manurewa, South Auckland Middle School serves its community, striving to decrease the huge disparities between ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds that exist there.  

The school is creating positive change in the community, and this should not go unnoticed, Villa Education Trust Board member Alwyn Poole says.

Prior to his current role as principal at Mt Hobson Middle School and the Academic Advisor for the Trust, Poole has taught at both state and private schools in NZ including Tauranga Boys' College, Hamilton Boys' High School and St Cuthbert's College.

Poole says these huge disparities and outcomes between the different socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities are very evident in education.  

“In Level 3 NCEA for example, 74 percent of Asians achieve it; 57 percent of Europeans; 41 percent of Pasifika; and 31 percent of Maori achieve it … this filters down through Level 2 and 3, and to international standards for reading, writing and maths,” Poole explains.

At South Auckland Middle School, which caters for boys and girls, Years 7-10, 91 percent of the students are Pasifika.

“We have two jobs and one is to do a great job for the students and their families who come to us; and to show that there is nothing inherent about Pasifika / Maori students or children from lower socio-economic backgrounds that they can’t achieve at school.”

The partnership school enables change by doing things a little differently, he adds.

Its classes are limited to 15 students only which facilitates high quality feedback between students and teachers, and from teachers to students’ families.

If the teacher takes the time to get to know all 15 students, what they like doing and how they work, Poole says this can have a hugely positive impact on the students.  

Students learn through our unique Integrated Project Based Curriculum, where the days are split with a strong focus on academic learning in the mornings and art, music, physical education, drama and community involvement in the afternoons.

This model, developed by Villa Education Trust, ensures all students develop extensive knowledge, research skills and motivation to enable them to succeed in senior secondary school years and beyond. 

Unit managers are appointed within the school and their role is to check each of the 180 children at the school is thriving.

There are no school fees at the not-for-profit school, and no donations are asked for from students’ families.   

The school provides stationary, uniforms and IT requirements, and while the school is not required to employ qualified teachers, all its teachers are qualified.

“And there has been no difficulty finding teachers,” Poole adds.

In 2015, the school, which is not zoned, has increased its roll from 120 to 180, and the waitlist to the school is currently 70.

A second school, Middle School West Auckland, situated across two campuses in Henderson – which has a similar ethnic and socio-economic make-up - has started and has a maximum roll of 240.

Since making these changes, South Auckland Middle School and other partnership schools around the country are starting to see results.

At South Auckland Middle School, there have been significant improvements in National Standards for Year 7 and 8 in reading, writing and maths; improvements in project work; minimal truancy numbers and a low transient rate for families, Poole says.

Any gains which have been made has not been with hard work and challenges, however.  

“It has been challenging being a relatively small organisation in the political arena and dealing with the Ministry of Education but we have just learned to keep our heads down and get on with the job,” he says.

“Working with 450 children and their families is extremely challenging, and so is changing the expectations of these children and their families.”

Poole finds it astounding some schools in South Auckland have suggested that perhaps University Entrance and tertiary education is not for their students.

“That’s the cycle changer – changing their lives and breaking the poverty cycle and intergenerational negatives to do with education,” he says.

“Our biggest challenge is changing these expectations and outcomes – so by the time the students get to Year 10 we are tracking their subsequent years and whether they end up in the tertiary system.”

Despite getting a bad rap by a wide range of educational authorities, teacher organisations, the public and political parties, eight of the nine partnership schools remain operational and provide a viable alternative to state schools in NZ.

Success at South Auckland Middle School has come in the form of improved student results across the board; consistently high quality teaching; providing an educational model that responds to the students’ needs; a high level of family engagement; and the creation of an environment where students feel like they belong.  

The partnership school is walking the talk.