You’re a big proponent of charter schools. What are your thoughts on the new Bill introduced by the Minister for Education in early February to repeal the legislation governing them?
We’re not necessarily proponents of the charter school legislation as it stood, even though that sounds like a strange thing to say given that we’ve set up two. We always felt there should be improvements, as it stood, but in saying that, it gave us the opportunity to set up two very good schools that are thriving. Our concern is that there is one thing up that was being said publicly by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education – which was transitioning us to special character or designated character schools – and then Chris’s press release [that] Thursday was really, I think, very unwise and not in “good faith”, as he would like to say. Our schools are flying; we’ve got 180 kids at a school at South Auckland, who are getting a very good learning opportunity, well over 200 children in West Auckland who are doing the same, and we would like to continue and find a way of continuing. The only things we need [the Government] to change about the designated character legislation is that they allow us to keep our governance and ownership, they allow us to keep bulk funding and they allow our teachers to stay outside the national award. And then it’s easy!
So what was the issue with the original charter school legislation?
There are a few things. There were very good aspects about the initial legislation, but...we ended up being quite sidelined. So for instance, when the Government introduced things like investing in educational success and teacher-led innovation funds and things like that, partnership schools were excluded from those, which we could see no good reason for. We got into a situation where, we’ve got so much demand at South Auckland Middle School, but the establishment funding for partnership schools is only 4 per cent of state and there’s no funding for expansion, and so we get to a stage where we’ve got a very successful school but we can’t continue to grow and expand it and we think that also needs to be addressed.
The performance measures in the contract were also very 'adhoc-ly' put together and they needed to be changed. We were asked to work with priority learners so when National Standards was in, the children [were] coming in at about 30 to 37 per cent of National Standards, and yet our contract somehow required those children in the first year with us to be at 85 per cent of National Standards which never, ever made sense. So those are the sorts of things we felt should be corrected, and we actually see this as an opportunity to correct them, so we’re not sure why Mr Hipkins is taking the approach that he is.
You’ve started a couple of schools. Why did you decide to challenge the education system?
Initially we founded a school called Mt Hobson Middle School, which is in Newmarket and that’s for 50 children. What we aimed at was an ideal learning environment for children during a period of their lives that by-and-large, I think, is kind of neglected in the New Zealand system. I think our primary schooling in New Zealand is pretty good. I think there are some issues and things to improve – particularly maths and science teaching in primary schools, and there’s some huge gaps in reading – then obviously there’d been this massive focus on the last three years of secondary schooling in New Zealand through NCEA and that sort of stuff. But you end up with this gap in intermediate schooling, Year 7 and 8 and the first two years of secondary school, where there’s almost nothing in it, it’s like a holding pattern. We actually think that 11 to 15 are really crucial developmental years and if you look at the National Standards tables in New Zealand, children are dropping off during Years 5, 6, 7 and 8 quite badly. There’s no measures for Year 9 and 10, there never has been. So our challenge to the education system is not so much about partnership schools, it’s about the middle schooling and those middle years, and what the New Zealand system actually delivers for kids during that time.
Where does this passion for intermediate schooling come from – what was the driving force behind you?
My first job was at Tauranga Boys College which was and still is a very good school. I then went to Hamilton Boys for 18 months and then to St Cuthberts College and had three remarkable secondary school experiences. I did a masters degree in teaching gifted and talented children and some other qualifications. I travelled a little bit to countries and looked at some interesting schools. I did an analysis of a group of children that went into a major secondary school that streamed and identified their top Year 9 group, then I tracked them for five years in a non-invasive way, and we found that of the class of 30 that were identified as high ability students, only 16 got a B Bursary or better. It was probably a whole combination of things [that caused me] to say, 'boy there’s something really rotten at the core of what’s happening to the children in education in New Zealand, and even the ones that look like they’re achieving, by the time they get into year 11, 12 and 13, they’re almost all doing it on an extrinsic basis, they’re not doing it because they love learning anymore'. That sounds deeply philosophical, but the idea was that we want to provide an education model that encourages an absolute love of learning. That’s why we set up Mt Hobson Middle School, and when the opportunity came to set up the partnership schools, that’s why we flew at it.
What was your own education like? Did you have that love of learning?
My primary school was OK, my secondary school was horrible! It wasn’t a great education experience, I spent most of the time in class playing cards. I got really good at Euchre and playing rugby – I spent a lot of time on the rugby field. I remember waving at my English teacher while I was out practising my goal kicking and he was trying to get me to come to class.
What’s your vision for the New Zealand education system?
I think the New Zealand curriculum is actually a really good curriculum. I think we need a much higher entry bar for primary school teachers and I think that primary school teachers should only be entering teacher training if they have Level 2 maths and a Level 2 science in NCEA, and obviously Level 2 English. I think the paid year of teacher training is actually causing the shortage much more than anything else. You’ve got a whole lot of degree graduates who, if they want to go in to teaching, are asked to pay another year’s fee and effectively give up, say, $50,000 of income to become teachers. Well, they’re not going to do that unless they’ve got some real calling and most people at 22, 23 don’t really know what they want to do. Plus, if you’ve got your teacher training requiring you to take a year out of teaching and give up a year’s income, someone who’s 35 and has commitments, children and mortgages and things like that, might decide they’d love to be a teacher but they can’t do it because they have to give up a year’s income and can’t afford to. So the New Zealand system is missing out on all of these people. If you had a really good apprenticeship system for teacher training and they were paid to become teachers, then I think we would solve the teacher shortage overnight and it would be a better experience than the current teaching colleges. So I’d like to see that. I’d also like to be involved in the expansion of the middle school model.
When you say expansion, what do you think your role would be?
We’re going to keep going with our schools. We’re currently planning another school up in Northland which will be a private school, and we’ve got some other things that we’re doing. We’ve got about 360 children who have been at our schools and are now out in other schools, so we’re this year beginning a concept that we’re going to call our 'virtual school', which means that those children never really leave us, we continue to track and assist them, bringing in that level of care that children deserve.
Why did you get in to education?
I had some good teachers. I had one wonderful teacher, a man called Peter Reed. He role modelled everything about teaching for me that I thought was great. I think he was simply inspirational and having Peter Reed as a teacher made me think I’d like to be like this, and I’d like to be as good as he is.
What do you think about the current state of the education system – we’ve got enterprise bargaining coming up this year and teachers are saying they’re not getting paid enough...what are your thoughts on that?
Of course, everyone wants to get paid a little more. It won’t solve the teacher shortage, it will probably keep some people in the profession who shouldn’t be, who are past their use-by date or they’re no longer interested. But it will do very little to encourage young people because of that gap of a year without pay. Teachers don’t do themselves that many favours because you get into a negotiation round like that and one of the bases for asking for pay is to complain about conditions and complain about children and complain about the job, and say 'we need more money because things are so horrendous', and that’s not particularly encouraging for people who might be thinking about becoming teachers. I think the teaching profession and the teaching unions need to think very carefully about how they portray the career of teaching, because it is a wonderful career, but if the basis for negotiation is how hard done by you are, you’re not going to make it attractive.
What do you enjoy most about the role?
Working with kids. It’s magic, seeing their progress. We’ve got about 60 staff within out trust, they are phenomenal. We pay them a little more, which is what they deserve, but they work hard. They’re inimitable, they’re positive.
Is there a core philosophy that you live by?
I have a Christian faith, and I guess I see my role working with children at least in part out of that faith. To us, the foundational thing is loving the kids and families that we’re working with.
What does the future hold for you and your vision?
In terms of our three current schools, I 100 per cent believe that we’ll find a way. We do expect to be able to negotiate a pathway but there has to be give and take and the three things that the Government is demanding are that we teach the New Zealand curriculum, that we have registered teachers and that we receive no more funding than a state school of the same size and decile. We’re very happy to do those three things. So I believe we’ll fight through that, we’re looking forward to establishing a new school up in the Bay of Islands, and there’ll be other things to do as we go.
Karen, who is the CEO of the trust, has been able to set up two remarkable schools in New Zealand with a four month lead in, with 4 per cent of a state set up, to resource them on a shoestring, and I think there’s a lot to learn for other schools and for the Ministry, really, in how to go about things so efficiently and well. The bulk funding helps us provide uniforms, stationery, IT, we don’t ask for donations, we really are breaking down barriers. I think there’s a lot of learning for other people in that.
So spreading the vision – it’s a great time grow up, but we really should be taking care of our kids.
After work I like to relax by... riding my bike.
Outside of education, the kinds of people I admire are... my wife, first and foremost. I can admire her outside of education as well! I think Roger Federer is pretty remarkable. I’ve seen him play tennis and I’ve had the privilege of seeing a lot of amazing sportspeople during my life, but I think he’s probably better than all of them.
My most treasured possession is... my wife wants me to say my cat. He is pretty cool! But probably our home in Russell.
After I retire I want to... I’ll never retire. I’ll be involved in education until I’m put in a box.