Last week, Chris Hipkins announced that six more schools had received approval to transition to designated character schools.
However, he has yet to make a decision on three others – Rise Up Academy, and South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland – both of which are run by Villa Education Trust (VET).
Hipkins told EducationHQ that he understands the concern that the last three schools are feeling about their uncertain future.
Addressing the issue of why the three schools are still waiting for a decision to be made, he says each has particular issues that need to be resolved before he can proceed.
“In terms of the three schools where final decisions haven’t been made yet, one of those is one [where] there’s a limited amount that I can do to influence that and that’s the Rise Up Trust, because in that case the lease on their building has expired and there is likely to be great difficulty in finding them an alternative location if a new lease cannot be arranged for their existing site.
“Now, that problem was going to arise whether they remained a charter school or whether they became a state school.
“Ministry of Education officials are working very closely with them to try and resolve that issue, but ultimately the final decision around them is going to depend what the outcome of those negotiations are,” Hipkins said.
He added that moving the school into the state system would give the school and its students greater security.
“The security around these schools, in terms of their long-term future, is something that under the charter school model, the Government doesn’t have a lot of control over.
“If you look at Rise Up for example, the fact that they have a lease expiring in the middle of the school year is a very concerning development.
"It’s not something as the Minister of Education that I would be comfortable with.
“And so by moving them into the public education system, we can actually provide a greater degree of security than they have in the current pretty ad-hoc arrangements that some of those schools have around the physical premises that they have.
“What we’re trying to do here is ensure that we’ve got quality educational facilities for this school so that they can have a viable long-term future and in the absence of that, I’m certainly not in a position to be able to approve their application.”
Hipkins said he has asked for further details around the curriculum at VET’s two charter schools, to “ensure that they’re meeting all the relevant criteria”.
“That is very important. It’s important that any new schools do meet the criteria, it’s important that the new schools are actually offering something that’s innovative and different, and from reading the application, from reading the Ministry’s advice on the application and from reading all of the supplementary advice that was presented as part of the application, that did leave me with uncertainty there,” the Minister explained.
VET is now working with independent reviewers to gather the requested information for the Minister.
Alwyn Poole, Academic Advisor at VET, said there was some confusion during the application process for VET’s schools, resulting in a draft version of their designated character statement being included in the Ministry’s report on the Villa charter schools.
Hipkins said the draft statement that was mistakenly included in advice to him had not had any bearing on his decisions so far regarding VET’s applications.
“I considered the advice from the Ministry of Education but that was not the only advice that I considered, I also considered Villa’s application and the supplementary information that was supplied as part of Villa’s application.
“So I think the concern that Alwyn Poole has expressed, which is that I didn’t have all the information that I needed, isn’t a valid concern. I did have all of that information.
“But there was some uncertainty there, and that’s why I’ve asked for this curriculum review, so that there can be certainty and so that I can be sure that the information that I’m making my decision on is the most accurate information and allows Villa the opportunity to put their best foot forward.
Poole, however, believes that the schools’ point of difference has been made clear.
“To anyone who knows us, [being asked for more information is] probably the most ridiculous thing that they’ve heard because that’s why kids come to us, because of our project-based curriculum, because of our split day, because of the nature of the learning, all of those sorts of things.
"Our point has always been that we’re different,” Poole said.
He also questioned the time it is taking for the Minister to make a decision on the fate of VET’s schools.
“The Ministry had from May 29 to July 3 to ask for extra information and simply chose not to do so.
“And the Minister had that report form July 3 to July 15, and no one asked for extra information to supplement the report, and then he signed off the deferral of [the] decision on the 15th.
"The Ministry then took nine days to communicate that to us.
“I seriously had a kid walk out while I was standing at South Auckland [Middle School] yesterday, absolutely in tears – and none of this had been discussed at school – saying ‘why does the Government want to close my school?’.
“So clearly it’s impacting on parents and they’re having conversations and that sort of stuff, and it’s just been incredibly unnecessary,” Poole said.
And while he is confident his schools will “get through”, he said VET would appeal a negative decision from the Minister.
“If somehow the worst came to the worst, we would certainly challenge that formally.”
APPROVAL RESULTS IN NEW PROBLEMS FOR SOME SCHOOLS
Te Rangihakahaka Centre for Science and Technology in Rotorua was one of those named on as approved to make the change to a designated character school.
Roana Bennett, general manager of Te Taumata o Ngāti Whakaue Iho-Ake Trust, which oversees the school, said the school community was pleased to have certainty about what would happen in 2019.
However, she said that although the whānau are happy to know they can come back next year, the news was tempered by the Minister placing a roll cap of 75 on the school.
“Our roll is already greater than 75, we have over 90 students enrolled, we’re planning on hitting 100 by the end of the year and climbing up towards 200 by the end of next year, and to have a roll cap of 75 come out of the blue like that is very disappointing,” Bennett said.
“We’ll be challenging the decision.
"In particular we’ll be challenging how they calculated the 75,” she added.
“They’re referring to property constraints but we’ve got over 1500 metres of teaching space available to us, we’ve got a large site, we just simply cannot understand how they’ve calculated our site capacity at 75 students.”
According to Graeme Osborne, CEO of E Tipu e Rea which provides independent support to charter schools, Te Aratika Academy in Mangateretere has also been approved but with a roll cap of 60.
Osborne said while there was a general sense of relief that six approvals were granted, it came against a “backdrop of no choice for the schools but to apply to set up state schools”.
He also has concerns about the impact of the Minister’s delay on the time remaining for the last three schools to get set up to re-open in 2019.
“The Minister’s announced that … he would hope to approve Rise Up academy and Villa by September.
"Well, September doesn’t leave a lot of time between then and the start of the new school year in 2019.”
Osborne said it is wrong to call this a transition process, as it involves the closure of the charter schools.
“The kids that are currently in a charter school will be required to enrol in a new school come 2019, which might have some similarities to the charter school but will have also have some key differences.
“So hopefully the discontinuity for the kids is minimal, but nonetheless there will be a discontinuity.”
The Government’s decision to close the schools continues to “mystify” Osborne, who maintained the schools are doing what they were set up to do – assist some of New Zealand’s most disadvantaged students.
“The problem is...that the state system...like all systems doesn’t serve everybody equally well.
"And historically...it has not served Māori well.
“Learning success measures for Māori continue to lag those of New Zealand’s Pākehā, or Asian even, and there’s been no gain against that gap, there’s been no gain against that deficit, as [Sir] Toby [Curtis] would say, in the last 178 years.
“So the need hasn’t changed for solutions, but partnership schools provided a solution, and it mystifies us that the Government can defy these really strong, logical triggers to actually do what they’re doing, closing something that’s working,” Osborne said.
“The educational success of young people should not be impacted by political will, and yet that is what’s happening here.”