Starting his own school cost Alwyn Poole his home.
He knew buying the century-old property amid the ranks of private clinicians on Auckland’s blue-blood Remuera Rd was a necessity; he had to set up somewhere affluent enough that the parents could afford $12,000 fees. A decade on, Poole and his wife Karen are still renting, but Mt Hobson Middle School’s Victorian villa has been oversubscribed for the past eight years.
Poole reckons the school’s core principles – small class sizes, focusing on the individual, using outside experts – work well. It has the academic results, the ERO report and, importantly, that bulging roll to prove it. Last year, he says, the marketing budget was a mere $300 (spent on new business cards) because the school doesn’t need to spruik for pupils.
So he believes himself perfectly placed to run the first charter schools in New Zealand – and surprisingly, given the right-wing genesis of charter (or “partnership”) schools, his partner in this enterprise is the former Labour minister John Tamihere.
In the US, the biggest supporters of charter schools are in fact African-Americans.
Even more surprising is the concept: not aimed at middle-class parents lusting after extra clarinet lessons and a debating society, but to the children of Henderson, West Auckland, and with an intention to provide them with a private school education, but without the fees.
Poole and Tamihere, with the Waipareira Trust, want to establish four 50-pupil middle schools on a single West Auckland campus.
The project envisages a central hub with an indoor sports hall, auditorium and offices, with, it seems, some sort of business manager at its heart. Each school would have its own principal responsible for academic affairs.
Quite a smart idea. All sorts of innovations are possible when freed from central planning.
Each year, Poole’s school receives $1300 per student from the Government in funding, but pays it back in GST on fees. So his income is the $12,000 per year paid by parents for fees. A substantial proportion of that goes into paying the mortgage on the school property.
His argument is that because of the $8500 the Government pays for each state-educated pupil and the lower property prices in West Auckland, he could run exactly the same model there without charging parents anything.
Would he make a profit? He says not. “We have been as philanthropic as you can be [in selling their home]. Most people who are likely to become involved will do so without even a hint of a profit motive. I don’t think there are vast profits to be made from education in New Zealand.”
Anyway, he says, everyone makes money from education: teachers, unions, IT providers.
Some hate the fact someone may make money out of something, that they’ll fight against it on principle.
Critics of charter schools suggest that allowing business through the doors will mean the educational imperative becomes downplayed, conjuring images of a Dickensian private academy where 50 students cram over a single textbook and the proprietor swims in piles of money. “I understand that if you are compelling the children to go to the schools,” counters Poole, “but parents aren’t stupid . . . you have to trust them to make sound choices.”
Something the education unions and their proxies seem to hate – allowing parents to make choices.