Whenever anyone in New Zealand talks of making a difference to the lives of children and their families then the topic of education is not far away.
I began thinking about the NZ education system as far back as 1988 when I took some Education options while completing and Economics degree (I hadn’t thought education much when I was at school as I was too busy playing cards in class or running around on the sports fields when I shouldn’t have been). The massive preoccupation with the content of the Education papers was with the under achievement of Maori and Pasifika children and the subsequent over-representation of those groups in statistics of social ill. Given the left wing bias of the lecturers and the material presented the claim was that these outcomes were semi-intentionally generated to perpetuate power structures within society and serve Capital. It almost goes without saying that the “high flying” academics proposed nothing of effect/worth to change anything. There are still a lot of these hopeless finger pointers in NZ today pretending they have something to say about education.
A quarter of a century later much has changed in the world. New Zealand is materially better off. Around the world rates of poverty are in decline, people live longer, opportunities are expansive. The variety of careers has broadened immeasurably. The understanding of how children learn and how it can be enhanced has improved exponentially. Information technology and the availability of high quality learning resources – at very low cost – has exploded.
A quarter of a century later much is the same. Maori and Pasifika children and those whose families are on lower incomes are over represented in underachievement and qualifications statistics. So are those with defined learning difficulties even though we now know how to do a lot about those (although sometimes parents also have to have the trust, knowledge and courage to stay with a programme).
The other thing that is the same is that academics and those on the political left would rather point out and perpetuate problems than openly evaluate every possibility of solving them. Maybe it is their power structures that now feel a little threatened in the field of education and they have circled the wagons.
Twelve years ago the Villa Education Trust (VET) was established. It was done so because there is a need to provide innovative models to produce excellence in Education. It was also done because after the Economics degree I did a teaching qualification, a masters degree specialising in programme design for teaching high ability children, a sports management diploma, traveled overseas to look at ideal models, taught at 3 high quality schools in NZ, did system wide study of NZ schooling, talked to anyone who would share their ideas and read widely about how to assist children and young people to develop knowledge, attitudes and skills. The VET was established after massive hours spent on model and curriculum design. It was established through my wife and I deciding that the reward of making a difference to the education of children was worth the risk of selling all we have to start a Charitable Trust.
In 2003 the VET began Mt Hobson Middle School (www.mthobson.school.nz). It is a private Year 7 – 10 school for 48 children (12 per class). It teaches the NZ curriculum through core classes in Maths, English, Science, Social Studies and Technology. The children also have an hour of guided independent time each morning working on fully cross curricula topic based projects – e.g. Architecture, Flight and Space, Oceans (that set the context for the school). They do 8 projects a year – learn a massive amount in terms of self management, research and academic product skills. They also develop their knowledge base superbly. The afternoon programme is activity based – Art, Music, Sport, Community Learning, Community Service. We work with a broad group of children – from those with fantastically developed all round abilities looking for extension to those who have areas to overcome to set them up for Year 11 and beyond. It is demanding and effective. We have significant data and case studies of generated change and improvement. We also continue to innovate – for instance – a complete rethink going into 2015 with many new start aspects in response to further changes/understandings in education.
Given that background in 2013 we gained permission from the New Zealand government to take the developed model to Manurewa and begin South Auckland Middle School (SAMS: http://www.southauckland.school.nz/). We had looked for this kind of opportunity before but under past legislation it was not even close to feasible (NB Labour party). We were allowed an establishment period of four and a half months and an establishment fund of $1.3 million dollars (compared to a two year lead in for a State School and at approximately 5% of that model’s establishment cost). We are funded at a decile 3 level on a per student basis each year and, like State schools, have a guaranteed fund during the establishment period. We were not given a zone and there was no certainty that anyone would come. We attracted high quality staff even though the PPTA took out ads in the Education Gazette telling teachers not to work for us (very sporting of them – must have made their members proud). We leased premises and outfitted them to facilitate the tried and tested model from Newmarket.
After a year is is worth thinking about the progress:
- A full SAMS roll is 120 students. In Year 1 our Year 7, 8, 9 were all full with waiting lists. We have averaged seventeen Year 10 students coming in for a year or less to re-boot their education.
- We are full for 2015 and have substantial waiting lists.
- The children have thrived on the day structure and have worked very hard through the academic mornings.
- The children have excelled on the Projects and produced some remarkable work – both individual tasks and completed projects.
- We can evidence significant progress in the basics of all 5 core subjects in our morning programme.
- To ease the financial pressures of families we provide uniform and stationery (and do not ask them for per annum donations) and have a Community Liaison Manager who is working hard at getting to know and to help solve the external pressures that impact on learning.
- We are significantly under local school averages for truancy, disciplinary actions and transience.
- We have a very good ERO report and have students able to eloquently express their experiences: http://www.southauckland.school.nz/dir/index.php/admissions/what-students-say/
- Like MHMS will be SAMS will be better in 2015 than in 2014 because when you see areas of needed change in education smart educators make the changes.
We are able to make many of our choices, such as a student:teacher ratio of 15:1 through receiving our funding in bulk. We don’t carry large infrastructure items, our Principals/Academic Managers teach large programmes, and we keep much of what we do simple in terms of resourcing.
The long established Mt Hobson model and the immediately evidenced success of SAMS earned the Villa Education Trust the opportunity to begin Middle School West Auckland (http://www.westauckland.school.nz/) which will grow to 240 students from a beginning in February of 2015. Again – our establishment period is short but we already have a remarkable staff in place under former St Peter’s College Deputy Head James Haggett. Great teachers want to work in an innovative situation. We are setting up quality facilities and have a good level of enrollments coming in. We are confident that this will also become and outstanding academic school.
To ensure that all we do is cutting edge I had the privilege of travelling to New York City and spending 3 days meeting with a group of the very best educators I have ever met – who happen to be running sets of simply outstanding Charter Schools that are changing the lives if under-served children and their families. These were the top organisations such as KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Success Academies. Their success is clearly evident and given that we have visited them and Charter Schools in Tampa, Jacksonville and Andre Agassi’s school in Las Vegas the dishonesty of the teacher unions in NZ and the political Left for saying that this is a failed model overseas became crystal clear. As the Stanford Credo report 2013 stated: (http://credo.stanford.edu/documents/NCSS%202013%20Final%20Draft.pdf)
Black students in poverty at charter schools gain 29 additional days in reading and 36 additional days of learning in math.Students in poverty, English language learners, and special education students all benefit from attending charter schools as well.
On Friday December 12 I was a guest at North Shore’s Vanguard Military School’s first prize-giving. The testimony of the children, the evidence of academic success, the pride of the parents and the job satisfaction of the staff was clear to all.
As I think back to the readings of systemic failure thrust upon me in 1988 through to misguided people today stating that schools can achieve nothing because of socioeconomic disparity – I see a light in the tunnel that is not just a train coming the other way. There is growing hope of a genuine means for Partnership Schooling to be a part of systemic change and a quiet revolution in the provision for children who are otherwise not doing well. Like all changes and challenges it will not be smooth at every stage or with every establishment – but for the children and families that need innovation and choice the necessity to persevere and enhance the model is clear.
For those who doubt and have genuine interest in the well being of the young people of New Zealand our doors are very open and we are willing to collaborate and share our experiences. For those that criticize from a distance – have some courage and come and see.
(VET Board member, Principal MHMS)