So there are a lot of points in this whole debate that are nothing to do with state funded public schools, and are to do with education. What about the first two headlines on the list?
- Destiny Church might set up a school!
- Transcendental Meditation Groups might set up schools!
In the United Kingdom an already extant private school changed status to become publically funded. It has a strong meditation focus. Frankly it looks like a lovely place. There have also been quite a few schools set up with a religious or ethnic focus. Schools for Muslim, Hindu or Sikh students. These sit alongside schools set up by individual teachers, or chain schools (like some of the chain day care centres we see in New Zealand). Case by case most of these schools look good, but I believe they are wrong for one overarching reason: they divide community.
A good state school is where you go to learn how to live with other people. You meet people the same as you and you probably hang out with them most of the time, but you also meet, work with, and listen to people who are different from you because of their race, ethnicity, income, politics, and so on. You also meet people who are physically or mentally disabled. You see hijabs, and lavalava, and Christian choirs, and hip hop, and haka. You rub shoulders with students who travel Europe in the holidays, and those who lived rough in the weekend.
We don’t need to overdo this. We’re not talking about some kind of vague notion of multi-cultural paradise at a state school. Let’s face it, at school some students simply live in a bubble and seem to notice nothing, and I’m not talking about all the students holding hands and connecting on a spiritual plane of love. You rub shoulders with your community. That’s all. Sometimes parts of the community do a show at assembly. Sometimes a representative of another group does something surprising that you have to process. Sometimes bad things happen. All of the ill and all of the good in a community comes into a state school (often in the same students).
At a state funded private school – a partnership school – there will be very little diversity. It will focus on one group. It will say that it is open to everyone, and some everyones will go, but not many. There won’t be many new schools that are interested in having students with special needs in their school, and they won’t build facilities for them. It will also reduce the diversity in the state schools.
Long term it reduces the capacity of people living along-side each other to get along. Not that I am suggesting that state schools encourage people to have street parties and declare undying love for each other, but I think they can, if they are run right, teach us to pass each other on the street in tolerant, comfortable indifference, or – better – to nod and say hello.
When you look at what Hekia Parata and John Banks said when they announced some detail around how New Zealand’s state funded private schools would work you find one big gap.
While it’s good that the plan says schools won’t be able to say no to any student, in fact how you set up the school takes care of that problem. By the way a school is set up and marketed it will attract a certain group to it and not another. Will all schools be made to set up Special Needs Units? Marae? Pasifika centres? Prayer rooms? No. You set up a school with a Muslim prayer room, and Muslims will be interested. You set up a school with a Marae and a Kapa Haka programme and Maori will go. You don’t need to pick and choose. The parents will self-select into mostly homogenous groups.
Alongside this problem is the problem of the attack that these schools represent on the national curriculum. The curriculum in New Zealand is fantastic. It is broad, well thought out and flexible. It was worked out over a long time by teachers and other educators based in New Zealand. It is already a major problem that some schools have abandoned both the curriculum and NCEA in pursuit of other outside curriculums or assessment programmes that have a flavour of elitism. Now this will be further diminished. This is appalling. Again, it divides and segregates.
But worst of all is the failure of these new schools to address the issue they were purportedly set up for: finding a way to help that group that is always over-represented in those “failing schools” (=brown students, especially boys, generally living in lower socio-economic areas). If you read through the plans for the new schools there is nothing in those plans about capturing these students. Probably this is because you can’t do this without making certain people go, and this doesn’t sound like more choice for parents.
What does this mean? It means something very similar to England (The National government hired the person who ran the programme in England to work for them). What will we see? We might see some struggling private schools move to the new model. Private schools are already good to go on all the criteria. We might see some new ethnic/religious schools in larger population areas like Auckland, we might see some schools set up by iwi, and some by people who want to make a difference for the “troubled youth”.
Not many of these help those students at the end of the “long tail”, and almost all of them diminish a sense of a diverse community working together with a flexible but consistent national curriculum at a school that is the centre of a neighbourhood.
This is not an extreme situation now. The world does not end tomorrow. Because the state system is so good for so many people, and most people can’t afford private schools, the number of people going to state funded private schools will be very low. But I believe it is wrong to introduce state funded public schools. It reduces the richness of community for everyone. I expect you will be able to see the effects of this in ten years. Politicians of course don’t think in time cycles this long.
On the other hand I do believe it is time to shift education on again. Conventional classrooms can largely be changed into workspaces; school books and textbooks will be changed into tablets; the hours that schools operate and who works there can alter; dedicated and effective life-long teachers should be given more; money should be given to ensure schools promote lively and meaningful cultural groups within their schools; and, above all of this, far above all of this, funding needs to go to schools with low academic results to increase their resources: they need money to significantly reduce class sizes, to pay for school-wide literacy and numeracy planning, and to support in-school social services.
That is what you need to do. Community schools teaching a national curriculum are maintained and strengthened, while money, time and resources are aimed straight at the tail.
Don’t pay working groups to create rules for partnership schools, don’t pay money to interest groups to set up pet project schools that don’t help the tail, don’t erode a well designed curriculum and assessment system, and don’t waste money on reports on digital learning.