Partnership schools: don’t be hasty
Partnership schools kura hourua spark passionate voices. Battle lines have been drawn up. The call to arms has been issued.
There have been opinion pieces short and long, hundreds – if not thousands – of comments online for and against, full-page newspaper advertisements, to name but a few.
The site of conflict is the Education Amendment Bill 2012, which provides, among other clauses, for partnership schools and on which submissions closed on January 24.
Partnership schools are an alternative model within our public school system. They will receive public funds on a per-pupil basis, like regular state schools, but will have more independence in things like curriculum, operating hours, employment and leadership structure.
According to a cabinet paper issued last year, the initiative’s primary objective is to counter New Zealand’s persistent problem with educational underachievement.
Critics cast the initiative as an open-and-shut case of inevitable failure, one dreamt up by politicians setting “agendas” in dark corridors with dirty hands. But how true is this? And should the concept be canned entirely?
At the very least, as we argued in our submission, partnership schools do have the potential to alleviate educational disadvantage. While the impact of charter schools overseas is uneven, the best-performing examples do furnish significant academic benefits to pupils.
Witness the Success Academies in New York. It is important to stress that New Zealand’s partnership school model is distinct and unique; it will draw from best practice not only in the US, but also in England and Sweden, and learn from those countries’ failures or oversights.
This is one great advantage of our relative tardiness to the charter school table, and it seems hasty to dismiss the initiative out of hand.
Nevertheless, the bill needs some work to ensure that partnership schools have the best opportunity possible to help pupils flourish. The success of the model will largely turn on its significant freedom – and the bill provides for this.
But, in return for this freedom, there should be sufficient accountability and transparency. After all, partnership school operators will receive public money and will be responsible for some of our most disadvantaged children.
In light of this, the bill should include additional safeguards to track taxpayer money and hold operators to account. One measure should be the application of both the Official Information Act and the Ombudsmen Act, from which partnership schools are presently exempt.
The bill also admits partnership schools run either not-for-profit or for-profit. Despite some popular distaste about the involvement of private actors in education, for-profit partnership schools may provide benefits that are not necessarily available to their not-for-profit counterparts.
For example, they may have greater motivation – via the profit motive – to offer quality education at a lower cost through innovation and scalability (the ability to expand and promote economic growth while maintaining quality across the board).
One form of for-profit school is a private-public partnership, where a local organisation or group is the “sponsor” that holds the contract with the Crown and contracts in a private partner to take care of management.
This may be seen as a collaborative endeavour: professional operators cleave to local groups and tap into unique local knowledge. Each party may complement the other’s strengths.
Again, though, the critical issue with for-profit operators is accountability, ensuring that they will provide high quality education.
Though it is unclear what will be legislated (in the bill) and what will be regulated – through contracts, for instance – it is clear the Crown should make sure operators are not able to seek a quick profit at the expense of taxpayers and pupils.
Two ways of doing this are through ongoing due diligence and the publication of performance indicators, including what deviation below the required level of achievement will or will not be tolerated.
So long as the contracts signed between the Crown and successful applicants hold operators accountable to alleviating educational disadvantage, the idea shows promise and is worthy of support.
The imperfections of the bill should not compel us to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
As we’ve said, the bill needs work, but as it passes through parliament there could be opportunities to improve it; our concerns may even be addressed in regulation.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the partnership school model has potential to raise the educational achievement of those pupils who struggle most. Now that’s something to be passionate about.
Dr Luke Fenwick is a researcher with the Maxim Institute, an independent research and public policy think tank, incorporated as a charitable trust. For more details, or to read the full submission on the Education Amendment Bill, see www.maxim.org.nz