Are Labour's dogma days over?

Initiative Matters: Opposition to partnership schools should cease under Labour's new leadership team.

In ancient Greek, a dogma was something that simply seemed to be true. Today, of course, it has a more absolute meaning. Fanatics of whatever flavour hold their core dogmas sacred. If they belong to a cult that believes the true path lies in cupcake consumption, then they will consume cupcakes. And they will accept their dogma without question.

Under its former leader, there was more than a little of this in Labour’s opposition to partnership schools. Andrew Little made his position clear back in May: “The party disagrees with giving private organisations money to educate New Zealand children." No ifs or buts. State education good. Private provision bad.

You might ask, why? Especially when Labour is happy to pay private providers of early childhood education. And, for that matter, for school-leavers to be trained by literally dozens of private training establishments across the length and breadth of New Zealand.

So what is so different about children between the age of five and 15? The answer is obvious. Having spent a lifetime advocating for the country’s unions, state-funded, unionised school education is Mr Little’s cupcake.

But with Kelvin Davis as deputy leader, and with support from Willie Jackson and Peeni Henare, surely now little more enlightenment from Labour can be expected. All three have been outspoken critics of Labour’s opposition to partnership schools.

Last year, Mr Jackson said Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins' private member's bill to scrap partnership schools rated an “E” (and not for “excellence” but on a scale of A to E). And late last month, RNZ reported Mr Davis had threatened to resign if the two partnership schools in Northland were closed.

Standout school
It is easy to see why. Northland’s Te Kura Hourua O Whangārei has been a standout among the many successful new partnership schools. This might come as a surprise to some readers. The opposition and the media have been quick to publicise the one partnership school failure (which, unlike its permanently failing public school peers, was quickly closed).

But last year 82% of Te Kura Hourua O Whangārei’s students passed NCEA Level 1, 100% passed NCEA Level 2, 100% passed NCEA Level 3 and 100% passed University Entrance.

These are spectacular results by any measure. And they should be celebrated, not condemned especially when educational outcomes for Māori in Northland are a national disgrace. State sector education has been failing generations of Northland’s children. So it is little wonder that local communities and local community leaders like Mr Davis should want to try something new.

While they might seem unlikely bedfellows, this desire makes allies of Mr Davis and ACT's David Seymour, who is parliamentary undersecretary for partnership schools and, like Mr Davis, of Northland’s Ngāpuhi descent.

Of course, not every new partnership school will succeed. But, when the status quo is so poor, there is little downside to trying something new. The partnership schools’ initiative is well suited to innovation. It has acted as a magnet for educational entrepreneurs and as a catalyst for the creation of new schools. It also provides a ready mechanism for replicating success elsewhere.

But the focus of the partnerships schools’ policy on school start-ups alone is like trying to change your shoelaces with one hand. What about the children left in failing, state-sector schools in Northland (and elsewhere around New Zealand)?

Conversions policy
A decade and a half ago, when Tony Blair’s Labour government introduced partnership schools (or “academies” as they are known in the UK) it did so not with start-up schools but with secondary school conversions. Start-ups (called “free schools”) came later.

The academy school conversion policy targeted some of the UK’s worst performing schools – like Walworth School in inner London. Before it became an academy, fewer than three out of 10 of Walworth’s students attained minimum academic targets.

It converted to become an academy school in 2007, with a privately funded, independent trust taking over responsibility for operating the school. Within two years, that attainment rate had improved by 50%. By 2015 it had nearly doubled. Not surprisingly, today more than two-thirds of state secondary schools have converted to privately run academies, many operating as chains of high-performing schools.

Imagine what this type of transformation could do for the children of Northland.

Earlier this year, Mr Seymour announced ACT Party policy to permit state schools to convert into independent state-funded partnership schools. This policy might once have sounded radical. But after nearly two decades of success in Britain, it should not sound radical now.

Under Mr Little, it was inconceivable Labour would support such an initiative. But with Mr Davis on the front bench, perhaps the dogma days are over. It is surely time to put aside the cupcakes and let the success of the partnership schools initiative speak for itself.

Roger Partridge is chairman of The New Zealand Initiative

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