Charter schools, Free Schools

A True Story of a 1960’s “Charter” School in NZ

Way back in the 1970’s I was a young teacher, living in an urban commune in Christchurch! The commune was, and still is, Chippenham!

We were often visited by young secondary students interested in all that we were doing. One of them was  Rod Donald.

As a young teacher I was perturbed by what we were providing in terms of a learning experience. Together a small group of us designed a school. We read and listened to Paulo Freire. We explored Summerhill. But the one that caught our interest was Parkway in Philadelphia. It was a “School Without Walls”, using the community as a classroom.

We then approached the then Department of Education. We had to persuade an existing school to “give birth ” to us. We met with Ian Leggat at a wonderfully alternative meal in the commune. Ian was the Principal of Hagley High. He was persuaded. And then we focussed on Phil Amos, the then Labour Minister of Education. He came and stayed the night at the commune…ministerial car and all! He agreed and in 1975, Four Avenues Alternative High School was born.

It lasted at least ten years and then changed into a alternate school for students in trouble and lasted as that for another ten years. I learnt much in that whole process. The school was great for some students. There were successes and failures in terms of meeting the varied needs of the students. But this is not the blog to explore that in.

I am not sure whether it had the unfair funding that PPTA has so eloquently explained in terms of comparative per pupil finding for current charter schools,but it was seen by existing principals as an experiment, which they were prepared to support.

I returned to mainstream teaching and did some rethinking. What we had done, I thought, was provide a safety valve, which somehow delayed the necessary changes to take place mainstream. And it honoured its original ideas only as long as the commitment of the original team.

It all came back to me, when as a local government officer I was instructed to attend a public meeting on proposed free schools ( UK charter schools) in Northamptonshire. Here I saw models of different communities trying to promote their philosophies, be it drama as the means of learning or a Hindi school. They wanted funding from the state and freedom from the state!

Towards the end of the evening I talked with the young Tory advisers from Gove’s office and asked them what they would do to maintain the schools once the enthusiasm of the founders had died away, and new leaders could not be found. They admitted that they had given this no thought!

Neither has the current National Government in New Zealand given this any thought. Nor have they made it an even playing field. We are in a competitive education system. Parents will choose smaller classes…so might teachers.Chris Hipkins has shown that the per pupil formula is weighted extravagantly in favour of the charter schools, so that  charter school teachers can be paid more.

And then there is this awful contradiction. well another one! We are still closing schools because they are too small. Yet we exacerbate this problem in both NZ and UK, by allowing free schools to open willy-nilly without thinking about the effect on neighbouring schools.

Choice has become a mantra. And great if we all have choice. We can have that by having a flexible, dynamic, well-funded inclusive education system paid for from our taxes. anything else must be paid for from the pockets of the promoters.

Charter schools are just wasting taxpayers money. There are far better ways of experimenting and testing out new ideas and solutions. This is uncontrolled and will likely live only as long as the wonderfully energised promoters are involved.

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