School standards stand-off heats up

A stand-off between Education Minister Anne Tolley and so-called "rebel schools" has intensified, with the teachers union claiming almost a quarter of schools are refusing to comply with national standards requirements.

Tolley has rubbished the figures and says they are being used by a "small but vocal minority" to disrupt the policy for political ends.

The issue has been brewing since the standards came in last year, with unions and some boards saying the system was an untested step back that would entrench underachievement.

The crunch came last month, when, for the first time, schools were required to submit charters with national standards targets.

The charters were required to show where pupils were in reading, writing and maths according to the standards, and project where they would be in a year.

Ministry figures show 2046 schools submitted charters and of the 1959 already analysed, about 80% comply with the requirements. Tolley said it was also the first time self-governing schools had been made to complete charters correctly, and some simply had no experience setting targets.

"Many schools just need help and support," she said.

Schools that haven't complied have been sent letters listing the reasons and inviting them to resubmit.

Some boards have been offered help and given 10 days to comply, while others have been told the ministry will rewrite the school's charter for them if they continue to refuse to comply.

The ministry said not all boards that had submitted charters without standards did it as a protest. "Our work with boards has identified other reasons why a compliant charter was not received."

Figures show that of those that have already resubmitted, most now include targets but there is a group of schools which will continue to resist the national standards even though it will mean they will be breaking the law.

Those schools are prepared to stand their ground argue the national standards are flawed and the Education Ministry has not proved they actually work.

Frances Nelson, the principal of Fairburn School in Otahuhu and a former president of the primary teachers' union, is one of those resisting the ministry and she says she has the backing of her community to do so.

"They are aware this is against the law but they are also aware the law has been constructed in a way that gives no choice to whole groups of parents," she told National Radio last week, arguing there was a moral and ethical responsibility to act in the best interests of the children at her school.

The ministry's final option for schools refusing to comply is replacing boards of trustees with commissioners.

Tolley said the information the standards collect is important because it identifies the children and schools that need extra help. "Parents and communities deserve transparency and accountability from our schools."

New Zealand Principals' Federation spokesman Ernie Buutveld believes there's a "strong likelihood" that charters without the required targets are written that way by design.

"This is unprecedented action by at least a quarter of all schools and boards, and that hasn't been taken lightly. Our surveys have consistently found only around 10 to 17% of 2100 principals on our database are complying. The rest are complying at the most minimal level by writing the words into their charter to avoid litigation."

More than 100 letters from schools to Tolley, released under the Official Information Act, document perceived problems with the standards.

Some boards say they won't comply because the standards take a one-size-fits-all approach, are too subjective, are untested, set the bar too high, and have a narrow focus around assessment. Others say they will implement the standards, but have reservations. Most ask Tolley to review her stance and trial the standards

Buutveld said the number of schools rejecting the policy should be enough for any government to see it was time for a review.

"Trying to force schools to comply with a system that patently has no support, is not intelligent government."

Schools Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr said boards had to make informed decisions about what was best for their pupils.

"We are responsible for ensuring our schools obey the law. Anyone can choose not to obey the law, but setting yourself up to choose which laws you obey and which you don't is a slippery slope. It's not a position we can recommend to boards, and it's not an example most of us want to be setting for the children in our care."

Sunday Star Times