Choices for the children

Parents push for democratic schools

Last updated 15:11 24/09/2012

LEARNING CURVE: Back row, from left, David Prebble, Jay Horton and Pew Singh. Front, from left, Rita Scholten, Lolly Dadley-Moore (with Taj), David Dwyer and Rae McDowell.

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Just out of Takaka, restaurant and luxury accommodation complex Eatery on the Rock is nestled among outcrops of karst, surrounded by green and pleasant farmland.

More pertinently for Pew Singh, chairman of the Kahurangi Educational Trust, the complex is for sale - and it's the perfect place to start a new school.

“If someone wants to give us $2 million we'd be happy to get in there,” Mr Singh says. He is only half-joking.

While the introduction of National Standards means that for state schools, literacy and numeracy are emphasised more than ever, Mr Singh and 120 other families in Golden Bay - plus 100 more in Nelson - want to build a new way of education: Democratic schools, where children decide what, when, and how they learn, where the whole community is the school, and where everyone is both a learner and a teacher. Though they don't exist yet, the groups of parents behind them are determined to get them started.

The growing movement began from a community meeting in Takaka in September 2010, at which democratic educator Verena Gruner, one of the co-founders of Motueka's former Mountain Valley School, gave a presentation about what she'd learned from the International Democratic Education Conference in Tel Aviv.

What she said rang true for Mr Singh, a British internet marketer and father of two daughters.

“At that point I was thinking about education for my children, and I consumed everything I could about democratic education,” he says. “I found a very large group of people who thought similarly.”

Mr Singh says exercising choice in education is important to the parents of Golden Bay - the fact that so many are home-schooled means their parents want to give them an alternative to Collingwood's area school and Takaka's three primary and one high schools, he says. There are no Steiner or Montessori schools in Golden Bay; no schools that lend themselves to the type of learning these parents want for their children.

In May last year the Golden Bay group applied to the education minister to fund Kahurangi School, a "character school", legislated for under the Education Act, which allows for the establishment of a school with a "special character" which defines a style of learning not catered for in the region. Their application pushed heavily that the choices for education in the area were limited, and that the school would be unique. They wanted it taxpayer-funded so it would be free to everyone.

Mr Singh's daughters are now aged 5 and almost 4, and he and his wife Martine Baanvinger are homeschooling them until the democratic school begins. He's confident it will; the 120 interested families include 161 children, or about 20 per cent of the roughly 770 students enrolled at each of Golden Bay's five schools - though many of the pupils on the list are home-schooled or under 5. Their planned school will cater for years 1 to 13 and will have a maximum of 250 students, with roughly one teacher to a dozen students.

“We're not saying the existing schools aren't good, but we want to provide choice,” he says. They've already had applications from teachers in Golden Bay and beyond.

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Over the hill in Nelson, Dawn Grace Kelly had a similar "aha" moment when she heard the noises happening in Takaka. She's the co-ordinator for Arohanui Holistic Learning Trust, which promotes a democratic school in Nelson. She too wants more choice in education, and particularly more emphasis on creativity. Her 6-year-old son only does art once a fortnight at his state school.

“What if you're not happy with the system where the kids are in a box and [schools say], ‘You all learn this and you all learn it now'?" she says.

"Creativity and emotional intelligence are as important, if not more, than literacy and numeracy - but at many schools art and drama and music are way down the bottom of the [priorities]; they're the last things they're interested in."

She believes many state schools don't offer room for children to be really supported in what they want to do - her son, for example, has to choose between extra kapa haka, which he loves, and spending his one period a week of free time with his mates in his class.

"If they want to do music they have to give up their lunchtime and playtime. What's important is there's more freedom to follow what you want to do.”

So what is democratic education? It's a worldwide movement that gives students self-determined learning and creates an education community based on equality and mutual respect. It believes students learn better when power is shared - they make decisions, are involved in assessment, and can work at their own pace.

The child's social and emotional needs are just as important as their academic results, and the aim is to keep a child's natural inquisitiveness and drive to learn alive by focusing on their passions, interests and needs.

There are three in the South Island already approved under the special character legislation: Tamariki School, which started in Christchurch in 1966, and New Zealand Learning Discovery Trust's twin schools Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti and Discovery 1, both of which are due to merge in the upcoming Christchurch education overhaul. The LDT has offered support and advice to Kahurangi School.

An October 2009 Education Review Office (ERO) report on Unlimited, which caters for high-school aged children, said the school's focus on individualised learning “results in students who are highly motivated to achieve the goals and learning outcomes they helped to set in their IEPs [individualised learning programmes]”. Students said the school was a safe environment without bullying”.

At the new school, each child would be given their own personal education plan based on their needs, with a special emphasis on personal projects.

Ms Kelly says parents become much more involved in their children's education at a democratic school. “Not every parent's into that - the majority [at state schools] trust that the teacher knows what they're doing," she says. "It's just really important to me that the child's opinion and voice is valued rather than it being adult-driven; the adult feeding the child what they think they want them to know [versus] what the child wants to know.

“[In a standard school] they're learning that if they do what the teachers tell them to do they will gain something. That becomes part of their psyche and that's what they take into the adult world. We want them doing things because they enjoy it, and we weave numeracy and literacy into it."

East Takaka writer Sarah Lea is keen to see Kahurangi School established. She has never seen the current education system as a success. At school, she felt forced to compete with peers and was being “pushed towards academia”.

She has three children, aged 7, 4, and 1.

“All I wanted to be was a creative and it's taken me my whole adulthood to get to where I wanted to be,” she says. “It seems like school was such a waste of time and energy. It didn't teach me what I wanted.”

She homeschools her children because she feels that by placing them in a mainstream school “they wouldn't have the right to be who they are”.

“I love the fact that [Kahurangi School] offers a system that works for each individual child and offers a self-directed learning environment for them. I think it's fantastic that the children are able to choose what they want, and be listened to."

Tasman district councillor Martine Bouillir also supports the concept. "I think that models like the democratic school foster what is innate in children - they don't need more ‘knowledge' - there is already an overload of that which can be accessed instantly by virtually anyone.

"What children need is mentors - whether teachers, friends or parents - who don't ‘know', but who acknowledge that children are capable, creative and dynamic given the right environment and validation to explore their potentiality. Many of the kids who are growing up now need radically new ways which we are currently mostly not giving them."

However, the groups' plans have hit a bump in the road. In late August, as the Nelson democratic school team was producing its ministry application to establish their designated character school, Education Minister Hekia Parata declined Kahurangi's application - leaving them "very disappointed", Mr Singh says.

Though Ms Parata wrote that she "applauded" their commitment to the education of the young of Golden Bay and didn't want to discourage them, a new school wasn't necessary to achieve their goals. The group should work with the board of an existing school to provide what they wanted for their children, or stand for election for a board if they wanted to change how schools worked.

“The schools believe they already provide what we're offering but that's clearly not true. We weren't so much upset by the decision but [the ministry] were washing their hands of it,” Mr Singh says. “It's not something we think we can and should achieve ourselves. Surely they should be working with us to do that.”

Now the Nelson group has shelved their application.

"We're 99 per cent sure it will be rejected," Ms Kelly says. "How would schools deal with the cultural differences of having two groups of students doing radically different things? That would break up the community of the school."

After the letter, the Kahurangi Educational Trust obtained a ministry report into its application. Fourteen months of investigation equated to 10 “superficial, biased, and one-sided” pages, Mr Singh says, to which the trust is now responding.

For example, he says, the report concludes there's already existing school capacity in Golden Bay - but that includes 92 spaces in Collingwood Area School, which doesn't make sense for the majority of parents based in Takaka.

“No one school in Golden Bay can deal with our numbers," he says. "You would have to get all the schools to work with us. The ministry view is while none of the schools provide what we want, there is potential for one of the boards to adopt the learning style [but] there's no reason for the schools to do that.

“The section 156 which we applied under all relates to providing a style of education that's not currently catered for in a traditional state school. The ministry's interpretation of that is that hypothetically, it could be - which means nobody could ever meet the criteria under 156.”

He feels it's all about lack of money. “Without a doubt.”

The minister did not respond to a Nelson Mail request for an interview this week.

There are schools in the country that have done what the minister suggests - Bay of Plenty's Whakamarama has opened a Discovery stream, for example. The Kahurangi trust has written to the boards of all five schools in Golden Bay, and all bar one, which has not yet replied, have refused to even meet to discuss the possibility. In fact, in April last year, all five Golden Bay school principals wrote to the Education Ministry expressing reservations about the new school, saying the community was too small to support another school and they feared it could lead to reduced funding for existing schools if rolls dropped.

"I do have concerns about the teaching of basic literacy and numeracy, when the children [in a democratic school] would have so much freedom of choice," Motupipi School principal Mark Cullen told the Motueka Golden Bay News at the time.

"When I read about the special character of a democratic school on their website, it's very similar to the philosophy we work to at our school."

Golden Bay High School principal Roger File did not return the Nelson Mail's calls or emails - and nor did the principals of almost every other school in the region, except John Armstrong of Henley School, who said parents had “a great range and choice of educational institutions in our region”, and suggested the two groups pursue making a case to be a charter school or self-funded private school if they disagreed.

Though Post Primary Teachers' Association regional chairwoman Anna Heinz says the concept of democratic education varies so much it would be difficult to judge the schools beforehand, she wishes the parents' energy could be directed into the state education system "to lift up everything".

"Not that it's bad," she hastens to add. "But there's got to be a positive about lifting the note of education. It seems a pity not to use that energy."

She says individualised education requires lots of money and time, and there was plenty given to students in modern schools as education evolves.

"It's been happening for some time; [but] it's not necessarily the perception out there in public," she says. "We shifted towards it at the same time we shifted away from rote-learning and classroom situations that were mostly an exercise in discipline.

"We can't run a big modern secondary school at the moment on a situation where kids have their own little hubs where they're learning their own thing. But within the scenario we have there is quite a lot of individual attention going on."

The Kahurangi trust's next step is a public meeting to find out what the community wants to do, and the Nelson Democratic School team is considering its options too, such as establishing a low-cost private school through grants and funding, or a small school into which they might fit.

About a fifth of the Nelson parents interested in a democratic school homeschool their children, so one potential solution was to have the homeschooling students attend a group lesson several times a week. But they can't do that - if they meet more than three times a week, they have to lodge an application to be a school.

Ms Kelly says they're passionate about alternative education in Nelson.

"Our team is meeting regularly to make this a reality; we feel a supportive, holistic learning community for our children is vital."

Mr Singh says the rejection is "just a little setback".

'This was the easiest route to do, [but] we've been working on this for two years, " he says. "The trust are all passionate, determined and committed, and there's backing from education experts around the country. There's so much support for us that we will make this happen."

- Nelson


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