Editorial: Partners in what, exactly?

It's a weird sort of accountability that the Government plans to apply to proposed new charter schools.

Not that we are to call them that any more because, come to think of it, our existing schools have charters too. So now they are to be described as "partnership schools".

Should we think of that as a cute governmental term to highlight the distinction between these and the existing "unco-operative schools"?

Partnership schools, set up by owner-operators, will have greater management freedoms that the Government says will be balanced by even greater accountability.

Accountability to whom, though? Not to you.

As a taxpayer stumping up for this exercise, pretty much all you are entitled to know is whether or not the people who run each school (oddly termed the "sponsors") are satisfying the Ministry of Education, or someone in it, that things are going swimmingly.

The contract with the ministry would set out performance standards and reporting requirements but it's looking like the details are strictly a matter between the contract partners. The rest of us can run along if we want to know much about the tiresome details.

So what we have here is the sort of accountability where the schools get public money, have the freedom to hire unregistered teachers and pay them what they will, suit themselves what hours and days they open, and otherwise pursue the shimmering imperative of producing tip-top educational outcomes while perhaps making an honest buck or two in profit.

All of which can happen without the impertinent stickybeaking that might come from public scrutiny under the Official Information Act or the attentions of the Ombudsman.

Other schools still have to submit to those checks and balances - which, if memory serves, were enacted back in the day in the name of accountability.

But that was an old, careworn, outmoded sort of accountability. What we have here is a brave experiment in new, improved accountability. An accountability built on trust. And a resolute sense of can-do optimism.

Teachers (the qualified ones, anyway) are openly suspicious about how the agendas of the more ideologically inspired sponsors might direct or infuse the teaching.

To hear them talk you could think they are concerned some partnership schools might be run like cults.

So gee, it's a good thing our bureaucracies have such a strong track record of detecting, exposing and correcting cult-like thinking.

Teachers also fret that other sponsors whose ideologies tend more towards Mammon and who are less interested in prophets than profits might, for reasons of output efficiency, have far too narrow a focus on exam success at the expense of functionally useful real-world knowledge.

Parents are entitled to choices about which schools to send their children and if they find those schools don't deliver, they are entitled to change them. But that does not mean the whole system, with a bit of ministry oversight, is somehow nicely self-regulating. The wider public is entitled to know what the true curriculum is and how it is being applied.

In this respect the Education Amendment Bill empowers a system that is far, far too secretive. The fact that it results from a deal to keep the ACT party (such as it is) in the Governmental fold does not excuse the Key Government for tolerating it. The public certainly should not.

The Southland Times