Steve Kilgallon meets the men who want to provide a private school education but without the fees.
Starting his own school cost Alwyn Poole his home.
He knew buying the century-old property amid the ranks of private clinicians on Auckland's blue-blood Remuera Rd was a necessity; he had to set up somewhere affluent enough that the parents could afford $12,000 fees. A decade on, Poole and his wife Karen are still renting, but Mt Hobson Middle School's Victorian villa has been oversubscribed for the past eight years.
Poole reckons the school's core principles - small class sizes, focusing on the individual, using outside experts - work well. It has the academic results, the ERO report and, importantly, that bulging roll to prove it. Last year, he says, the marketing budget was a mere $300 (spent on new business cards) because the school doesn't need to spruik for pupils.
So he believes himself perfectly placed to run the first charter schools in New Zealand - and surprisingly, given the right-wing genesis of charter (or "partnership") schools, his partner in this enterprise is the former Labour minister John Tamihere.
Even more surprising is the concept: not aimed at middle-class parents lusting after extra clarinet lessons and a debating society, but to the children of Henderson, West Auckland, and with an intention to provide them with a private school education, but without the fees.
Poole says there are other people out there working on charter school concepts, ready to act once the Government confirms its plans, but they are afraid to go public and face the criticisms of teaching unions and the principals' association. Among those remaining silent are a prominent former international sportsman.
Poole and Tamihere, with the Waipareira Trust, want to establish four 50-pupil middle schools on a single West Auckland campus.
The project envisages a central hub with an indoor sports hall, auditorium and offices, with, it seems, some sort of business manager at its heart. Each school would have its own principal responsible for academic affairs.
"We have done 10 years here [at Mt Hobson], so effectively we have proven our model," says Poole. "But people might look at us and say what do you know about teaching kids [in west Auckland]?
"That's why we would partner with John, who knows the culture and the needs of the people of West Auckland."
Poole says charter schools are actually a left-wing policy and he believes the idea is under attack simply because of who announced it, John Banks (see story, right).
"John Tamihere says it is an injustice that the children of Epsom get this opportunity and the children of his area don't because they can't afford the fees."
POOLE, WHO taught at Tauranga Boys, Hamilton Boys and Auckland's St Cuthberts, says establishing Mt Hobson was driven by his belief that New Zealand does intermediate schooling badly.
He likes our primary system, thinks our high schooling is OK, but says too many kids lose their way in those middle years of 10 to 14, often because they fail to cope with failure. He says "no-one is allowed to slip away" and his children return to the mainstream at year 11 ready for exams.
His classes are limited to 15, and Poole knows every student personally. His students have three academic classes in the morning, then independent study time to work on one of eight cross-curricular projects a year, then afternoons of music, art, sport, community service and community learning, during which outside experts visit. These have included a World War II veteran, an American fighter pilot, fluent te reo speakers and a Sydney University history lecturer.
Charter schools would permit non-qualified teachers which Poole sees as a positive saying that if you recruit people with other experience and a passion for the job, they can still be trained. This would no doubt alarm principals association boss Pat Walsh but Poole disdainfully rejects Walsh's suggestion charter schools would "dismantle" the profession. He also wonders why you would want a principal with no business experience running the finances - at Mt Hobson, his wife Karen, the business manager, handles that side.
A study Poole conducted on teaching gifted and talented children caused a lightbulb moment when he later read books by Malcolm Gladwell and Matthew Syed about sporting achievers, and the realisation anyone can be brilliant at anything, given the time, effort and support. So he has a messianic belief that he could do good things for other 10- to 14-year-olds.
Here's how it would work;
Each year, Poole's school receives $1300 per student from the Government in funding, but pays it back in GST on fees. So his income is the $12,000 per year paid by parents for fees. A substantial proportion of that goes into paying the mortgage on the school property.
His argument is that because of the $8500 the Government pays for each state-educated pupil and the lower property prices in West Auckland, he could run exactly the same model there without charging parents anything.
Would he make a profit? He says not. "We have been as philanthropic as you can be [in selling their home]. Most people who are likely to become involved will do so without even a hint of a profit motive. I don't think there are vast profits to be made from education in New Zealand."
Anyway, he says, everyone makes money from education: teachers, unions, IT providers.
And there's the risks. Poole and Tamihere would have to find the initial funding for the land and buildings - without any guarantee of pupils. "They will not just flood through the door, you have got to provide something good, so this idea that any monkey can set up a school and make huge profits while staffing it with whoever is complete nonsense.
"They will have to be well organised and well set up and credible from the beginning."
Critics of charter schools suggest that allowing business through the doors will mean the educational imperative becomes downplayed, conjuring images of a Dickensian private academy where 50 students cram over a single textbook and the proprietor swims in piles of money. "I understand that if you are compelling the children to go to the schools," counters Poole, "but parents aren't stupid . . . you have to trust them to make sound choices."
He says the best overseas models include a Las Vegas school established by former tennis player Andre Agassi, charter schools in New York and the British free schools model. "The advantage we have in coming into this after other countries is that we can avoid the nonsense," he says.
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