Education is a minefield for any government.
This year, the Key government learned the hard way to avoid promoting policies that voters feel will directly affect their children. It backed down from increasing class sizes, which was a foolhardy idea that Treasury had somehow managed to sell to Education Minister Hekia Parata.
On the other hand, the Government is gambling that it can get away with antagonising teachers, principals and school boards, so long as it keeps the parents on side.
However shortsightedly, the public seems to have treated national standards, for example, as something that mainly affects teachers, not children. Similarly, the pilot programme on charter schools has so far failed to generate much heat among the general public – perhaps because voters are treating it as something more likely to affect other peoples’ children, and not their own.
But the first stirrings of public concern were sparked by last week’s headlines that unqualified teachers would be allowed to teach at charter schools. The contradiction that tradesmen need to be trained and registered while people who teach children in taxpayer-funded charter schools will require no training at all, has begun to resonate – if one can take online polls and comments as indicative of the public mood. (Tellingly, the best private schools do not hire untrained teachers.)
It is not surprising the public has taken a while to get to grips with this issue. Last year, the charter schools idea suddenly emerged from the post-election deal that the government struck with the Act Party. It has never received a mandate from voters, who were never told during the election campaign that it was a serious prospect.
The first charter schools will open in 2014. They will be based on United States models that offer more flexibility in governance, curricula, working hours, and pay rates than ordinary state schools.
To critics, they are an ideological solution to a largely non-existent problem, given that since the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools in 1988, New Zealand already has the most de-centralised form of school governance in the developed world.
Although not perfect, our education system also rates highly in performance, at fifth in the entire OECD. Arguably, the residual problems in our school system could be better treated by pumping the funds currently being earmarked for the charter schools experiment, into state schooling.
Judging by US evidence, only those at the very top and the very bottom of the social ladder tend to benefit from charter schools.
The wealthy can afford to equip their charter schools and cherry pick the students (they tend to exclude special needs and ‘‘problem’’ children) in a way that almost guarantees they will perform better. Similarly, the poor get to form their own politically or religiously defined charter schools – and not surprisingly, Destiny Church has already declared an interest in accessing the charter schools’ pool of funds.
In the name of compensating for social inequality, charter schools appear just as likely to accentuate it. The political risk for the government lies in how quickly the public come to judge the current experiment.
Boxing clever: Camborne artist Stephanie Drew has played with the idea of ‘‘inside versus outside’’ for her entry in this year’s Box Art exhibition, which will raise money towards a Pataka artist in residence.