Imagine a political party deeply committed to social justice. A party that places fairness and caring for the most disadvantaged above everything else. A party led by a politician who would march in the streets, not to rule the country, but to end child poverty.
Imagine if that party won the election? Finally in a position to stop marching and start acting, what would their leader do for the children?
The partnership schools policy came about to answer at least part of that question.
In a nod to the aching reality that certain groups have long been underserved by our schools, partnership schools are a highly targeted policy aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged students.
In partnership schools, 75% of students must be priority learners, meaning they come from Māori or Pasifika backgrounds, low socio-economic areas or have a special educational need.
And sure enough, partnership schools are reaching the children they were designed to help. In 2015, not 75%, but 93% of the students enrolled in partnership schools were priority learners.
Partnership schools cost the taxpayer no more than other schools, and they cater to a long-established need. And yet, if Labour wins the election, their stated policy is to end the partnership schools programme.
Just last week we heard one teacher and PPTA representative’s experience of working in New Zealand’s largest decile one high school in Manuwera. Sam Oldham catalogued the problems he sees in his school. And it makes for raw and troubling reading for those of us who live and work in Wellington’s affluent bubble.
In his article, Oldham describes the impact of absenteeism: sometimes caused by students caring for sick parents or grandparents, and other times for no known reason at all. He describes children who disappear aged 13 or 14 and who he later sees begging and washing windscreens outside McDonalds. Children who encounter the police on a regular basis, and for whom youth prison awaits.
Oldham also talks about his workload, the high expectations for NCEA pass-rates, and the stress and low pay that lead so many of his colleagues to leave the school year after year. Issues of student behaviour also add to the exodus. After all, teachers are being sworn at and physically assaulted, and some students bring drugs and weapons to school.
No politician would deny that these are complex issues, which an army of principals, teachers, philanthropists, academics and social workers have struggled for decades to address.
But happily, since 2014, a new platoon of infantrymen was added to that army. These partnership school pioneers agreed to run schools for some of our hardest to reach youngsters. They also agreed to be held, despite the highly unrepresentative nature of their intakes, to the same NCEA and National Standard targets as other schools.
And despite their extraordinary intakes, some have managed to meet these targets within just two years of opening.
Just three of the schools have children in the NCEA age range, and of those three, Vanguard Military School and Te Kapehu Whetu (Terenga Paraoa) have both achieved roll-based Level 1 and Level 2 NCEA success that exceeds their performance targets. In fact, both schools also exceeded New Zealand’s national average pass rate at Level 1.
At another partnership school children spend all morning in traditional lessons studying English and Maths, and then all afternoon working on cross-curricular projects in topics from Architecture and Space to the Russian Revolution.
One primary partnership school, founded by Te Whare Wananga O MUMA Limited (a subsidiary of the Manukau Urban Māori Authority), has just been granted permission to also open a secondary school – Waatea High – that will complement and complete its educational offering.
It remains early days for our partnership schools, many of whom are still working through establishment issues with the Ministry. However, the early signs are good, and parents are queuing up to take part.
Any politician concerned about our most disadvantaged children should visit a partnership school. The innovation and challenge they provide is indispensable if we want to work swiftly and practically to help disadvantaged children.
None of us has a monopoly on solutions, least of all for our hardest to reach. If you care for the poorest in society, you should hope that partnership schools and their students can continue to flourish and thrive.
By Briar Lipson, Research Fellow, The New Zealand Initiative