A dialogue with Alwyn Poole on charter schools

Following my recent post on charter schools and the Canterbury education restructure I received an email from Alwyn Poole, principal of the private Mt Hobson Middle School, disagreeing with my assessment. The ensuing discussion was good, so I’ve posted it here with Alwyn’s agreement. (Below the fold).

From: Alwyn
Re: Partnership Schools

Hello Lew

I read your recent blog on Partnership Schools. With utmost respect I think almost all of your conclusions are not necessarily right and completely differ from the words and intent of the cabinet paper – which I take it you will have read – on the proposal.

There are at least two schools in Auckland that, under the current education legislation, get as close to being Partnership Schools as is possible – ourselves and Nga Kakano Christian Reo Rua Kura in Te Atatu. They have been running for 10 and 15 years respectfully – do incredible things for the children/families/community, are accountable to their communities and government, employ great staff, are non-profit – but are limited by being private schools at present.

Yes – under the Partnership Schools model some funding will be contestable but the aim is to improve the outcomes for NZ children and families (particularly those struggling) – not preserve school size or budgets. Under the current model many children who could do with the help are missing out on the type of schooling we are able to offer.

I understand you are based in Wellington. If you travel to Auckland at some point you would be more than welcome to see both schools to get a feel for the possibilities for children from this.


From: Lew

Hello Alwyn,

Thanks for your message. I read the Sunday Star Times feature on your school and I was very impressed. I’ve also read several other opinion pieces of yours on the topic, and I understand you are a passionate and committed advocate for this policy track, and for great schooling generally. My objection is not really to schools run by people like you. If we could have a thousand people like you running schools the country’s education problems would be solved. The problem is that there aren’t a thousand people like you. I don’t mean to flatter, but I want to make clear that my objection to charter schools is not rooted in tribal opposition to them, nor enmity to you or your work.

The aims and intent of the policy as outlined in the cabinet paper are all well and good, but the outcomes will rest on implementation, and a very great deal of confidence in this policy must depend on whether you have faith that it will be put into practice well. I don’t have any such faith. This government’s track record on contentious policy — especially social policy — has been to stake out ideological ground and legislate first, then worry about evidence later. The appointment of Catherine Isaac, who is both ideologically committed to privatisation and has no meaningful education-sector expertise, to head the implementation suggests the same strategy here. The appointment of a junior and rather supine Minister of Education who is woefully lacking in expertise is further evidence. The dismissive response of successive Education Ministers, the Prime Minister and others to expert advice on national standards and league tables is more evidence, and their virtual non-response to the Massey University Education Policy Response Group’s paper, which found that they would likely not solve the problems the government seeks to solve, and would come at a cost to existing community schools, is yet more.

Even if my fears are unfounded, my argument about Christchurch remains — the government should be supporting communities to rebuild and re-form, not using them as a test-bed for ideologically-motivated policy mooted by a micro-party to whom it is electorally beholden. I hold some concerns about this aspect of the policy roll-out in other low socio-economic areas, though these are less strong, and I respect your argument that those areas are where schools like yours are most needed.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong — I genuinely hope so. But I believe it is wrong to simply take on faith the government’s assertions about what the policy will do, given evidence to the contrary.


From: Alwyn

Thanks Lew

Appreciate the well thought out reply.

Please note we are not blind advocates for the policy. In all of our contact with the implementation committee (including Catherine Isaac – who I have to say is working hard, thinking hard and acting with the utmost integrity and trying to work with all parties) we are emphasising the need for implementation to be done superbly and according to the stated ideals.

There is determination in government for the policy to be implemented. At some stage it will be important for thoughtful people interested in education to get alongside it and actively work out how the targeted groups can benefit without others being harmed. I think that is genuinely possible.


ps – I should say we work hard on that cooperative aspect. I am professionally evaluated by the Principals of the local intermediate and we work well with local schools. We have also invited in members from all political parties. The Greens (Catherine Delahunty) are the only ones who have categorically stated they will not come in. Peter O’Connor, from Auckland University – who has spoken publicly against Charter Schools, came in a very much liked the school.

From: Lew

Thank you Alwyn, a good discussion. I think I understand your position.

Although I disagree that charter schools are likely to have the desired effects, I do agree that they’re very likely going ahead in one form or another — the government has the votes, after all — and all involved have a responsibility to try to make them as good as possible. I do think, however, that’s important to distinguish between what’s *possible* and what’s *probable*; i.e, that most charter schools probably won’t be as good as yours. I think there’s a lot of starry-eyed optimism from the government and private sector regarding charter schools, which is understandable, but is no basis for policy.

I do also think there are other fields in which charter schools might be appropriate, such as under the auspices of rūnanga or other iwi authorities. Waipareira is of course an example, as is the suggestion that Ngāi Tūhoe may operate Kura Hourua under the terms of their recent agreement with the Crown. Re these, I still have concerns about contention with public school funding and accountability, but I regard iwi being able to operate schools as fulfillment of Treaty rights, so I think those are more defensible than most.


10 thoughts on “A dialogue with Alwyn Poole on charter schools

  1. It is meaningless to make any claims for the charter school model when they invariably get extra resourcing and (without question) are better able to control the nature of their student intakes. Diane Ravitch challenged the CEO of KIPP, Michael Feinstein (who is in NZ next week) to test his model under real conditions -ie operate it in a whole district – no cherry picking – and he wouldn’t have bar of it. If the advocates for charter schools were genuine they would undertake to people their schools on the basis of nominations from local schools of kids most in need of a fair chance at education. If they could get those kids to NCEA level 3, educationalists everywhere would sit up and take notice. That won’t happen because charter schools are a political experiment in privatising the public dollar not an educational one.

  2. The fact you think there aren’t ‘1000 people like [Alwyn]running schools’ is maybe an indictment on the education system and the sometimes artificial constraints it imposes, and the people it does promote.

  3. While it’s good to see you guys could be civil, it kind of seems like you were talking past each other. What is it about Poole’s methods as a quasi-charter school teacher that you think separates him from the people who will actually end up in charge of all these other nine hundred and ninety nine charter schools?

  4. Hugh and Insider, if you’re aware of another 999 people who personally took on the financial risks of setting up and successfully operating a new school, and who now plan to expand the project into poor areas, in partnership with the local community, let’s hear about them. I’m not here to advocate for Alwyn Poole, and I stand by all my criticism of the scheme generally, but I think it’s clear he’s not your average charter-school advocate.

    Indeed, that’s the point — pointing to the good example of MHMS and saying “look, this is what charter schools are like” is folly, and a certain recipe for disappointment. It’s an outlier. They’re not all going to be outliers: some will be good, some will be bad, some will be ugly, and all of them will cost money that would otherwise be spent in the public education system.


  5. @ Lew

    The “If we could have a thousand… ” indicated you were talking about some ideal future rather than a description of the present.

    people take significant financial risks and engage with communities all the time in all sorts of sectors. And plenty have invested heavily in education through music schools, religious/philosphical schools, tutoring companies, relief teacher recruitment agencies, education publishing, early childhood centres, ESL schools, independent training organisations etc.

    What limits more people like Alwyn emerging in the compulsory sector is lack of capital, because it is nearly all tied up in the state sector. Provide greater access to that and you will likely see more Alwyns.

    I have no great truck for charter schools – the integrated sector seems to do much of what they are planning. But your fears around charter schools are a pretty good description of the state sector : some are good, some are bad, some are ugly, yet the bad and ugly seem to not just be tolerated but entrenched.

    The fact that Alwyn is seen as exceptional seems an indictment on current principals. You’d think after 150 years of state schooling we’d have the model where these people rise to the top more refined.

  6. Lew

    I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere in your debate with Alwyn the fees of many thousands of dollars in addition to the standard government contribution required of parents for their children to attend his fine school.

    I have engaged in this discussion elsewhere, but, briefly, Hobson Middle School, by definition of parents willing to pay being motivated parents, and with a very small pupil to students ratio, cannot help but succeed. It would be a disgrace if it did not.

    And Hobson freeloads onto community facilities as regards playing fields, pools, library, etc. Smart, but is it transferable to the whole country?

    And while all that is fine for the children of parents who are able to pay or borrow to pay the fees, essentially Alwyn is spending about $8000 per student per year (from memory) more than those in the state system.

    Finally, insider, I hate to disappoint you, but so far Alwyn’s results are not exceptional. I followed through his publicised claims by comparing them to the national data and it was on a par, no better.

    I believe (from online discussions with his client parents) that his primary claim to fame rests on ‘rescuing’ otherwise failing kids, but, hey, give me an extra $8000 per child and I’m sure I could rescue them, too.

    And I’m not even a teacher.

  7. @ Luc

    Thanks. If Lew was praising Alwyn, I took it for granted it was true.

    @ deepred

    There are a range of integrated schools (which to me are pretty close to charter ones) around that have special characters – Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, loony fringe Xtian, Muslim, Jewish, Steiner, Montessori. As long as they teach the curriculum, why not?

  8. For a considered analysis of Charter schools internationally and in the NZ context I suggest you watch Assoc. Prof. Peter O’connor’s short piece.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *