A potential problem with Partnership SchoolsSteve Thomas - 06-08-12

Don’t get me wrong, I was excited at hearing more of the details about the Government’s plan for setting up Partnership Schools, or Kura Hourua, today, and I’m excited about what they can do for schooling in New Zealand. However, I think a couple of the parts of the plan have set possibly conflicting objectives for the schools.

On the one hand, Partnership Schools are meant to tackle the problem of educational disadvantage in New Zealand by providing another way of addressing the under-performance of the pupils who fall through the cracks of New Zealand’s school system. To this end, they will operate in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage.

On the other hand, the plan says that Partnership Schools ought to accept all pupils who apply for a place, regardless of their background or ability. Experience elsewhere suggests this could make it difficult for Partnership Schools to target disadvantaged children.

England’s Academy Schools programme started out as a solution to educational disadvantage in failing state schools but, once Tony Blair’s Labour Government expanded the programme’s goals to offer families a greater range of independently-governed state schools from which to choose, the composition of Academies’ school rolls changed and they came to serve a smaller share of disadvantaged pupils. The share of pupils in poverty at Academies dropped from 45.3 percent in 2003, to 29 percent by 2008, and to 27.7 percent by 2011. In short, it has become difficult for Academies to meet the goals of open enrolment and targeting disadvantaged children.

It may well be that poor urban families, whose children may under-perform, will select into the Partnership Schools and make major learning gains, as has happened with Chicago or New York’s charter schools. We shouldn’t exclude the possibility that this won’t happen, however. Notwithstanding the social issues, if Partnership Schools’ rolls are predominantly made up of pupils from more socially advantaged families then this may bias their performance upwards and make them look like they are performing better for under-performing, disadvantaged children than what they actually are when they are evaluated.

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