Labour’s Māori caucus faced down criticism on Tuesday that the Government’s policy to abolish charter schools would mean a return to the dark days of the state education system failing Māori youth.

The MPs and the Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, were forced to tread a difficult line saying the changes were minor enough that students at the soon-to-be-ex-charter schools would notice no difference to their education, while at the same time maintaining that the charter school model was broken and led to poor quality education.

The stakes were high for several of the MPs, including Kelvin Davis, the caucus’ co-leader and the deputy leader of the Labour Party, who had promised to resign if the two charter schools in his Te Tai Tokerau electorate were closed.

He was joined by Peeni Henare, whose family are closely involved with the schools and Willie Jackson. His wife Tania Rangiheuea is a tumuaki (principal) of Te Kura Māori o Waatea in Manakau.

Toby Curtis, a member of the Iwi Chairs Forum and cultural adviser on the Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua Authorisation Board, on Monday blasted any suggestion that the state system could replicate the levels of achievement seen in Māori charter schools

“We have a wonderful state system that seems to be wonderful at failing Māori children,” Curtis told Newsroom.

He said that for the schools to be successful after integration with the state system, they would need to be given a completely different “diet” to the systems of the past. According to the Government, he might be about to get his wish.

“Absolutely nothing that will impact upon the pedagogy and the curriculum,” said Davis.

He said it would be possible to ensure there was no disruption in the transition from one system to the other.

Asked whether the close alignment of the charter schools with the state system rendered their abolition pointless, Davis said the legislation was about levelling the playing field. He said the abolition of National Standards, part of the same legislation, allowed schools to adapt curricula to respond to children’s needs more effectively.

“Charter schools didn’t have to abide by national standards so they were free to explore national curriculum, whereas our state schools were very restricted with the emphasis on reading, writing and numeracy,” he said.

Later that day Chris Hipkins was forced to answer questions over whether this meant that the legislation governing designated character schools would change to be more accommodating of the charter school model.

“The special and designated character system is incredibly enabling under the current law,” Hipkins said.

“The previous government was very inflexible because they wanted those schools to be charter schools instead,” he said.

He said the bill widened the governance provisions for designated character schools but, when pressed, acknowledged it would not allow the trusts that currently run the schools to continue in their role.

When asked by Newsroom whether he was confident he thought the change would give Māori confidence in the education system, he said that the schools will maintain their kaupapa.

“It wouldn’t necessarily go that far but it certainly allows us to have alternative government arrangements for them,” said Davis.

When contacted about the changes by Newsroom, many schools argued that the Government’s changes will make it impossible for them to replicate their schools’ successes in the state system.

Alwyn Poole, who sits on the board of the Villa Education Trust, which runs two charter schools in South and West Auckland, told Newsroom that bulk funding and differential teacher contracts, which are prohibited in the state system, are essential to charter schools’ success.

Poole said bulk funding allows schools to divert funding away from administration and capital costs and into teaching. Differential contracts also allowed the schools to have principals and other leadership staff teach classes.

Raewyn Tipene, chief executive of the He Puna Marama Trust which operates Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa and Te Kāpehu Whetū in Kelvin Davis’ electorate of Te Tai Tokerau said the previous state model had failed Māori and was hopeful her Trust’s negotiation with the Minister of Education would forge a new path.

“The previous mainstream model has largely failed Māori kids. We’ve got no desire to return to that model. We have two kura that have really successful outcomes for the kids who do attend our kura,” she said.

The looming question for the Government is whether, as the Government takes control of the schools, it can maintain the confidence of Māori who argue that the schools have allowed them to run their own education and tailor a unique experience for students.

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