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Q+A: Transcript of Catherine Issac and Ian Leckie interview

Published: 2:13PM Sunday August 05, 2012 Source: Q+A

CORIN

If I could start with you first, Catherine. What is different about these charter schools than I guess the private schools, the alternative schools that we already have in the system that already cater for different students? And I'm thinking Montessoris or whatever.

CATHERINE ISAAC - Charter Schools Working Group Chair

Well, these schools are primarily about doing something about New Zealand's terrible rate of educational failure. That's the crux of it. And so these schools are a way for the state to partner with community organisations or other non-governmental private-sector organisations who are able to work with disadvantaged children to help get them over the line. That's those children who are among the 31% of New Zealand kids who do not get the basic qualification that you need to enter the workforce or to go on to further training.

CORIN But how is it different, say, from Destiny, which has expressed an interest in charter schools. It's already got a school working, presumably, targeting kids that it feels needs some help, so how would it be different?

ISAAC Well, what is different is that these schools are going to get greater freedom to innovate, to find different ways of engaging with children who are struggling to learn, and you need more opportunities, more freedom, more innovation in that area, and at the other end, much stronger accountability. So if they don't achieve the results that they set out to achieve, they will be closed.

CORIN Let's get to unregistered teachers. Ian Leckie, can they achieve those results? Can they meet national standards with a high percentage of unregistered teachers?

IAN LECKIE - NZEI President

Absolutely not, and I think, you know, quite clearly the gloves are off, really, when we say these schools can operate and anyone can be a teacher; anyone in a primary school can teach every subject and do it well. Unqualified teachers certainly have no place in education, and quite clearly I think every parent's expectation that they should be able to send their child to school knowing they're going to be interacting directly with professionals in the teaching role is an absolute must in New Zealand's education system, and part of why New Zealand is doing so well in the world scene.

CORIN Will your union allow teachers from your union to go and work in schools with unregistered teachers? Will it allow them to go and work in charter schools?

LECKIE Where and how people are employed, where and how our members are employed in charter schools, certainly they are our members, and we'll continue to support our members in that environment.

CORIN But if you're so opposed to charter schools and believe this is such a dangerous move, surely you couldn't tolerate union members being in those schools.

LECKIE We would discourage it, and absolutely-

CORIN Would you blacklist them?

LECKIE That's a question I probably can't answer at this time, but I think quite clearly what it does put on members of ours and qualified teachers is the huge amount of support they're going to have to give their unqualified partners in these schools.

CORIN But is it such a big issue that you would consider blacklisting it? Is it that divisive in your mind?

LECKIE It's certainly divisive. Whether we would blacklist, you know, I think you have to think carefully, because the bottom line of anything that happens in education is children. Where we are totally opposed is putting unregistered teachers in front of children and expecting that to happen.

CORIN OK, Catherine, let's talk about unregistered teachers in some detail. How many unregistered teachers would there be in a school?

ISAAC Well, look, first of all I think I can put Ian's mind at rest on this. I think this is being quite misunderstood and misinterpreted. You're not going to have a sponsor come along, get a charter and then go off and do whatever they like. They will have to come up with a plan that indicates how they are going to get these children over the line, what their specialisation might be and, for example, it is something like outdoor pursuits or a trades academy or an area like that where there are people who may not be qualified teachers, but who would be excellent in that field-

CORIN Right, so for the core roles, they'll be registered?

ISAAC For the core roles, for sure they will be top-quality teachers.

CORIN But this is the issue, isn't it? Because if they're profit organisations potentially running a charter school, how do they make their money if it's not by having a percentage of unregistered teachers they can pay less?

ISAAC Well, it's not our business to know how they're making a profit, and in fact I'd be surprised if too many profit-making schools are seeking to do this. Most of the groups who are interested - and there are many - are community organisations, iwi, Pasifika groups and churches, and they want to see their kids do better.

CORIN Sure, but to do you envisage a situation where the school can pay a small number of top-quality registered teachers higher wages than they're getting in the current state system and then have a high number of unregistered teachers they can pay less?

ISAAC I think it's most unlikely that they'd have a high number of unregistered teachers. I think you will find a lot of teachers are interested in this. I mean, I keep running into teachers - last week, for instance, a teacher in a school approached me privately and said she's a staunch union member, but she doesn't agree with the union on this position. She thinks they're a great idea. She thinks they're a chance for kids to do better than they're doing now and she would like to teach in one. So I think there's a lot of interest there.

CORIN Ian, your members - are you hearing that as well?

LECKIE I'm sure you'll find one teacher somewhere that thinks it's a good idea-

ISAAC No, it's more than one.

LECKIE ...but I think we've also got to quite clearly see that the UMR poll that said 86% of parents do not what their children put in front of untrained teachers quite clearly-

ISAAC But they are now, aren't they?

LECKIE No, absolutely not. There are occasionally temporary untrained teachers who are in schools for a very limited period of time, so let's be quite clear. There aren't lots of untrained teachers in primary schools. They are there for a temporary period of time before they then must train, and they must be registered all the way through. Here, these teachers don't even have to be registered, so the controls over quality, the controls over safety, the controls over access of these people into schools cannot be guaranteed, and, you know, if you add the other freedoms - that we don't have to stick to the New Zealand curriculum, we can bring in our own curriculum, we can bring in our own staff - quite clearly the freedoms, say, the fringe groups will absolutely appeal to, because you can go in and do what you like.

CORIN But we know, and as Catherine- They're going to be closely monitored. So what's the problem? Because they're going to be stringently monitored to make sure that they're meeting those standards, and we've heard from the Prime Minister they'll be shut down. Catherine, you obviously feel that those measures are going to be tough.

ISAAC They are. They'll be very tough, yeah.

CORIN So can I come back to the issue of profit? Because are you ruling out that there'll be any profit-seeking organisations?

ISAAC No, I'm not. I'm not.

CORIN I'm sure this is an issue which many New Zealanders will feel uncomfortable - the idea that taxpayer money is being given to a school like this and they can somehow make money from that. Can you explain to me how they would make money?

ISAAC Well, in some cases, and this has been demonstrated in overseas examples, for-profit organisations do do well with some of these children. They are more innovative. They tend to have, you know, just better ideas and ways of doing things. That is where you find most innovations. It's less common in the state sector. So we're wanting to access that and give those organisations an opportunity to do better for these kids. That's the main idea. But can I just come back to the registered teachers? Because if, for example, a Willie Apiata or a Tana Umaga or someone like that was to come forward and say, "Yes, I will run your outdoor pursuits academy," are you going to turn them down?

LECKIE They're very good role models, but they also have to teach literacy and numeracy-

ISAAC Well, they're not going to be teaching that.

LECKIE...and science and so on. In primary schools, we don't have outdoor pursuits teachers or outdoor pursuits people. Can he come into a school? He can do that now, and we would encourage good role models to be in front of our children, but, Corin, you've got to remember this is a failed model of overseas, and the announcements around the parameters of these charter schools are exactly the same as the States.

CORIN Well, that's debatable as to whether it's failed. There is some evidence that shows some have failed, but some that show that they're working.

LECKIE 17% of the charter schools in the States are better than their counterparts. 36% are worse or considerably worse. The model is the same that's been imported. The rules of these schools are the same as the American ones.

CORIN Do you agree with that, Catherine?

ISAAC No, that's not correct, actually. For example, there are 42 different models of charter schools in the States. There are different models again in the UK and in Sweden and in other countries. What we have taken here is the best of the best. We've looked at the most successful models. We've looked at what works. We've also looked at what really works here, and there are many success stories here. We've put that together and come up with a model that we think is excellent and will work here.

CORIN There just seems to be a disconnect here, because the government around that issue around teacher class sizes was saying teacher quality is the most fundamental way to lift standards in education in this country. And yet we're bringing in a system which allows unprofessional teachers.

ISAAC Well, you've got to look at it like this - in the community already, there are some very talented, gifted people working with these disadvantaged children outside the education sector. This is a way of tapping into some of that resource. For example, a colleague of mine who's an accomplished artist teaches drawing in a school. She was invited to go and do that in her kids' school. And they love it. The children are really engaged in that. She does it as a volunteer. She's not a trained teacher, but she's very good at it. And why not access those people who are willing to pitch in and do something to help these kids engage, to ignite their interest in learning?

CORIN Do you have any criteria when it comes to faith-based schools? You know, transcendental meditation has been one that's been talked about that's keen on a charter school. Does it matter if they have a particular ideology or faith?

ISAAC I think the important thing is can they deliver a high-quality education? Can they deliver science, technology, English, maths? Will the children who come out of those schools be able to read and write and-?

CORIN Well, you mentioned science. Are they going to have a quality education if they come out having also learned about intelligent design? Are you comfortable with that alongside the normal science methods?

ISAAC I think that what you'll see is that sponsors will come forward with proposals for how they want to do that - and they're already lining up and we haven't even put out a request for proposals - and the government is going to look very, very carefully at those, so I think it will be most surprising if anything that looks vaguely...

CORIN Too wacky. Yep.

ISAAC ...wacky is not going to get over the line.

CORIN Ian, just a quick final word from you on that. Are you worried about faith-based organisations? We've got them already.

LECKIE We have them already and schools of special character already exist, and the question why we need charter schools for anybody who has got a particular view or ideology that drives education - I mean, in the end, what we've got is every teacher in New Zealand in our high-quality system goes in to their classroom every day, not with the express view to fail children, but with the express view that every child in their classroom succeeds. What you're adding to the mix now are a whole lot of freedoms around what's taught, a whole lot of freedoms around who we put in front of children. There are huge amounts of risks for that. I don't think anybody wants untrained, unqualified people in front of our classes.

CORIN OK, Ian Leckie, thank you. Now, Catherine, just finally, is it disappointing-? Are you disappointed that John Banks couldn't come on this morning and front this issue? I mean, he's your minister, your person in Parliament. We were pretty disappointed that he couldn't come on.

ISAAC I couldn't comment on that. I'm not sure why he couldn't come on. I haven't discussed that with him.

CORIN Well, it seems to be... Our feeling is that he's reluctant, because he may be asked questions about the saga, of course, that's been running over donations. And why I'm asking you this question is because does that make him an ineffectual minister to be fronting this flagship policy of your party's?

ISAAC I'm sure you'll find he'll be fronting it.

CORIN So he won't-? Does that mean he'd be-?

ISAAC Well, I can't speak for him, of course, but he's very positive about this policy. He's extremely excited about it, and I'm sure you'll see him appearing as often as he can.

CORIN But as a high-ranking party member, can you speak for the party? It must be disappointing.

ISAAC I can't speak for the party. I'm not an official of the party, so I can't speak for the party. But I think that you will find that John Banks will be a powerful advocate for this policy.

CORIN Do you think he's been unfairly treated by the media and others?

ISAAC I don't have a view on that.

CORIN You don't have a view at all?

ISAAC I don't

LECKIE Absolutely no mandate for it, either, Corin. 1% of the population voted for ACT and here is a total change to the national education system being introduced on the basis of no mandate. I think we're all concerned.

CORIN Alright, Ian Leckie, thank you very much, from the NZEI. Thanks, much appreciated. And Catherine Isaac, thank you very much.

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