Te Kura opens Pandora's box
For such a potentially seismic shift in the education landscape, the origins of the COOLs policy seem rather innocuous. The contrast from the coalition deal that brought in charter schools couldn’t be more marked – instead of ideologically driven politicians with a plan to deal to the public education system; this was driven by well-meaning but ultimately naïve educators – people who should have known better.
What happened next though, rushed legislation, assurances from the Minister that the detail would be dealt with in the contracts and accreditation, no detail on the funding… They both start to look rather similar.
But let’s rewind a few years and look at where this came from. In 2014 Te Kura’s Briefing to the Incoming Minister raised the issue of opening up access for students to enrol full time with them, rather than having to go through one of many complicated ‘gateways’. This is hardly surprising. Schools with capped or restricted rolls often feel as if they’re unfairly done by and want to increase how many students they can take, viz integrated schools and their regular applications to increase their maximum rolls. In the context of Te Kura, they also point out that their funding hadn’t kept up with costs (which is no doubt exacerbated by the fact that they’re the only bulk funded school in the country, but that’s a whole other story…)
At the same time as making the request for open access, Te Kura also pointed out the impact that this would have on the regular school network. Quite reasonably, they stated:
“The sector is likely to view this proposal with caution, however, because of the possible effect on the rolls of some schools. To mitigate this risk consultation with key sector bodies on the proposal is recommended. A cap on the number of students who can initially enrol through this new enrolment gateway is another mechanism that could be used to manage the risk.”
Fast forward to the end of 2015 and the leadership of Te Kura is again in the Minister’s ear about opening up access and getting rid of restrictions on enrolment. The argument they’re making now is not that different to the one that charter school backers made, i.e. They can offer something uniquely excellent for students who are failing in the current system:
“Te Kura could act as an alternative provider (or provider of choice) for students whose needs are not being met elsewhere in the system”
Again though, they note that there will be negative effects on other schools from this. The solution they propose is that Te Kura works with schools to manage students shifting between.
And here it gets interesting. The Minister bites, and agrees to open up access to Te Kura. But, and these are big:
- It won’t just be Te Kura, if there’s open access, there’s going to be competition and other providers can get in on the act.
- She’s not going to talk to the sector about the problems they raise, and will just put it through in the Education Act changes later in the year.
June 2016, and the Education Act changes are being planned, with officials at the MoE and Treasury busily working out how to put this into place. Up to this point the competition with other providers that the Minister gave as the quid pro quo to Te Kura only is for “schools or tertiary education organisations” to become online education providers. A couple of days later, the response to the cabinet paper notes that this has expanded, to “private entities”, and the picture is complete. Every school in the country will be opened up to competition from private providers offering government funded full-time online learning, which any student can choose as of right.
This all opens up a heap more questions:
- What evidence does Te Kura have that opening up access will be good for students that are failing currently? Especially now that the Minister and Ministry are saying that COOLs aren’t for the most at risk students but just kids who want different choices?
- Who recommended that the trade-off for open access should be introducing ‘contestability’ in online learning, and what evidence did they use?
- Why did the Minister and Ministry decide to expand from opening online provision up to other schools and tertiary providers to anyone with a computer & delusions of running a school?
- Why didn’t they follow the process that Te Kura suggested and talk with the sector about this first?
It’s strange to picture the experienced public servant Karen Sewell, chair of Te Kura’s board and former head of the MoE as the ingénue Pandora, but it looks an awful lot like that’s what’s gone on here. I'm trying to remain optimistic that the little fluttering ‘hope’ left in the box is the Minister’s humility and ability to recognise a misstep, and pull back from this before it’s passed into law. Unlike for Pandora, there's still a chance to slam this box shut, and try again when we're better prepared to deal with what could come out.