The press release from Vanguard Military School on its 2014 NCEA results makes for impressive reading on the surface (release date 18 February 2015). Digging deeper, a few key questions are worth asking.
First, a statement about percentage pass rates does not reveal two key ingredients: how many students obtained that qualification and how many attempted it, especially in relation to the number of students in the cohort?
This is important in any school that experiences a high rate of student attrition, as Vanguard did in 2014.
Second, in what subjects have these students achieved their qualification?
Vanguard’s curriculum is narrow, which is a practical constraint given the small size of the school. At NCEA Level 2 students take five compulsory subjects and then two electives. The compulsory subjects are English, Maths, Physical Education, Physical Training and Recruit Development Course.
The electives are Engineering and Defence Force Studies (vocational pathway) or Maori, Biology or History, from the university pathway.
It is not clear from the release how many students went down the university pathway and how many took the vocational pathway.
Nor is there any indication as to the level of achievement within each subject. However, it is possible that such detailed information may be available at a later date.
In addition, although the press release stated that the school’s roll has “increased from 108 students in 2014 to 144 this year”, this is not quite correct.
Vanguard’s “Guaranteed Minimum Roll” was set as 108 students in 2014, as per its contract with the Ministry of Education. Vanguard was therefore funded throughout the year as if it always had this number of students, but the reality was quite different.
Roll returns obtained from the Ministry of Education’s School Directory database indicate actual student roll numbers as follows: 104 as at 1 March; 93 as at 1 July and 79 in October.
Vanguard has previously stated that many students received their qualifications during the course of the year and then left, often to join the military forces. This may well be a sensible and logical outcome for the students concerned but the taxpayer still funded the privately owned and operated school for many more students than it ever enrolled.
This is in contrast to the position of State and State-Integrated secondary schools, which lose funding during the course of the year if their roll numbers decline.
Guaranteed Minimum Roll levels and funding details for 2015 for the 5 first round charter schools have not been released by the Ministry of Education, despite repeated requests under the Official Information Act.
This lack of transparency has plagued the charter school experiment from the outset and undermines any confidence that the taxpayer may have about how their funding is being used.
Finally, there are ongoing concerns around the charter school funding formula, particularly in respect of funding for property costs.
On balance, this may or may not be a good set of results, given the expectations of the students and their families. Many questions remain about this concept and its applicability to the New Zealand system.
It is the stance of Save Our Schools that individual school performances will not, in themselves, either prove or disprove the charter school idea in New Zealand.
As we see in the United States, charter school performance varies widely and right across the spectrum. We expect charter schools in New Zealand to exhibit the same characteristics.
It is the ACT Party conference this weekend but Vanguard’s oh-so-positive press release is unlikely to be the full story.
~ Bill Courtney