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Bill Courtney

Bill Courtney has written 4 posts for Save Our Schools NZ

Why high-flying Singapore wants more than grades

characterThis is an excellent article about Singapore, published on the BBC site.

Dr Lim Lai Cheng, former head of the prestigious Raffles Institution school in Singapore and director at the Singapore Management University, explains the push for character as well as qualifications.

“Schools have become highly stratified and competitive. More advantaged families are better able to support their children with extra lessons outside of school, such as enrichment classes in mathematics, English, dance and music.

Those who can’t afford this have to depend on their children’s own motivation and the resources of the school to catch up.

This social divide continues to widen because the policies that had won the system its accolades – based on the principle of meritocracy – no longer support the social mobility they were meant to bring about.

So work is in progress to tackle anything in the system that seems to be working against social cohesion.

Government policies are moving away from parents and students’ unhealthy obsession with grades and entry to top schools and want to put more emphasis on the importance of values.

Schools have been encouraged, especially for the early elementary years, to scrap standardised examinations and focus on the development of the whole child.

To enhance equity, the education ministry has also attempted to spread resources more evenly across schools by rotating experienced principals to schools that need more attention and paying more attention to academically weaker students by strengthening vocational and skills training.

All round, government leaders have expounded a wider definition of success beyond academic grades.

The media and elite schools have been discouraged from showcasing top students and their academic achievements.”

Contrast what you have read above with the New Zealand system, focusing so relentlessly on National Standards.  Add the New Zealand Initiative push towards greater measurement and the publication of the results and you cannot get further from the position Singapore has adopted.

Fact Checker: Vanguard Military School

As the NZ Listener remarked in their October 2015 article on charter schools, the national picture on NCEA pass rates is that they are now ascending into farce.

It is a February ritual to look out for the Vanguard Military School NCEA results release and to comment on what lies behind the meaningless percentages that this organisation releases.

This year’s version from the North Shore based charter school waxing lyrical about their 2016 results is available here.

Thanks to two years of OIA responses from the NZQA, covering the 2014 and 2015 school years, we now know a lot more about what standards the students at Vanguard were entered for and how well they did on internal versus external assessment.

What we now see from NZQA, for the second year running, is that a high percentage of the credits that students at Vanguard achieve are unit standards (42.2% in 2015), rather than the more academic achievement standards; a very high proportion of credits are gained via internal assessment (93.5% in 2014 and 94.2% in 2015) and a wide gap exists between external and internal pass rates (90.5% internal pass rate v 58.2% external pass rate in 2015).  Note the full NZQA analysis for the 2016 results will not be out for several months.

While it is quite fair to say that some courses that Vanguard offers, such as Engineering, will always be internally assessed, our analysis of the detailed listing of standards entered in 2015 shows many “soft” credits being gained by Vanguard students.

For example, 57 entered for “Be interviewed in a formal interview” (2 Credits), 74 entered for “Produce a personal targeted CV” (2 credits), 53 entered for “Demonstrate knowledge of time management” (3 credits), and over 50 entered in each of the Outdoor Recreation courses: “Experience day tramps” (3 credits), “Experience camping” (3 credits) and “Navigate in good visibility on land” (3 credits).  All of these standards are unit standards at NCEA Level 2.

To put these entry numbers into perspective, the 2015 July roll return shows Vanguard had 61 Year 11 students, 47 Year 12 and 15 Year 13 students at that point in 2015. So entries of over 50 students into each of these Level 2 courses is significant.

In addition, a large number are entered for Physical Education standards, which are actually regarded as achievement standards.  This means the students can achieve Merit or Excellent credits which are generally not available in the unit standards.  For example, no less than 96 students were entered for achievement standard 91330, “Perform a physical activity in an applied setting”, which is worth 4 credits at Level 2.

Some of these activities may be useful things to do but you can draw your own conclusions on what this means for the quality of qualifications these young people are obtaining.

The detailed NZQA analysis for 2016 will be released later this year and we will look to see if there is any change from previous years.

A couple of other points about Vanguard are worth noting.

First, Vanguard’s roll drops quite markedly as the year progresses.  Using the 2016 roll return data, Vanguard opened with approx.  152 students in March, dropping to 142 as at 1 July and only 113 in October.  So the roll drops away quite significantly after many complete their NCEA Level 2 and leave school during the year.  With a low proportion of credits gained via external assessment, there is no need to wait around until the end of year examinations.

Second, because of this tendency to leave after NCEA Level 2, the Vanguard roll also drops away at Year 13.  The full 1 July 2016 roll return shows 55 students at Year 11, 69 at Year 12 but only 18 at Year 13.  2016 was the third year of operations for the school, so retention into Year 13 seems to be quite low.

Of the 18 students at Year 13, there were 10 Maori, 5 European, 2 Pasifika and 1 Asian.  Draw your own conclusions about small cohort sizes and the promotion of the 100% Pasifika NCEA L3 pass rate!

As to why they emphasised the Maori and Pasifika results in the release, is management sensitive to the fact that Maori and Pasifika students make up only 54% of the school’s roll?

The policy intention of the charter school initiative was to target Maori and Pasifika learners which is why the charter school contracts have a performance target for enrolling at least 75% “priority learners”.  Vanguard argues that they meet this target because many of their other students are from low socio-economic backgrounds.

The final point to note about Vanguard is the number of expulsions.  Ministry of Education analysis confirms that Vanguard expelled 3 students in 2014 and 5 students in 2015.  Furthermore, these students are not included in any calculations relating to student achievement performance for the year in which they were expelled.

The Ministry of Education insists that they apply their rules relating to students being enrolled for “short periods” consistently across all schools and that this does not advantage the charter schools compared to any other type of school.

The Villa PR Push: Let’s look at the Funding

This is the second in a series of postings following up an op-ed written by Don Brash published in the NZ Herald.

Our first response discussed what motives might lay behind what we feel is a concerted PR push by Villa Education Trust, the Sponsor of South Auckland Middle School.

In this piece we will look at the statement made in the op-ed about funding, as this remains one of the real sticking points about the early charter schools.

Ah yes, critics argue, but partnership schools get a lot more money from the taxpayer than other schools do.  Absolute nonsense.

Sorry, Dr Brash, but charter schools do get more OPERATIONAL FUNDING than the local schools get.  Especially when their funding is compared to the larger schools in South Auckland, where SAMS is located.

In a nutshell, SAMS received total operational funding of approx. $12,800 per student in 2015 compared to Manurewa Intermediate (the intermediate school used in the article) which received approx. $5,600 per student.

To understand how this large discrepancy arises, we need to look at the original charter school funding model.  The single biggest policy mistake it made was to try and work out the equivalent funding that a stand alone State school of the same size and type might receive.

But, in practice, the charter schools are being created in places like South Auckland where there are larger, more established schools that receive much lower average per student funding.  This means that the larger schools could not possibly recreate the conditions such as class sizes of 15 that the smaller charter schools can.

One recent story on Radio NZ described the pressure on some South Auckland schools that saw many of them using their libraries and halls as teaching spaces.  One school had plans to start teaching next year in the staffroom!

So, is it any wonder that when given the option of class sizes of 15, free uniforms and free stationery, that parents may be choosing the charter school?

Let’s look briefly at the original charter school funding model, noting that this model has already been changed for the third round schools that have just been announced.

The original model had two essentially fixed components per school: Base Funding and Property & Insurance.  The property component is fixed for the first 3 years (unless the school changes size or teaching year levels) and the base funding component varies by type of school (secondary, middle or primary) and is indexed each year.

Variable Funding comes in two parts: a Per Student Grant and Centrally Funded Services.  The two variable components are then multiplied by the number of students on the roll or the Guaranteed Minimum Roll (“GMR”) whichever is the greater.  So, if the actual school roll is less than the GMR, the Sponsor gets paid for at least the GMR number of students.

In 2015, SAMS operated at its Maximum Roll, which was originally 120 students.

So, putting all the components together the SAMS financial statements show revenue from Government Grants of $1,536,016, or an average government funding figure of approx. $12,800 per student, in 2015.

money showerSo let’s walk through the SAMS financial statements for 2015 and see what Villa does with its $1.5 million of funding.

First, it pays the rent, which is $150,000 per annum.  If we are generous, and include all Property expenses, including utilities, we find these amounted to $194,776 in the 2015 financial statements.

This would then leave a total of $1,341,240, or $11,177 per student after we have acquired and maintained the school premises.

What do we do next?  We would look to hire the teachers necessary to deliver on the 1:15 class size ratio.

For a school of 120 students, we would need 8 teachers, at a round number cost of $75,000 per annum each.  That should cost us approx. $600,000 and we find that teacher salaries in the 2015 SAMS accounts came out at pretty much that amount: $584,883.  Add in the other curriculum related costs, such as classroom resources – including those free school uniforms and stationery – and total Learning Resources amounted to $869,846.

That leaves us with $471,394 to pay for the administration of a 120 student school.

Plenty of money to pay for a full-time Community Liaison Manager – nice if you can afford it – pay for all the office and other admin costs and allow for depreciation and you spend a total of $263,906.

And what does that leave room for?

That’s right: the Management Fee payable to the Sponsor of $140,000.  That’s the cost of hiring a full-time principal at a much larger school!

For comparison, let’s see how Manurewa Intermediate is getting on.

The Find A School application on the Education Counts website has summary financial information for State and State-Integrated schools.

In 2015 Find A School showed Manurewa Intermediate’s Staffing Entitlement figure was $2,510,958 and its Operations Grant figure was shown as $1,431,808.  So, let’s cash this all up and make an OPERATIONAL FUNDING total of $3,942,766.

But straight away we have a problem.  Manurewa Intermediate has 704 students.  So we start our comparison with average per student government funding of only $5,600 per student.

Its property is owned by the Crown, so it doesn’t pay rent in cash.  So we can skip straight to the teacher costs.

To engineer class sizes of 15, we would need to buy 47 teachers.  At a cost of $75,000 each we would need $3,525,000.

That would leave us with only $417,766 or $593 per student to pay for everything else necessary to run a school of 704 students which is nearly 6 times the size of SAMS!

Out of that amount, we would need to pay for all classroom and curriculum resources, all the non-teaching staff, all the administration costs, the utilities and property maintenance costs and the depreciation to cover the replacement of all the furniture, equipment and ICT resources.

Hopefully you can see from this comparison that it would be virtually impossible for Manurewa Intermediate to have class sizes of 15 with the level of government operational funding it receives.

You could also arrive at the same conclusion with a simple rule of thumb calculation.

Based on a teacher cost of $75,000, in a class size of 15 each student needs to contribute $5,000 to pay for their teacher.  SAMS had $11,177 after paying for the premises; Manurewa Intermediate started with $5,600.

In summary, what readers interested in understanding charter schools funding need to appreciate is the significant influence of the fixed cost components of their funding model.

Even at its initial maximum roll of 120, the fixed components of SAMS’ funding comprise 57% of its total funding: base funding was $578,021 and the property component was $303,681.  That is why the charter schools are proving to be more expensive than their local counterparts: they are small schools with high fixed cost funding.

But they are being compared to larger, longer established schools where the fixed costs are spread over a much greater number of students.

This is what economists call economies of scale.

It is a major reason why direct comparisons between schools with significantly different funding streams should be treated with real caution.

Research shows that the effects of smaller class sizes are positive and of real help, especially when dealing with students who need more intensive support.

Smaller class sizes are an expensive policy to engineer; but wouldn’t it be great to see class sizes of 15 in all our low decile schools, not just those favoured by the flawed charter school funding model.

~ Bill Courtney, Save Our Schools NZ

The Villa PR Push #charterschools

The NZ Herald ran an op-ed piece yesterday written by former ACT Party leader, Don Brash.  It sang the praises of South Auckland Middle School, one of the two charter schools run by Alwyn Poole of Villa Education Trust.

The piece contained statistics of all sorts including figures purporting to compare the National Standards results for SAMS to local Manurewa schools.  I will write separately on the thorny topic of comparing schools and how this might fit in to how we see the charter school concept playing out here in New Zealand.

We will also look again at the much higher operational funding that SAMS receives compared to local schools.  And we will also deal with the silly comment that Dr Brash made about Rototuna Primary receiving “$40 million for start-up”, which is a ridiculous statement to make.

[If you want a summary of this year’s charter school funding read our piece from earlier this year]

But, in the meantime, let’s focus on the current PR push.

We have seen this push several times recently in the right wing blog sites Whale Oil and Kiwiblog and it even appeared in a piece in the National Business Review, written by another former ACT Party leader, Rodney Hide.

Alwyn is well known to many of us in the charter school circle.  He is very aggressive in his marketing and communications, looking to push both the charter school concept and his own schools at every opportunity.

While there’s nothing really wrong with that, I suspect the motivation for this current push was that SAMS has fallen short of the student achievement performance targets in its contract.

This was confirmed last week when the Ministry’s evaluation of the 2015 charter school performance was published.  SAMS met only two of its six Targets and was rated as Almost Met.  However, its sister school out west, Middle School West Auckland, met only one of its six Targets and was rated Not Met.

Mind you, the Ministry report, dated 30 May 2016 but released in the last week of August, was buried on the charter school section of the Ministry’s website and not even put at the top of a long list of documents.   No press release, no website announcement – nothing.  I wonder why?

The Ministry report did not make any recommendations on the release of what is termed the 1 per cent retention amount of each school’s operational funding.  This is supposed to be released only when a charter school has met all of its performance standards.  [See charter school Agreement, Schedule 7: Payment, clause 1.4 (i)]

However, the Minister fudged this decision last year and released the retention payment to Villa, even though SAMS failed to meet its student engagement performance standard, due to having too many Stand Downs, Suspensions and Exclusions.

Just out of interest, we should also note that the two Villa charter schools have so far generated $640,016 in management fees to the Sponsor.  And these are on top of any expenses incurred within the schools to cover both teaching and administration costs.

The charter school love-in group, known as the Authorisation Board and headed by another ACT Party ideologue, is in recruitment mode now for the Fourth Round.  They have a slide pack that promotes the charter school concept as “Rigorous Accountability for performance against agreed objectives”.

Both SAMS and Middle West have not met their student achievement contract performance standards in the 2015 year.

We shall see what the Minister decides…

~ Bill Courtney, SOSNZ

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