The recent press release from Vanguard Military School (3 February 2016) again highlights how the spin doctors love to spin a story around high participation-based pass rates in NCEA. But do they tell the full story of student achievement at the charter secondary school?
Late last year an excellent article published in the NZ Listener revealed that students at Vanguard and its counterpart in Whangarei – Te Kura Hourua o Whangarei Terenga Paraoa – gained the vast majority of their NCEA credits in internally-assessed standards. They also had far higher pass rates in internally-assessed standards than they achieved in external assessments.
The full breakdown published by NZQA (and linked to in the Listener article) also revealed that no less than 25 students at Vanguard gained 3 credits at NCEA Level 2 in 2014 for such demanding subjects as “Experience day tramps”, which is Standard no. US 425, if you want to look it up! Readers will be pleased to know that no-one seemed to have failed that one!
It will be interesting to examine the 2015 standards information release and see if there is any change in the makeup of these “top academic results”, as the spin doctors have described them!
The final comment in the release also caught our eye, as it related to the school roll.
Vanguard talked about opening in 2014 “… with a roll of 104 it has grown to around 160 students in 2016 and will continue to look to expand.”
This sounds like the school is growing steadily but in practice, Vanguard’s roll has been below its Guaranteed Minimum Roll used for funding purposes since the day it opened.
The 2014 GMR was set as 108, but the actual roll dropped from 104 in March to 93 in July and 79 by year end.
In 2015, the GMR was set higher at 144 but the actual roll was 137 (March), 123 (July) and 84 by October.
This trend confirms that students are leaving the school well before end of year external exams take place, which is consistent with the high proportion of internally-assessed standards achieved.
But, more significantly, the taxpayer is funding far more student places at the school than has been evident in the school roll.
Given the school is operated by a for-profit company (Vanguard Military School Ltd, company no. 4622709) this additional revenue has gone straight into the Sponsor’s bottom line profit.
Bill Courtney, SOSNZ
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
NZ’s charter school experiment is proving to be even more expensive than first thought, as two schools have experienced falling rolls since the start of the 2014 school year and three remain below what is termed their “Guaranteed Minimum Roll” for funding purposes.
As a result, the number of students enrolled has fallen to 358 across the 5 charter schools and the schools will now receive an average of $20,878 in funding this year.
Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, discussed the controversial initiative on TV’s Q&A programme last weekend, describing it as a “…niche sort of thing…”
But the argument that this is only a “niche” is in stark contrast with ACT Party policy.
The ACT Party wants to expand the charter school programme and ultimately convert all state schools into privately operated charter schools.
The arguments behind the establishment of NZ charter schools have always been weak and the Working Group led by former ACT Party President, Catherine Isaac, never produced a written report.
This is in contrast to former ACT MP John Banks’s claim in parliament that we could learn from the successes and failures of charter schools overseas. But with no written report from his former party president, we simply don’t know how the NZ model supposedly does this.
Two charter secondary schools, Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru and the Vanguard Military School, have seen their rolls fall by around 10% between March and July:
Whangaruru from 63 to 56 and Vanguard from 104 to 93.
Students may well have left the schools for justifiable reasons, such as joining the military, in the case of Vanguard, but the funding implications are clear.
Under the terms of the charter school contracts, each school is funded for the full year at a minimum level set in advance at the start of the year. Whangaruru is funded for 71 students and Vanguard is funded for 108 students. In addition, the primary school, Rise Up Academy, is funded at a level of 50 students but has only 46 students as at 1 July.
Based on the 1 July roll returns, Whangaruru will now receive $26,939 per student in 2014 and Vanguard will receive $22,837 per student (see table below):
So across the 5 charter schools, total student enrolment has fallen to 358 and the average minimum operational funding cost per student for 2014 has increased to $20,878.
In practice, actual funding per student may be higher than these estimated figures, if the school roll has exceeded its “guaranteed minimum roll”, as the contract stipulates funding will be set at the greater of the two.
One further aspect that disturbs us, is that the Vanguard Military School is sponsored by a for-profit family owned company. Will the fixed revenue stream be spent on the remaining students or will it fall into the Income Statement of the Sponsor?
QPEC reiterates its call for a review of this controversial policy as it is clear that it is nothing more than a political stunt.
QPEC also wants to see a major review of school funding take place after the election. It is time to re-examine all aspects of school funding and to seek a more equitable basis for funding our most deserving students and the community schools that serve them.
We have an opportunity to help level the playing field for the most disadvantaged children.
Let’s give all our children the greatest possible opportunity to succeed.