Today MyThinks travels deep into the Ureweras where multi-national public service operator Serco has just opened their new charter school. This state of the art facility will educate some of the country’s most uniquely challenged students.
Bay of Plenty
Heavy mist hangs in the air as I drive through the chilled spring morning to my destination – the new Serco-run charter school in the heart of the Ureweras. Having recently been opened by the Minister of Corrections, Sam Lotu-liga, this facility is an exciting new development that will be at the vanguard of innovative learning in Aotearoa New Zealand.
I park my car at the gate and take the short walk to the entrance – a 2 metre high steel door set inside a 5 metre high wall of reinforced concrete. Drops of morning dew high on the razor wire above me sparkle with each pass of the powerful search lamp. As I arrive at the door it opens and I head inside.
Once the full cavity search has been completed, I put my clothes back on and two guards lead me through several heavy steel doors to the office of the headmaster Commandant Fraser Hitchcock. I’ve been told this former Navy diver is a hard man but I find his generous greeting and firm handshake a welcome juxtaposition to the sign-in procedure I’ve just been subjected to. He motions for me to sit in the plush antique leather seat in front of his desk.
We exchange pleasantries for a couple of minutes – me giving him some background on my career and he staring intently at me not saying a word. Eventually I pull out my notebook and commence the interview.
“So, you’ve only just opened. How are things going so far? Will you be ready for the start of the new academic year in February 2016?”
The headmaster opens a ring-binder labelled Appropriate Responses to Media Inquiries Approved by Serco Head Office and flicks through half a dozen pages before nodding to himself, looking up at me and saying, “Yes.”
“That’s good,” I reply, “you must be very excited.”
Several minutes pass while he again consults his ring-binder.
“Yes,” replies Commandant Hitchcock before returning to the ring-binder for a further seven minutes before adding, “very excited.”
“Is there any chance of heading out on a tour of this excellent facility?” I ask.
The ring-binder is again consulted before an adamant no is given. Concerned that I have driven some five hours to get here and already have the permission of both the Minister of Education and the Minister of Corrections for a tour, I question his answer.
“But sir,” I begin, “I do have permission from the ministers. They have told me that I could come here and tour the brand-new learning centre you have created.”
“The answer is no,” he replies before pressing a buzzer on his desk and informing the two teachers who escorted me in to escort me out once more. Following a further cavity search I am taken to my car and told to leave the school grounds immediately. Both teachers have their hands on their side-arms.
As I drive back down the long driveway I can’t help thinking how wonderful it would have been to see learning in action inside this fantastic new amenity. Who knows? One day Serco may indeed open their doors to someone else who will be able to see the amazing things the highly skilled educators are offering the incredibly lucky students in attendance.
That’s the last in this series of charter school profiles from MyThinks.
Today MyThinks continues their profile of New Zealand charter schools as they come towards the end of the second year of operation. Today we are in South Auckland at the Rearguard Academy of Military and Ballistic Operations – a charter school committed to the stripping down and building back up of some of the toughest youth.
My car pulls up to the checkpoint. A smartly dressed and rather pimply year 11 student greets me with a salute and a demand to see my papers. I show him my identification papers. He looks at it for a few moments before motioning to a comrade in the nearby kiosk to remove the barriers. They team up to do so and I drive on.
As I slowly make my way up the drive toward the main barracks, on the patch of grass next to the drive I see one of the younger students being hazed by a platoon of much older boys. I think to myself, hair grows back but I’m not too sure about thumbs.
I park my car and get out. I’m greeted by the turgid salute of a young cadet who clearly believes himself to be far more smartly dressed than I could ever hope to be. Following the salute he eyes me with disdain before marching me briskly around the back of the admin block.
When we arrive I am greeted by the unusual sight of several nine-year-olds digging a large hole in the ground. They are using plastic spoons. A slightly rotund staff sergeant is shouting mercilessly at them.
“YOU WILL HAVE THESE LATRINES COMPLETED BY OH-SIX-HUNDRED TOMORROW MORNING WHEN THEY WILL BE COMMISSIONED BY MYSELF AND THE COMMANDANT!!! IS THAT CLEAR!!???!?!”
Some exhausted murmurings drift from the hole. The sergeant responds.
“I SAID, IS THAT CLEAR??!!?”
“Sir, yes sir!” they retort in unison. The staff sergeant turns to me.
“You must be the journalist,” he begins, “I’m Staff Sergeant Bill Williams.”
He extends a hand and we shake. I just can’t help myself. I ask if those children are old enough to be doing such demanding work.
“Of course,” he replies in a much more soothing tone, “great military powers around the world were all built around high-quality latrine systems. Hitler lost World War Two because the German army didn’t have the technology to dig into the frozen Russian mud. No latrines made for very unhappy and clogged up solders.”
Having studied some military history at university I wasn’t sure that substandard latrines were the main reasons the Germans lost the war, but I let it rest. Sgt Williams begins his tour of the base.
As we travel around the barracks and other buildings I can’t help but notice the number of young people lying exhausted in the mud while outraged adults thunder instructions or let them know in no uncertain terms how worthless they are to society.
“How do you measure the learning outcomes for your students?” I ask Sgt. Williams.
“Easy,” replies Sgt Williams, “each student who comes through those front gates is disrobed, de-loused and fully shaved. We then spend six to eight weeks totally destroying them. Any soldier who comes out of the process alive is considered to have successfully graduated. They are given a little medal with a green ribbon.”
“And where do they go when they leave the academy?”
“Generally they return to some kind of juvenile detention facility,” he replies, “We get some of the most troubled youths from across the north of the North Island. What we do is give them a huge range of military skills in their time here. It’s scary to think criminals with those sorts of highly refined skills could be roaming around our communities.”
We conclude our tour back at my car. What I have seen has really impressed me. Young people following instructions, authentic learning experiences, and extreme military degradation – all the elements one needs for a successful charter school.
MyThinks returns tomorrow with a tour around Serco’s brand-new Bay of Plenty facility.
You may remember in late 2013, MyThinks was fortunate enough to profile not one, not two, not three, but four of the brand-new charter school operators who had been selected by the government to set up the first such schools in New Zealand. After success of many charter school operators in the United States, Britain and Sweden, this change to the educational landscape in this country was welcomed by many, many local hedge-fund speculators. This month MyThinks has spent some time catching up with some of the original operators and also talked to some of the new enterprises as they prepare to join the small but tight-nit community of charters running here in New Zealand.
These are their stories.
Our journey begins in the Far North. This beautiful part of the country, known for its rugged coastal beaches, its vast expanses of pristine native forests, and huge deposits of illegally mined swamp kauri, has received a lot of bad press over the years. Their new MP is Winston Peters. He’s from New Zealand First. These are just some of the facts I know about Northland.
I arrive 10am one misty Wednesday morning to speak to the principal. She is unavailable. I’m told by the head-girl/receptionist that she is currently surveying their new paddock. The young charge at the front desk says the Minister of Education pitched up with a cheque made out to cash so they were able to extend their holdings by purchasing a new paddock. I ask how this paddock purchase has improved her learning. Before she can answer the principal returns wearing gumboots and carrying a sack filled with the most pungent of clippings.
“Aaahhhh, Mr Thinks,” she says as she ushers me through to her office with a free hand, “so good of you to come. I’ve been excited to share with you all the fantastic learning opportunities we have here.”
She deposits the sack on the ground near the desk and instructs the receptionist/head-girl to relocate it to, what she calls, the “dehydration receptacle.”
We walk into her office and make ourselves comfortable. I start with a hard question.
“Now, you’ve received a bailout from the government and lost over half your students since opening. Should you still be open?”
She eyes me up and down for several minutes before picking up her smartphone and texting someone. We wait for several minutes of awkward silence before a 10 second clip of The Bolero alerts the principal to a reply. She reads it, nod and then answers the question.
“The minister has suggested we go out and look at our new paddock,” and she gets up and walks out. I assume I am to follow her so I also rise and leave.
Out at the paddock the principal happily extolls the vertue of their new paddock. Excitedly she waves her hands around pointing to various parts of the paddock, including the grass and some of the fencing.
“This paddock,” she announces, “is one of the greatest gifts to education this country has ever seen. It will improve learning outcomes for all our students.”
She is clearly passionate about this so I ask her how many of their current students are enjoying the learning opportunities at the Northland charter.
“We have over three students currently enrolled in the school fulltime,” she says proudly, “many enjoy the chance to receive learning in the classroom and on-the-job training as we’ve also hired most of them as staff.”
We move back inside and head to the school pie-cart for a sumptuous pastry-based luncheon. The Bolero suggests the principal is receiving another text. After she reads it I’m led out to my car by two burly security men who would clearly be leaders of the first fifteen if there were enough students to form a rugby team.
As I drive down the long driveway I think ahead to my visit some charters in South Auckland wondering to myself if they are going to be anywhere near as successful as this Northland operation.
MyThinks continues their tour of New Zealand charter schools tomorrow.
Hard on the heels of the Secondary Principal’s president Sandy Pasley suggesting the government’s planned half-billion dollar investment in Innovative Learning Environments could be a massive waste of money and they should give it to her instead, the New Zealand Employers Federation has expressed its concern about the layout of some of the country’s workplaces.
Earlier today on the Paul Henry AMP advert, Pasley said many principals were concerned that the big barn-like spaces, the hallmark of every ILE she’d ever seen or heard about from other Decile 10 principals, hadn’t been researched as to whether they improve achievement.
Not to be outdone, the head of the New Zealand Employers’ Federation, Brian Nationalpartysupporter, said he was concerned that a number of workplaces were heading down the same route.
“Time and time again,” he told a lunchtime meeting with Mediaworks producers at a bar in Kingsland, “I walk into these massive open-plan workplaces where there is very little work being done. Workers are under the tables playing Minecraft or Snapchatting their friends. The other day at Dominion Breweries I saw the loading bay crew all fiddling about on Tinder. Ridiculous.”
He went on to point out that the most successful businesses were those where the workers sat silently in rows of desks while their manager paced up and down at the front of the office lecturing them on what being a “good worker” was all about.
“Open plan spaces just lead to all sorts of collaboration and innovation,” he concluded.
The lunch meeting finished at 4:45 when Mediaworks had to leave for their weekly meeting with the National Party.
The minister walked tentatively in to the room. He felt alone, watched, exposed. He could feel many, many eyes staring and hoping. His gazed moved slowly around the room. So many optimistically buoyant members of the press all wanting one thing and one thing only.
The hot, dirty hands of the surplus had eluded the minister for so very long. On more than one occasion he had thought to himself, if only… If only we hadn’t given out all those tax cuts. We could’ve been…
He shook those thoughts from his mind.
“Good afternoon,” he announced in his gruff but sensual Dipton accent.
An audible gasp could be heard as the many gathered political editors as they tensed in collective anticipation.
“It is with great pleasure,” he continued, “that I can announce a small, modest but highly arousing budget surplus.”
Another audible gasp permeated the small conference room. Some of the gasps evolved into extended moans of pleasure, or gémissements d’extase, as the Undersecretary of Finance breathlessly noted.
The Prime Minister, fresh from a secret donor meeting in a nearby cupboard suddenly danced into the room offering everyone present a tax cut. The minister was aghast and incredulous. All his hard work, all his many hours massaging the figures, burning the late-night oil with his hard-working and dedicated team of treasury accountants had gone in a puff of prime-ministerial jibber-jabber.
“Have you seen my son’s latest Instagram,” continued the Prime Minister.
There were more groans from the press gallery – this time none were remotely pleasurable. Any highly charged atmosphere that remained in the room following the entry of the esteemed leader had now well and truly dissipated.
The minister had nothing further to say, so excusing himself from the podium, he quickly left the room returning to his palatial suburban home courtesy of a late-model diplomatic BMW to feed his chicken.