Charters down-under

The problem we face in education across much of the anglophone world is quite clear: Silly ideas. But if this is the problem then what is the solution?

I am keen on the role of argument. I believe that if we point out the flawed logic underpinning popular conceptions then, over time, we might start to change the terms of the discussion. Clearly, there are those within the education establishment who still recognise no debate. You can tell that they don’t by the way they react to criticism; as if they’d just seen a wombat reciting Sylvia Plath.

I think we’re getting there. We can’t be ignored any longer. And nasty, irrational attacks just make our case seem more reasonable. But there’s a long way to go.

I can’t help noticing that many of those who are shaping the global discussion about teaching methods do so from a position of association with free-schools and academies in the UK and Charter schools in the US. This is unsurprising; such schools provide a space where unconventional thinking is allowed and encouraged. And unconventional is what we need.

I have not been convinced up to this point that these schools lead to overall system improvement. I would certainly commend some of them. But I also believe that many schools will market themselves as much on silly ideas as they do on sound ones – just look at how independent schools tend to brand themselves at present.

The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), a thinktank that prioritises liberty and free-enterprise, today released a report authored by Trisha Jha and Jennifer Buckingham. It is a measured report, short on hyperbole. It weighs the evidence and just about finds a positive effect in favour of Charter Schools and their equivalents. Now, you might expect this from such an organisation but I would challenge you to read the report before dismissing it.

You see, I don’t think this is necessarily a left-right issue. If such schools were allowed to make profits then it might be – something that the report does not rule out. However, essentially, we are talking about alternative ways to deliver a public service that will remain free to users.

The attractiveness is that this will allow choice to those who cannot presently afford it. Independent schools in Australia are subsidised directly by government but are still out of reach for many Australians who are locked into a school through residential zoning. So perhaps Australian Charters could add something to the mix. I am certainly interested in their potential to provide proof-of-concept for schools organised on very different lines to standard government schools.

Immediately after the CIS report was published, a counterargument was presented in The Conversation. I’m not sure that it is the strongest possible attack on the idea of Australian Charters. One passage stood out among the others. Discussing Charter Schools, Dean Ashenden observes:

“Their record in innovation is similarly mixed. Some do use their freedom from the usual rules and regulations to innovate, but most pitch to parents in the same way as Australia’s independent schools. They sell on “traditional” values, curriculum, teaching methods and discipline.”

I suspect Ashenden’s ‘innovations’ are pretty much equivalent to my ‘silly ideas’. And I reckon that there are a lot of parents out there who would be keen on a Charter School that sold itself on traditional values, curriculum, teaching methods and discipline. Are these parents wrong? In fact, one of Jha and Buckingham’s main points is that it is exactly this type of Charter School that is the most effective.

There might be something in this after all.

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2 Comments on “Charters down-under”

  1. CanberraTeacher says:

    I am very much not convinced that there is benefit in the charter school model. It is no surprise that a right wing think tank thinks that a system of increased stratification which the rich will avoid in their privilege entrenching schools is a good idea. It’s only purpose is to absolve the state of their responsibilities and perhaps save some money when things go wrong. I can’t see how such a system would lead to anything but lower means and medians and larger standard deviations despite a few successful anecdotes. I also think that ‘not-for-profit’ is enough of a safeguard as salaries, of course, are not a ‘profit’.
    I think improvement is much better achieved ‘in the system’, building consensus and continuing to build evidence of whatever reform you want rather than saying ‘it’s all too hard without the ability to do X’
    I disagree with you and Ashenden, I think Independent schools push the innovation thing much more public schools. I think it has to do with the increased competition and marketing that goes along with it. If you can’t claim you have the best results academically (ATAR or NAPLAN or whatever) how do you compete? You market yourself on extra-curricular, technology and how innovative your programs are. Very few schools market themselves on a traditional school model. If anything increased competition in schools doesn’t lead to educational conservatism and an adherence to evidence, it leads to flashy photo ops and doing the newest rad thing for exposure.

  2. Tempe Laver says:

    I’d certainly send my kids to an Ark school with ED Hirsch’s curriculum, if I could. Although, like you, I wish that the State system offered up some alternatives, but they don’t. It’s all skilling and 21st C stuff. I feel so upset that I can’t send my kids to a “traditional” school. I’d do anything…well almost.


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