Bryan Bruce believes that in education less choice equals fairness

Journalist Bryan Bruce is not a fan of charter schools. He thinks there are other ways to fix our education system. Despite this mindset he still is able to admire what South Auckland Middle School has achieved and particularly admire how it is run. He believes that too much choice is a bad thing as it creates inequality. He is particularly concerned with administration (how schools are run) and he wants a light centralised system to keep things ” fair”.

Instead of less administration to take the burden off teachers, I think he should consider the model I have seen in three Auckland charter school where teachers do not have to do admin. Admin is for administrators and teaching is for teachers. You cannot get any lighter than that.

44 minutes of television airtime isn’t a lot for a topic as big as Public Education, so when it came to editing my recent documentary WORLD CLASS? one of the decisions I reluctantly made was not to include a discussion about Charter Schools.

Why? Because it seemed to me after listening to the arguments for and against Charter Schools that they are part of the larger issue of how much consumer choice a public education system can tolerate.

…Which brings me to South Auckland Middle School and my interview with Principal Alwyn Poole that I unfortunately could not find space for in my programme.

If I’d wanted to do a demolition job on Charter Schools I certainly wouldn’t have picked to film in South Auckland Middle School , because in terms of its teaching practice, pupil to teacher ratio , staff qualifications, the liaison with parents, the passion teachers have for their job and the engagement of children in learning and meeting their needs, South Auckland Middle School stacks up , in my opinion, as a pretty good school.

No. I asked to film at this particular Charter School precisely because it removes the quality argument from the debate and leaves us with the philosophical question  …

How much choice in the way individual schools are administered should a public school system tolerate?

My answer is  “not a lot “  if we want our public education system to be fair.

But let me be clear . Advocating  for a light centralised system of school administration as I do, does not mean I also want to reduce  flexibility in teaching practice and the choices teachers and principals make in the way they organise their individual schools and classrooms. A good centralised system is built on delegating the responsibility for the teaching of our nation’s children and allowing teachers to make professional choices not by demanding the accountability by endless testing and reporting because don’t trust teachers to do their job.

I took several important things away from my interview with Alwyn, but two of them are particularly relevant  to this present discussion about Choice.

The first was that Alwyn felt the Public System did not allow him to run a school based on his 15 –students- to -a class -60 -in -a –unit- model, that he describes in his interview. Nor did it allow him to help ease the financial strain that poor families face in meeting the cost of school uniforms and stationery  which he can now provide because Charter Schools are bulk funded.

It’s no secret I have real sympathy for the view that smaller class sizes are conducive to better learning. The best teachers establish good relationships with their students and the more kids you have in your class the harder that is to do. Good teaching is also about the development of individuals, not mass instruction.

We also know, from the research I quoted in my programme from the OCED literature, that in lower socio economic areas smaller schools deliver better educational outcomes for children from impoverished families; and while there is certainly an argument that larger schools offer more academic choices at High School level, I think that in general when it comes to effective teaching, small is beautiful. (Indeed larger schools are often broken up into smaller units).

In short I think Alwyn has identified a flaw in the existing Public System in catering for the needs of children living in impoverished areas, but it is an error of pedagogy that could be easily fixed without setting up a completely separate state funded system of Charter Schools.

If our Public System had the light centralised administration I observed operating in the Finnish education system, it would also be flexible enough to accommodate differing educational philosophies.That was certainly my experience teaching in our even  quite rigid previous centralised system in the days before Tomorrow’s Schools.

The glue that bound us together was the curriculum but teachers had great flexibility not only in how they taught in their classrooms but how they organized their schools to deliver the best outcomes of their students.So I think it is a pity that Alwyn felt he could not instigate his 15 to 1 teaching model within our current public education system, because it is by trying new techniques and the collegiate exchange of ideas that teaching practice improves the quality of education our nation’s children receive.

In a centralised system good teaching ideas travel fast because good teachers are always up for adopting new techniques that are going to benefit their students. In a competitive system teachers don’t share as much and tend to keep their good ideas to themselves as their “intellectual property”. So I don’t have a problem with how Alwyn has organized his school or his teaching ideas. But I certainly have a problem an administrative system that alienated him to the point where felt he had to take advantage of the Charter School legislation to teach in the way he wanted.

All that said however I would vote to put an end to the creation of Charter Schools and absorb the existing schools back into a restructured centralised education system created from the bottom up, not imposed from the top down.



Charter Schools, whatever their quality, continue to take us down the road of increasing choice in our education system, and we already know from the last 30 years that increasing parental and student choice of school has delivered a very unfair school system in which some students get more chance to succeed than others.

Take the fact that children attending South Auckland Middle School get free uniforms and free stationery.

If we want a fair and equitable system then surely if one child is given assistance with these things then ALL New Zealand children should get that assistance.

Moreover, Alwyn can only provide uniforms and books because his school is bulk funded and can spend the money as he sees fit.

However the trouble with bulk funding is that while Alwyn is clearly driven to do the best by his students and staff, there is no guarantee that another Charter  School operators will act as wisely when handed a large amount of  tax payer money each year to spend as they wished.

Now while South Auckland Middle School is a not -for -profit venture, adopting the Charter School model also opens the door to the profit driven privatisation of public education using the public purse and  bringing  with it the possibility of self- interested management , corruption and fraud.

Moreover if schools throughout New Zealand were allowed to set their own pay rates for teachers and/or hire unqualified staff then (as the teacher’s unions argued some years ago) it would increase our fairness problem – not reduce it

This is where Bryan Bruce totally loses me. I was already struggling with his opposition to choice, and his linking of choice with unfairness, but his statement about pay rates is positively communist. He may think that it is fair to pay everyone the same regardless of how good they are but in the real world we get paid more or less depending on many factors. Why should state run organisations not be able to pay their staff the same way the private sector does? The private sector can reward the best. Why are teachers to be forever treated like drones with no recognition of the fact that some are outstanding and others mediocre?Does Bryan Bruce really think that it is unfair to pay an outstanding teacher more than a mediocre one? We all know which one we would rather have teaching our child so why shouldn’t a school be able to reward the better teachers with higher pay?

-Bryan Bruce facebook page

You can watch the interview with Alwyn Poole from South Auckland Middle School, which was not included in Mr Bruce’s documentary, here.


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