English chokes back emotion faced with charter school kids - lays challenge to Labour

A visibly emotional Bill English has laid a direct challenge to Labour politicians; tell the students of Vanguard Military Academy to their face, that they would shut their school. 

On his first visit to a charter school - set up by the National-led Government as part of a promise to ACT under their support deal - English was welcomed by a stirring full-school haka; the All Black's Kapa o Pango with a military flair and additional verses telling the school's story. 

He was then handed a stack of letters - many handwritten - by each of the students, detailing how the academy had changed their lives. 

English spoke to the school but had to steel himself partway through his speech - choking back emotion while he talked about Opposition parties wanting to shut charter schools down. 

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"You know what changes individual lives, what changes a country, is trying something different if what we're already doing doesn't work," he said. 

"That is why we're campaigning hard for the ability to continue to with what's lit your eyes up... what's re-motivated you, what's making fine young New Zealanders. 

"My challenge to the other political parties is this; I dare them to come down here, look you in the eye and tell you they're going to take away your opportunity. 

"Not just say it in the media, or in the Parliament, or in their party meetings - but come here and say it to you. 

"Because I can't see any reason why any adult would want to take away what's created this family - what's fired up your aspiration. because that's what we're here for you, each one of you matters."

During the visit English sat down with students, who spoke of their stories to get to the school in the middle of an industrial park in Mt Albert. Some had come from good schools, but were failing and uninterested because they felt they didn't belong. 

Others had come from tougher upbringings and had been truant for much of the term at previous schools.

In the letters, some students wrote that they had not taken drugs, or smoked or drunk alcohol since they started at the private partnership school, that takes students from year 11-13.

Following the visit however, English took exception to criticisms from opposition that it was a political display. 

"I think that's a ridiculous statement. I've spent 20 years with young people, working with them, raising them - at their games, in their homes, and particularly, we've had a strong focus on policy that enables each on of them to get back on track."

Vanguard Military School in Albany opened in 2014. Registered teachers impart the curriculum and non-registered teachers, such as New Zealand Defence Force personnel, provide other instruction, but there is no formal link with the defence force. 

Among a number of controversial charter schools operating in New Zealand with varying success, its students have excelled, with NCEA pass rates higher than 90 per cent.

However, the school came under fire in December 2014 when its roll dropped 25 per cent below the 108 students it was funded for. Unlike public schools, partnership schools funding is not adjusted to reflect roll numbers.

The Government announced four new Partnership Schools were to open in 2019, including a Vanguard Military academy in Christchurch and Waatea High in South Auckland. 

That was sponsored by a subsidiary of the Manukau Urban Māori Authority - led by Labour candidate Willie Jackson.

It would focus on priority learners and a co-educational bi-lingual Maori secondary school for years 9-13, with an opening roll of 50 and a maximum roll of 145 students.

Labour has promised to repeal the legislation that allows charter schools, but has thrown a lifeline to some that they could remain working in a different model as "special character schools". 

Labour plans to make changes to special character schools, which will throw a lifeline to the charter schools they promise to shut down.

Earlier in the year the party's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the options on the table for those schools would be anything from "closure to integration into the state school system".

Labour's Deputy leader MP Kelvin Davis has promised he would resign before the two charter schools in his Northland Te Tai Tokerau electorate were closed. But he was confident he wouldn't have to because the schools would only change in name.

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 - Stuff.co.nz