Special Character in New Zealand Schools

There are a lot of things unique to New Zealand: Prehistoric-looking flightless birds, a miniature dinosaur, the All Blacks… and a thing called the Integrated School system. Somehow that last one doesn’t sound as much fun as the others. But for those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time and energy exploring the mission opportunities in Anglican Schools, the unique things about these schools really are worth having a think about.

First: some background. The first schools in NZ were all “church” schools in that they were started by missionaries to teach their own children and the children of the Maori people. The Christian aspect of education, then, wasn’t questioned. But then in 1877 the state education system started, and after much debate it was decided that Christian teaching and prayers were incompatible with state schools. The churches, not wanting to lose what they had, hastened to formalise connections with existing private schools. The Catholics did even more: they sought to have a school attached to every parish. And they got there, in a wave of amazing feats of commitment and giving.

But problems lay ahead. The nice cheap source of teachers (religious who gave their time and skills for almost nothing in both the Catholic and Anglican systems) started to dry up, just when compulsory schooling meant the demands increased. By the 1970s the church school system was close to collapsing, and the State faced the possibility of thousands and thousands of students suddenly being dumped on their already-stretched schools. Understandably, they were open to negotiation.

Special Character

And negotiate they did. What they came up with was the idea of Integrated Schools. An Integrated School, unlike a State School, was allowed to uphold a particular “Special Character” in terms of philosophy or religious belief (Christianity, Judaism, Steiner), and would receive sufficient funding from the State for the everyday running of the school – those were the two points that kept the school proprietors happy. In return, the schools would follow the National Curriculum, and own and maintain their own grounds and buildings: things that reconciled the State to their existence.

What’s unusual in NZ is that every school negotiates its own Integration Deed with the Crown, so what constitutes each school’s Special Character is unique. And this is where the first interesting questions arise.

How do you define what an “Anglican Character” is, for the purposes of a legal document?

How is this character going to be apparent in your school, and thus justify your continuing existence as a school which isn’t a state school?

An Integrated School, unlike a State School, was allowed to uphold a particular “Special Character”

These questions are becoming more pressing at the moment, because declining populations in rural areas mean that many of our church integrated schools are now competing with state schools for students. They don’t have the bargaining power they had in the 1970s. The government can’t easily close an integrated school, but there are other ways they can make life very difficult. They get to say, for example, how many students the school is allowed, so all they need to do is give them a lower number than is viable, and another church school will bite the dust. I’m not saying it’s happened, but it could. As Pat Lynch, the wonderful ex-head of Catholic Education here, said, “Integrated schools are going to have to get stronger in terms of what they stand for, because if their special character is not clear and not demonstrable, then they have no reason to exist.”

The bright side of this, as far as the wider church is concerned, is that after decades in which no-one really noticed much if particular schools were recognisably Anglican or not, it looks as if our Integrated Schools will do well to ensure that they really are offering something genuinely different. The fallback position of “teaching Christian values” doesn’t work any more as a point of difference, given how many state schools openly and enthusiastically do “values education”. Smoothing the awkward edges of Christianity down to a colourless and inoffensive “spirituality” doesn’t work any more as a point of difference, now that state schools are embracing “mindfulness”. Providing caring, pastoral education in which every child is valued – every school says it does that. When it comes down to it, the only real difference our schools have to offer is God. That’s all.

The Prodigal Son only thought about returning home when all other options had been removed. Not, you’d think, the most flattering way to approach your estranged father, yet even under those conditions, his father was ecstatic to see him. It may be that our Integrated Schools only start looking seriously at the God-thing when they realise that any other way of justifying their existence has gone. But I reckon God is just as ecstatic whenever words like “faith” or “hope” or “love” begin to replace “values” and “success” and “tolerance” in our schools; whenever one board or principal or group of staff sit down together and seriously ask themselves, “So what does it mean to be Anglican with integrity?”

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