Education

Splinters of discontent mar high-end schooling

Treating education as a tradable investment can come at a cost. Farah Hancock reports on problems at ACG since it was purchased by a private equity company.

All is not well in the classrooms of New Zealand’s largest private education provider.

Academic Colleges Group’s (ACG) sudden announcement of the impending closure of their Auckland CBD school, ACG Senior College, has infuriated parents.

Over at ACG’s Parnell College, where the students from the closing school are expected to integrate next year, parents are upset at already-swelling class sizes and an influx of students with English as a second language soaking up teacher time.

One parent told Newsroom: “It’s so financially driven you realise very quickly it has nothing to do with the kids’ education, and we are just this very, very small voice."

Another, Julie Dick, who learned of the closure of ACG Senior College just three days after her daughter started feels like she has been ripped off. She said other parents expressed similar opinions at a meeting about the closure.

“The overwhelming feeling at the meeting was that we had been screwed over by a corporation that didn’t care about our children, didn’t care about us and didn’t have the common decency to be honest about their motivations.”

Dick is one of seven parents who have spoken to Newsroom. The parents, whose children range from Year 1 to Year 11, spoke of their disappointment at the current situation at ACG Parnell and Senior colleges. None of the other parents want to be identified by name, fearing speaking out could impact their children. Newsroom is not aware if similar concerns are shared by parents from ACG’s other schools.

All the parents said the quality of the teachers at the schools is excellent. Most had been happy with ACG’s management before the school was bought by private equity firm Pacific Equity Partners (PEP).

Since the purchase they said there had been a slow shift in culture. Now, they say, there is no transparency, change happens suddenly, and communication feels like corporate, double-speak PR releases.

“I bought a product from ACG and they cannot give it to me.”

ACG said it had an open-door policy for parents with concerns, and the closing of the Senior College campus was an “expansion”. International students with English as a second language, who include a group of around 40 Saudi students, “enrich the diversity of the school”.

Parents said they felt they spent a lot of money on a product and had certain expectations which weren’t being met. One parent said if a business treated customers the same way ACG are treating parents it would be out of business.

Some parents fear the increases of lucrative international students and the closure of the CBD campus is part of a strategy to increase the value of ACG before the overseas equity firm which bought it three years ago sells it.

PEP bought ACG for a sum reported by the Australian Financial Review to be over $500 million. The deal included ACG’s five private schools and several early childhood education centres, tertiary training centres and schools in Vietnam and Indonesia.

When PEP bought ACG the combined roll was 12,000. Now its website says there are 17,000 students. Roll growth has contributed to the increase on top of purchases made by ACG such as tertiary providers NZMA, bought in 2014, and the Intueri group in 2017.

Although PEP is Australian, with many of its funds registered in popular tax haven Jersey, it has a history of buying and selling New Zealand investments.

Griffins, Independent Liquor and Tegel Chicken have all been bought and sold less than 10 years after the original purchase for several hundred million dollars more than was paid.

ACG Parnell College

Parents said they were never told of the equity company deal. What they did notice was an influx of international students.

“There’s always been a smattering [of international students] through the school, but maybe not a third of each class as there is now. Some classes have one or two kids, in others there are six to eight kids out of 24 kids. That’s a lot for a teacher to handle.”

Tuition at the school, which caters for Year 1 to 13 students, costs New Zealand parents up to up to $20,770 per year. For international students the same period costs almost $12,000 more.

Since a positive Education Review Office report in 2014, the roll at Parnell has grown from 750 to 1011, according to an ACG Parnell College staff member. ACG would not comment on how many international students it has, claiming it is against its policy to discuss rolls. The 2014 report said there were 37 international students.

Parents said they have observed teachers using bi-lingual children in their class as interpreters to convey information to English second language students.

“I think about a third of the class is English as second language. They’re [ACG] saying they have employed teacher aides. The amount of extra work and the dynamics it creates - one teacher aide who is there for half the day can’t even begin to address all the extra things that will come up.”

Adding to the number of students with English as a second language are a group of children from Saudi Arabia who are attending the school on a short-term basis while their parents attend a University of Auckland teacher refresher programme. They are semi-integrated into the school and attend some classes with current students.

Parents said it was disruptive to have such short-term students. When one asked if similar arrangements were likely to occur in the future “the school said everything was under control”.

Class sizes, too, are increasing.

Parents said in their initial school tour they were promised classes of around 18 students for the younger years. Now classes can have up to 24 students.

When parents raised this with the school they said they were told the class size number was always 24.

“It can’t be that scores of parents have all made up this magical number of 18 in our heads,” one said to Newsroom.

Parents who chose the school for the small class sizes and quality teachers are worried the reasons for their choice are vanishing as class sizes grow and teachers move on.

Several teachers have left the school since the arrival of a new principal in June last year and parents worry remaining teachers are unhappy.

“They’re being very diplomatic, they are very careful what they say,” said a parent who thinks further resignations from teaching staff could see a mass exodus of parents from the school.

ACG Senior College

Based in Lorne Street, ACG Senior College caters for Year 11 to 13 students.

Julie Dick describes it as a pre-university environment where students are treated as adults. She and her daughter chose the school because of its focus on arts and humanities and small class sizes.

As a nurse, the choice represented a significant investment for Dick's family. During enrolment, her daughter was told she would be eligible to apply for scholarships in subsequent years.

Now she is unsure what the future holds.

When the news the school was closing came - in what one parent described as “a very anodyne marketing-type letter saying we had the wonderful opportunity to leave Senior College in the CBD and go to Parnell and be part of ACG Parnell” - three days after Dick’s daughter started, it was a huge shock.

Despite enquiries from parents, ACG has confirmed little about what the integration of ACG Senior College into ACG Parnell College will mean.

This extends from future tuition fees to who will be teaching their children, and what the culture will be like, or what criteria for scholarships will now be.

“If you look at their website you can see the values of Senior College and put that next to the values of Parnell and they are like chalk and cheese”

ACG Parnell College has a stricter environment than ACG Senior College. Uniforms are compulsory, students are not allowed to leave the campus during break times and there is a heavy focus on academic achievement.

Dick, like other parents, is deciding what to do. Parents with Year 12 students feel their options are narrowed because ACG Senior College does not offer NCEA and switching to a state school could be difficult.

“I bought a product from ACG and they cannot give it to me,” said Dick

The recourse

Parents of children at state schools have avenues open to them if they are unhappy with their school. Each school has a board of trustees which includes the school principal as well as members of the community, often parents, who parents vote in.

If unsatisfied with a school's response, a parent can then take a complaint to the Ministry of Education and Ombudsman.

Private schools are different.

While many do receive government funding, including ACG Parnell College and ACG Senior College, whose indicative public funding for 2018 is $1,190,528 and $485,804 respectively, they are not governed by the same rules as state schools.

Independent Schools of New Zealand executive director Deborah James said independent schools were free to set their own governance structure and “communication protocol” to handle complaints.

“The Ministry of Education is not the governing body of independent schools; independent schools are independent of the state.”

For parents unhappy with how complaints had been handled she said: “Like anybody else, they can take legal advice.”

Parents said emails sent to principals or members of the ACG leadership group have gone unanswered, or they have been “fobbed off” by responses which sidestep questions.

What ACG says

Questions sent to ACG Parnell College were answered by ACG Education communications and public relations advisor Anna Murdoch.

Asked if any complaints had been made by parents about the number of students with English as a second language in classes she said: “We have an open-door policy at ACG Parnell College and encourage open dialogue. We address any concerns that may be raised directly with our parent community.”

She said ACG Senior College campus was shifting as part of an expansion plan.

“Due to growing demand for the personalised learning and academic excellence which ACG’s inner city schools offer its students - and due to capacity constraints at ACG Parnell College - ACG Parnell College is undergoing an expansion to include a third campus. The Senior Campus will be located in the newly-renovated, former Maori TV building at Davis Crescent in Newmarket.”

Her response did not explain why expanding one school required another to be shut.

Murdoch said there were no plans to sell the ACG group.

Parents question how long this will remain the case.

“A lot of us are aware of the fact it will be resold again because it’s an obvious thing to do. They just restructure it and get rid of it – trim it all back. Which is kind of different when you are dealing with a school. You’re dealing with a different group of clientele.

“I’m not sure what we are paying for anymore.”

Parents have been invited to attend an information evening on Wednesday, June 20, regarding the integration of ACG Senior College into ACG Parnell College.

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