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Christian education thriving in Godzone

The demand for primary and secondary education with a Christian character is on the upswing in New Zealand, and Christian schools are expanding and forming networks to meet that demand.

The NZ education system has a unique provision for ‘state integrated schools’ that has created a space for Christian schools. Most state integrated schools are former private schools that are now integrated into the state system.

State integrated Christian schools promote critical thinking as well as Christian principles.

While the buildings and property of state integrated schools remain privately owned, the government funds their operating costs and teachers’ salaries. The schools must maintain standards set by the Ministry of Education and deliver the state curriculum but they retain a degree of independence and can teach the curriculum from their own perspective.

About 10 percent of Kiwi students attend state integrated schools. Some 75 to 80 percent of these schools are Catholic. The others include a variety of Christian schools as well as alternative education providers such as Montessori and Rudolph Steiner. Wesley College is a state integrated school.

Until recently, Mark Larson was principal of Middleton Grange Christian School in Christchurch. He now holds leadership rolls in two Christian school trusts and the Christian Schools Network.

Middleton Grange was established in the 1960s by a non-denominational group of evangelical Protestants. In the 1990s it struggled financially and it became an integrated school in 1996.

Mark explains that by becoming integrated, Middleton Grange and other Christian schools can provide an education that is in reach of families who could not send their children to a private school.

"One tenet of our founders was that attending Middleton Grange should be affordable. The fees are $1100, which is about 10 percent of those at a private school," he says.

"When I became principal in 1999 we had long waiting lists. We were turning away 100 families a year so we decided to grow the school rolls. In 1999 our roll was 1000. It is now it is 1300, and we have applied for it to go higher."

The Ministry of Education caps the number of students an integrated school can have so the school must apply to have its numbers increased.

Vaughan Darby is the executive director of the NZ Christian Proprietors Trust (NZCPT). This trust is the proprietor of three integrated schools in the greater Auckland area: KingsWay School at Silverdale, Jireh Christian School at Waitakere, and KingsGate Primary School at Pukekohe. NZCPT schools too are based on an evangelical Protestant ethos.

Vaughan says the integrated school system saves the Crown substantial money because it avoids the capital cost of owning land and buildings. Therefore the Ministry of Education is willing to integrate schools and allow rolls to grow in regions where there is high population growth.

Both Vaughan and Mark emphasise that Christian schools provide high quality education with a lot of input from parents.

"We believe parents are responsible for their children’s religious education and our roll is to reinforce that worldview," Vaughan says.

"There is growing recognition even in the state sector, of the importance of teaching values. We promote Christian values and we involve parents. When parents are involved students do better.

"NCEA results show that students from integrated schools perform disproportionally well. Some of our students enter theological schools such as Laidlaw College but most go on to the major universities – Auckland, Massey and Canterbury."

Mark says the Christian element in the teaching does not overwhelm the curriculum.

"In teaching evolution and creation, for example, we work hard to teach the science but we also expose the students to the idea of creation. We point out evolution is a theory but we do not push the religious views down their throats. We believe they have the dignity and the right to decide the issues for themselves."

Unity strengthens Christian schools

NZ Christian schools have formed clusters and networks in order to share knowledge, boost one another’s capacity, and make more credible cases for government funding.

Many of the Christian schools in Christchurch coordinate their efforts, for example, and the Christian Schools Network (CSN) links them with other Christian schools in the South Island.

Mark Larson

CSN chief executive Mark Larson says Middleton Grange School stands at the centre of a cluster of schools in Christchurch. Middleton Grange is the only one of them that offers classes from years 1 to 13. Its secondary school has more than 600 students.

Several Christian Year 1-10 schools in the city – Aidanfield in Halswell, Hillview in Woolston, and Emmanuel in Papanui – feed students to the Middleton Grange secondary school.

These schools have ties with Christian schools in Rangiora and Asburton, and through the CSN they have affiliation with schools in Timaru, Dunedin, Nelson, and Blenheim.

While some of these schools are small with 30 to 40 students, others have up to 200, and they are all growing.

The story in Auckland is similar with the two primary schools in the NZ Christian Proprietors Trust feeding students into the secondary school at KingsWay.

"We are looking at opportunities for new schools in Christchurch and this fits well with the policy of the National government, which is pro-parental choice.

"We believe there is a place for the proprietors of Christian schools around the country to affiliate. Although they have different histories, their visions are similar.

"By affiliating they can better develop curricula based on their special character and gain traction with the government. The government doesn’t want to see the proliferation of little schools," Mark says.

NZCPT executive Vaughan Darby agrees. He says the roll of the NZCPT and the CST is to empower local people who want Christian education in their communities but there is also a need to have a wider vision so that Christian schools can grow nationally.

"Small schools can struggle to deliver quality education and survive financially. Through greater cooperation Christian schools can grow their capacity and become more professional not only in delivering education but also in dealing with the Ministry. The Minister of Education is aware of this and is supportive of our efforts."