sign up log in
Want to go ad-free? Find out how, here.

Dave Grimmond wants schools to focus on improving education outcomes, rather than teacher senstitivities, community zoning, or a one-style-fits-all approach

Dave Grimmond wants schools to focus on improving education outcomes, rather than teacher senstitivities, community zoning, or a one-style-fits-all approach

By Dave Grimmond*

I am not a fan of school zoning. Its main outcome is to reduce school choices for poorer families.

Although the intentions underpinning the policy are probably noble, it has unintended consequences which on the whole harm the prospects of children from poorer households. 

I presume that the key purpose of zoning is to ensure that people living locally have access to their local school. This seems a reasonable aim as it would seem unfair if locals were somehow unable to send their children to nearby schools.

In practice zoning does not necessarily guarantee this; out-of-zone Newtown boys who could walk to Wellington College, must travel further afield to school so that boys from Karori are not deprived of the right of attending their “local” school.

This practice leads to another source of potential inequity that is illustrated by the experience of a former boss of mine. He did not want to send his children to the local high school so his choices were either to move into the zone of a preferable school or send his children to a private school.

In the end he went with the private school option, but this example raises the point that for many neither option is available; they can neither afford a house in a “good” school zone nor pay the fees for sending their children to a private school.

Hence my view that by inducing a house price premium, school zoning acts as a mechanism for reducing education choice for poorer families.

It is by extending education options for children from poorer families that the Government’s charter school initiative could potentially add value.

International education studies imply that the school system in New Zealand is generally very good, but this does not mean that it is a perfect fit for everyone.

For example, despite the strong performance of our public schools, there has also been a growing demand for privates schooling. In 2000 13.5% of school students were enrolled in private or integrated schools. This percentage had increased to 15.2% by 2012. 

What charter schools potentially offer is an alternative to the public system for those who do not have the option of going to a private or integrated school.

The philosophy underpinning this perspective is that a wider range of choice increases the probability that one can get the right match between pupils and the teaching that enhances their learning. 

But it is not obvious that a greater choice of schools, in and of itself, makes a material impact on education outcomes. US evidence quoted in a recent Economist article indicates that exposure to better teachers is associated with an increased probability of attending university, of attending better universities, and higher later life earnings.

However, although teachers matter, there appears to be more diversity in the quality of teachers within schools, than between schools.

This seems to accord with common sense as well as my recollection from school. I was lucky to have some excellent teachers, but I also had some fairly ordinary and some quite hopeless teachers. I am sure that the story is fairly similar for most people, irrespective of the school they went to. 

The biggest gains to improving education outcomes is likely to come from raising the quality of teaching within schools than about addressing differences between schools.

Some of this benefit might come from simply reorganising the teaching roster.

The norm is typically for the best teachers to teach the best students, which simply serves to expand the gap in education achievement. As noted in the Economist, making the best teachers work with the worst pupils could help to reduce the gap in education attainment.

This and their other suggestion to replace less effective teachers are unlikely to be popular with the teaching profession. But if we are seriously interested in improving education outcomes (and hence reduce the gaps in the lifetime prospects of students) we need to encourage an education system that exposes teachers to rigorous assessment.

In this regard a couple of recent papers investigating the performance of charter schools in the US demonstrated that high performance tended to be related to pedagogical practices rather than inputs or their charter school status.

For example (Angrist, Pathak, & Walters, 2013) found a divergence in outcomes between different charter schools, with better performing schools emphasising student discipline and teacher observation (eg videoing classes for teacher feedback and training). In another study (Dobbie & Jr, 2013) found that while input measures such as class size, per-pupil expenditure, teacher certification, and teacher training were not correlated with school effectiveness, pedagogical factors such as teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations explained 45% of the variation in school effectiveness.   

It is too simplistic to presume that alternatives to the public system will be sufficient to generate education improvements.

Indeed, the US experience demonstrates that there is a mix of outcomes from charter schools.

But what the US experience with charter schools has provided is the opportunity to learn from their experimentation.

My reading of this evidence is that there are at least three areas that schools can focus on to improve education outcomes:

· Ensuring that the school maintains standards about expected student behaviour;

· Openly assessing, reviewing, and improving teaching methods;

· Directing better teachers towards students who have the greatest need for improved education outcomes.



Angrist, J. D., Pathak, P. A., & Walters, C. R. (2013). Explaining Charter School Effectiveness. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 5(4), 1-27.

Dobbie, W., & Jr, R. G. (2013). Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City. American Journal: Applied Economics, 5(4), 28-60.

The Economist, “Knowledge for earnings’ sake” (2013), October 12, p82.


David Grimmond is a senior economist at Infometrics. You can contact him here »

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Unfortunately the political reality of expediency destroys all before it. Witness the chaos evolving in the UK in respect of  free school/academy structures. Read more


and yes lets ignore the energy cost of transporting students everywhere. 

or ignore the poor pay. My salary is almost double that of my wife, yet she has a MA and I only have a BEng.

"The philosophy underpinning this perspective is that a wider range of choice increases the probability that one can get the right match between pupils and the teaching that enhances their learning."

or maybe the say christian fundies who decide to school their children as they want, as opposed to what the child wants/needs.

How about making the local school better, oh wait that might cost $s....

Sorry I dont agree on this as a practicality.   Maybe instead of being an economist you should try teaching in a decile 1 school for 5 years?  ie put your butt where your mouth is, then come back to us.



The lower the Decile rating the more funding that school receives.

It is not money that solves problems....... it is people and their imagination/creativity!


You can expose children to a very wide spectrum of experiences and knowledge without it costing enormous amounts of does however take some thinking outside the square on the teachers part....


Hi, Yes the fudge wording is great isnt it. Lower decile get a bit more so these schools are not as under-funded as others.

Who said enormous?  take it to extremes to prove what? farce.

Really there are those who have this fantasy as to what it is like to teach in a school these days. Maybe consider the turnover in teachers as an indicator of all is not well in the state of Denmark.




.. who decide to school their children as they want, as opposed to what the child wants/needs.


Imagine that, parents who think they better placed to decide what their child needs than the child itself.




The solution to the schools/zoning issues raised is to build 3 or 4 more Auckland Grammar Schools in various parts of Auckland. The Brand name Auckland Grammar is owned by the state. The teaching and administrative methods of Auckland Grammar are its Intelectual property and are also owned by the staed. These have been monitised and privatised by home owners in zone. So best answer is to make the school open more Auckland Grammar's around Auckland, each with exactly the same uniform, systems, classes etc.  Various builing/landowning entities could then bid for the right to build the school in theire area at their own cost.

Singapore and other cities have top name UK Public Schools - why because of the brand and the IP.


Thanks for the laugh. I love it when people without experience provide the answers towards how teachers can work more efficiently.


As a teacher who has taught in very good schools and taught very good students I would not have entered the profession and taken a paycut to 1/6 of that offered in industry if I were to be forced to teach particular students. I didn't get advanced degrees to try and compensate for a lack of parenting.


Please tell me off when a well mannered, fed and rested student does poorly in my class.


Only a fraction of a teachers time is spent towards teaching as we are too busy with paperwork, discipline issues, general social conduct etc.


"teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations explained 45% of the variation in school effectiveness. "

Yes all of those would work. How to get them? More money to attract quality teachers and provide them with the time to do all of these things. Failing that? Parent your children and stop complaining.


p.s. I'm more than welcome to give advice on how other professions can best work :)



Hear hear!


My pet hate is economists lecturing teachers on how to do a better job especially economists who were never schooled inside a state school themselves.


Let's give some other judgmental profession a crack at this one:in my management consultancy days I would have done some process analysis and concluded that the various compliance requirements on teachers comprised more than 50% of the total effort expended in the job. It's a miracle anyone can read and write these days given how much time teachers are required to devote to non-value-adding activities.


Sorry about the ad hominem, David, but you take this one on at your peril.




New Zealand actually does seem to have better school systems in terms of outcomes when measured against other countries, certainly better than the U.S. model being discussed in this article. If you are looking for improvement to New Zealand schools, wouldn't it be better to focus on a country where the results were actually better? Finland springs to mind, but the results there from ensuring radical equality among school choice and outcome (that that rdaical equality turned out to be actually good results was secondary) goes rather against the market based orthodoxy.





More on why looking to the US educational system is not a great plan.…


You criticise zoning because it isn't perfect but forget no policy is perfect.

You criticise the system because it doesn't fit everybody but forget no policy fits everybody.

You suggest more choice *might* fix something but offer no evidence that it does.

You suggest better teachers but then suggest teacher spend more time being tested instead of actually teaching.


In summary then, NZ has a prettty good educational system that isn't perfect.


A good article and though the above Economist may be receiving flack for sharing his thoughts regarding education in NZ, I enjoy reading other points of view, particularly from outside the profession.

Zoning is tactile. i taught in several state schools in the UK and zoning was everything to parents and the subsequent effect on house prices. Hence the reason this issue has been raised.

In Brighton, UK, of the 9 secondary schools only 3 were considered popular among parents and the wider community. Due to this very fact the local government introduced a 'lottery' system for parents as zoning dictated social issues often reflected in schools.

This was deemed fair but very unpopular for folk living in the preferred zone and for popular schools ( as they had to accept riff-raff from the estates ;-))

In my experience this was positive for the students across all sectors of the community as it allowed greater integration and a better environment to learn in. On the contrary, some communities were zoned and teaching was...well... the closest thing I've experienced to being a prison warden without the batton.

Due to a growing number of upper middle class in NZ it appears more parents are opting for private schooling and we have to be careful not to lose sight of schools (regardless of decile) that fall in numbers and have wider social issues within their communities. 

That's where past and present governments in the UK have failed to act turning communities into "no-go" zones and schools into top-security swipe card institutions.

i'm not convinced with charter schools, they pose a dangerous precedent for schools to cut corners, particularly with unqualified teachers. i agree there are many teachers past their expiry date and some of whom should never have entered the profession...but then one company or small firm that doesn't have that problem!

Upskilling teachers and improved pedagogical practices will enhance the overall level of education for ALL NZ children. Thankfully, here in NZ we still treat the teaching profession with respect and our communities are comparatively stronger than most. Where they are not is the issue for our Ministers to address.

Apologies for the essay.




Here is a thoughtful article on education alternatives from The Onion, which is America's finest news source.…


I love the Onion! But too many of their articles are close to reality!

 I saw some of this in boarding schools in the UK. The sad part was when a child knew they were being school-homed.

I found the students were often at their best (manners, work habits, ..) at the end of term. After holidays back home we had to start school-homing them about acceptable behaviour!