By Rose Patterson*
This week schools will be nervously awaiting their new decile ratings based on latest Census data.
Some schools will get higher decile ratings which means less money.
Others will get more money but lower decile ratings, which might influence what parents think of those schools (even though decile has nothing to do with school quality).
But there are bigger questions to ask about how much the decile system, and whether our education system in general does provide the educational opportunities for children who need it the most.
There is no doubt, many children do start off on the back foot.
Pro state-welfare advocates say that increasing welfare payments would provide children with their immediate material needs, desirable in and of itself but also necessary to learn and achieve.
The anti-welfare brigade think that in the long term, what should be a safety net in times of desperate need can turn into a sticky web, and can entrench people further into the cycle of poverty.
The welfare debate is a thorny one, but there is an area of policy that has much more potential for political consensus: education.
Education reformer Horace Mann said “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equaliser of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery”.
Twenty years ago, decile-based funding was introduced to New Zealand schools to provide more educational resources to students from poorer families, recognising the impact that disadvantage has, on balance, for educational opportunity.
Each school has a decile rating of between 1 (the lowest) and 10 (the highest), which reflects the extent to which schools draw their student populations from low socio-economic backgrounds. Decile one have the highest proportion of students from the most deprived backgrounds, based on household income, occupation, crowding, qualifications and income support. Decile ten schools have the lowest proportion of these kids.
But while schools and parents are thinking about their own decile ratings this week, there are some much bigger systemic questions that need consideration.
1) Is decile funding enough?
2) Are there unintended consequences of the decile system?
3) How does it all relate to zoning?
4) Why is New Zealand’s education system not as good as other countries in correcting for socio-economic disadvantage?
5) How much disparity in achievement happens within schools?
We have some partial answers, but more information and debate is needed.
First, while the oft-cited figure is that decile funding accounts for 13% of school funding overall, it’s actually only a measly 3% when you take teacher salary funding into account. Given that teachers are the most important educational resource for student learning, it begs the question whether decile funding is enough. We know nothing about the quality of teachers across the decile system. While higher decile schools tend to employ more experienced teachers, whether that equates to better teaching is debatable.
Second, before even considering if the amount of decile-based funding is enough, what are the unintended consequences of the decile system? Twenty years ago when the decile system started, students were roughly evenly distributed throughout schools by decile. By 2013 however, only 40% of students were enrolled in decile one to five schools, and 60% were enrolled in deciles six to ten.
In other words, parents have come to prefer higher decile schools.Not much is known about whether parents are using decile as an actual proxy for school quality, or whether they are seeking more affluent peers for their children. But the burning question is whether decile is having perverse outcomes. Is this the great decile divide?
Does school zoning hold to NZ’s egalitarian values?
Third is the added complexity of school zoning. While the ideal is that all children get the same access to quality education, if you can afford more expensive property in the better school zones, you can afford a better education for your children. Whether this is holding to New Zealand’s egalitarian values is highly questionable.
Fourth, the OECD has found with its Pisa study that among the high performing education systems, New Zealand is particularly bad at correcting for socio-economic disadvantage. The OECD says New Zealand needs to “provide greater opportunities for socio-economically disadvantaged students to achieve higher performance”.
Fifth, in the same study, New Zealand has a stronger then average relationship between performance and socio-economic status within schools. And, strangely by international standards, the variance in student performance is actually greater within schools than between schools.
This might have something to do with the fact that New Zealand is the number one country in the OECD for streaming secondary school classes by ability; almost all New Zealand secondary schools use streaming for maths classes. Stanford University educational economist Eric Hanushek says that “countries lose out in terms of distribution of outcomes, and possibly also in levels of outcomes, by pursuing such [streaming] policies”. Lower ability kids do better in mixed ability groups, and higher achievers do just as well. Why do New Zealand schools continue to stream by ability?
This week, schools and parents will be concentrating on the new decile ratings and what this means for school funding and reputation, but these are some systemic bigger questions that desperately need to be debated. As a country, we are not doing terribly well at giving every child the same access to a high quality education – the means to do well in life. If we are to tackle child poverty in the long term, regardless of what is done now, educational equity needs a rethink.
The good news is that New Zealanders have a common value: we believe in an excellent equitable education system. That is an excellent common ground for much-needed debate about whether New Zealand is really providing opportunities for all and what can be done about it.
*Rose Patterson is a research fellow at the New Zealand Initiative. The NZ Initiative contributes a weekly column for interest.co.nz.