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Parents' decile choices have widened gap between rich and poor suburbs

Opinion article written by Dave Armstrong, republished from

Some years ago, when we were selling our first house, the real estate agent asked a question: "What decile is the local primary school?"

I had no idea. Was it important? I was assured that for prospective house buyers, the decile number of the local school could be extremely important. I looked it up and the number was quoted to all prospective buyers, whether they had children or not.

Ironically, the school in question had a relatively low decile number but, as I learned later, an excellent reputation among teachers and a very happy parent community.

New Zealanders have been obsessed with school decile numbers and NCEA results for some years.

And most of the time it has been a wasted effort. "Decile is not destiny," said former education minister Hekia Parata at a meeting I attended years ago, and she was dead right.

The trouble is, the damage had been done by the time the National Party realised, a couple of years ago, that the decile system was, at best, a blunt instrument to deliver equity in education. It didn't help that ministers like Parata talked of a 'failing tail' or a "bottom 20 per cent'' that everyone automatically, and wrongly, assumed was all decile 1 and 2 schools.

While some parents go to great lengths to get their child into a "high-decile school", most don't know how deciles are worked out.

As the PPTA (Post-Primary Teachers Association) points out, the decile system "concentrates only on the distribution of the bottom 20 per cent of students across schools and is not an accurate reflection of the actual needs of students in any school. Two schools with the same decile could have quite significantly different student profiles, needs and local resources."

Can you have a situation where there are poor kids at high-decile schools? Definitely. And better-off kids at low-decile schools? Absolutely.

It's not just teachers who see the faults in the decile system. Business lobby group The New Zealand Initiative found in a recent study that "many low-decile schools are some of the top performers in the country".

Author Joel Hernandez found 42 decile 1 and 2 schools outperformed 75 per cent of every other secondary school in the country when evaluated on University Entrance.

The trouble is, if a school has a low decile rating it often loses pupils so is tempted to put much-needed funds into marketing.

The ridiculousness of the decile system was beautifully demonstrated a couple of years back when a prestigious Auckland school heard that it was going to lose its decile 10 rating and become only decile 9. Outraged parents thought the sky was going to fall in.

Therefore, the recent announcement that the Government will abolish the decile system by 2022 at the latest and replace it with an "equity index" that targets real student need is most welcome.

National also supports getting rid of deciles, and claims Labour is simply introducing National's policy two years late.

But will the abolition of deciles change "white flight", "brown flight" and "decile flight" that goes on in New Zealand every day? Of course not. What parent is going to take their kid out of a high-decile school and send them to a low-decile school in a poorer part of town because some expert said it was a great school?

I suspect the terms "high decile" and "low decile" will be used by both parents and media long after the system is abolished.

Yet the failure of the decile system is partly a symptom as well as a cause.

Schools have become lower decile because wealthier people have moved out and poorer people moved in. Since the 1980s, our rich suburbs have become richer and poor suburbs poorer.

The way schools accept enrolments hasn't helped the situation either. The ridiculousness of school zoning is plain to see in Wellington. If you live in most of Newtown, a stone's throw from decile 10 Wellington College, you are not "in zone". But if you live in Karori, a good 6km away, you are. Thank goodness we've got an excellent electric bus system to transport all those students.

Imagine if our school zones were truly circular? Think how much needless travel could be avoided if students attended the nearest school. Imagine if secondary students in Kelburn, Karori and Stokes Valley went to school in walking distance of Kelburn, Karori and Stokes Valley? Think of the emissions it would eliminate. Think of the traffic congestion  it would reduce. Think of the energy it would save. Think of the millions of dollars of value that would fall off house prices in Wellington's equivalent of the Grammar Zone. Think of the stink that outraged homeowners would make. Think of the seat that Grant Robertson would lose.

If only Wellington had thousands of young people interested in looking at ways to reduce emissions and improve the city's contribution to mitigating climate change. Perhaps they could go on strike in order to change the city's wasteful and emitting school zoning system.


This article has been republished from Stuff. Click here to read the original article:



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