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Rich schools, poor schools

The idea was very simple.  Open up schools to ‘parent power’, and educational failure would disappear.  Fuelled by the threat of the loss of students, schools teaching failing kids would up their game to attract students, or would fail. 

Coming from the dulcet tones of Labour Prime Minister David Lange, it all sounded so rational.  The trouble is, the formula failed to factor in the national and international trends that, whatever the notion and whatever the group, lower socio-economic groups have significant barriers to educational success. 

What is the strongest indicator of educational success in New Zealand?  That’s easy!  It is the number of books in the home.  Those with less than 10 books are pretty guaranteed to be down the bottom, while those that come from book rich families (500 or more) have a free ticket to educational achievement.  The average learning gap between the bottom and the top groups at age 15 is more than three years, according to the OECD’s PISA studies. 

From day one of Tomorrow’s Schools, as discovered in every research project that has ever been done on school choice, parents have chosen ‘up’.  In qualitative studies they say things like “I want to send my child to a school with other children like mine”.  While they mean in terms of values, the effect is a socio-economic and ethnic profiling of choice. 

Over a quarter of a century, the choosing ‘up’ had radically reshaped the schooling system in New Zealand.  Lower decile schools have got smaller and smaller, while higher decile schools have increased in size.  The graph shows what has happened over the years to school numbers by decile. 

If a quarter of a million children currently live in poverty, they populate the equivalent of the whole bottom 35% of schools, because lower decile schools are so much smaller than higher ones. (Of course, children in poverty, while concentrated in low decile schools, are in schools at all socio-economic levels). 

The change has also been ethnic in nature.  In the average decile one school today, five children out of every ten are Māori, four are Pasifika and a quarter of a child is Pakeha.  I have called the process of white children moving away from low decile schools ‘white flight’, although I have been accused of deliberately using an emotional term for this! 

The positional change for pakeha is shown in the graph below. In an ethnically equal system, the line should be flat at the 10 percent level – 10 percent of all pakeha students should attend schools in each decile, all else being equal.  Note that between the two periods, the number of pakeha students has dropped significantly in decile 1-4 schools, and has rise significantly in decile 8-10 schools. White flight! 

I have been asked in the media what the educational implications are for those students, predominantly Māori and Pasifika (with a small but significant Māori movement over the period) left behind in low decile schools.  I always start by saying that there is nothing bad about low-decile schools.  They are full of teachers trained to the same standard as teachers in all other schools.  They are often well-tuned to the needs of their communities.  

But, their children (with less than ten books in the home, perhaps) may have significant learning needs. As schools get smaller, they lose teachers and other resources and their finances do not go as far. The additional funding low decile schools get to increase students learning often has to be spent on plugging increasing gaps. As capital works funding is directed to building new facilities in growing high decile schools, low decile schools have been neglected over the years.  While high decile schools have their own problems dealing with increasing demand for places, it is really tough down in low decile struggle street. 

What does it matter?  There are three main implications of these ongoing trends.  There is an imbalance in the size and resources of schools across the socio-economic spectrum that raises additional barriers to learning at the lower decile end.  There is a concentration of Māori and Pasifika in the lower decile schools that may encourage a lack of esteem between ethnic groups, and outright racism on occasions. 

Finally, despite the fact that there is absolutely no research evidence that choosing ‘up’ for any individual child will improve that child’s educational outcomes, our highways and byways are constantly clogged with parents shipping children out of their local communities in search of…. Who knows what.  This is annoying, environmentally unsound and socially damaging.

Guest blogger, Dr Liz Gordon, is the Managing Director of Pukeko Research Ltd