In the early 1990s schools were provided with a decile ranking based on the socio-economic data on the school community. The intention was to provide more funding to schools where communities lacked financial resources, the lower the decile, the greater the funding. The intention of the ranking was to create greater equity across schools by targeting funding to schools with greater needs, however, it has had the opposite affect.
Recent Ministry of education figures have revealed that low decile schools now have half the number of pakeha children attending them than in 2000, revealing a growing racial divide between high and low decile schools. The reasons are many and cannot simply be described as “white flight”, as many have labeled the movement, but has more to do with income and perceptions of quality.
Maori and Pacifica families dominate the numbers of families on the lowest incomes and tend to live in areas of cheaper housing. Most of our cities have seen greater definition between suburban areas over the last twenty years, where those who have certain incomes and cultural backgrounds tend to live in communities that reflect them. We even have examples of the Government shifting state and low income housing from areas that are becoming more affluent, mixed income communities are not encouraged.
My own experience supports what has happened to New Zealand society, my parents bought a house in south Invercargill in the 1970′s and I attended the local secondary school. The community we lived in was a mixed community with professional people and unqualified workers living beside each other. My secondary school was well regarded for both sporting and academic achievement and a had good mix of cultural backgrounds. Almost forty years later and, after schooling reviews, reorganizations and two name changes, it has become a predominantly Maori/Pacifika school with a declining roll. It is now regarded as the last option for many parents.
School decile rankings have been mistakingly used as an indication of quality and this has been supported by the real estate industry where a quick search will find advertisements that promote areas for their proximity to “top schools“. The 1991 National Government removed zoning to allow parents to shift their children to the schools perceived as better than others and schools had the ability to skew enrollments to suit themselves. Since the return of zoning “popular” schools have the ability to ballot spaces for children outside their zone but they tend to use discriminating criteria, like a past family connection, that is able to exclude many children according to their family background.
The quality of teaching in low decile schools is generally very high as their teachers need to be highly skilled to meet a range of needs and accommodate diverse cultural backgrounds. Low decile schools offer rich and stimulating learning environments but do have many challenges to overcome. Boards of Trustees in in less affluent communities do not have the same levels of expertise as more affluent communities where those with professional skills can oversee the likes of building maintenance and finance.
Although low decile schools receive greater funding, affluent schools have more effective fundraising and expect parents to provide larger donations. Although public schools cannot charge fees there is much pressure placed on families to pay the donations and children are sometimes excluded from activities or trips if the “donations” haven’t been paid. I know of struggling parents who have automatic payments going to their schools to minimize the stress of large bills and some struggling families even end up shifting their children to a lower decile school because the level of donations are beyond their means.
The current Government talks about the need to raise achievement in our Maori and Pasifika children and have implied that poor teaching is a major factor in underachievement. When many of our low decile schools are predominantly Maori or Pasifika this creates an impression that such schools are plagued by poor teaching. In reality many of these schools have great ERO reports and provide excellent learning environments. The fact that this Government is targeting low decile communities for their flawed Charter Schools and learn in the job teacher training schemes is concerning when neither experiment would be contemplated for an affluent community.
While the decile system was an attempt to create greater equity across poor and affluent communities it has instead highlighted differences and has made them more pronounced. Our urban communities are becoming less diverse and we now see communities divided and informally segregated according to income and race. The Spirit Level provided evidence to show that the more economically divided a nation is, the greater the likelihood of negative social and economic outcomes. We need to address the growing disparities between our communities and a review of our school decile ranking system should be part of that.