The Decile system should be scrapped in NZ - TOP

The new Education Minister Nikki Kaye has announced a tweak to how schools are funded. It has rightly been welcomed as an improvement over the current decile system by school principals, but it doesn’t go to the heart of the problem afflicting our poorer schools. That problem is the crazy neoliberal idea that getting schools to compete will somehow improve education. There is no evidence this works. In fact, there are signs that it makes things worse. 

The Problem with Deciles

Deciles have become a proxy for school performance in parents’ eyes, when nothing could be further from the truth. When we judge schools or teachers on student performance, we are really judging them on the socio-economic status of their students. Bluntly, rich kids do better than poor ones – not because they are naturally smarter, but because they have access to a whole range of opportunities that poor kids don’t.

So, high decile schools do well because they have a whole lot of rich kids. If we take into account the background of students, poor schools do just as well as the rich ones, but most parents don’t realise that.

Now add into the mix the fact that parents can choose where to send their kids. They will see the “better” school performance of high decile schools, and send their kids there. The result of years of this competition is that the schools serving our poor neighbourhoods are 2.5 times smaller than the ones in rich areas.

You’ve heard of school overcrowding, but did you know schools down the road are empty? The kicker is that moving kids to high decile schools hasn’t improved their performance, but it has harmed the performance of the kids left behind. Our society is worse off, overall.

Risk Rating vs Deciles

We do need some way of providing extra funding to schools, if they have students that need more help. The decile system, which is based on the socio-economic status of the neighbourhood the school is in, has proven to be a blunt tool to do this.

This risk rating system, which looks at the statistical risk of poor performance faced by the children attending a given school, is no doubt superior. The National Government has sweetened the deal by making sure that no school will be worse off.

National is also hoping that the risk rating system will make it more difficult for schools or the media to advertise their socio-economic status. By removing the decile ‘label’, it is felt that this might remove the stigma around low decile schools, and might encourage more people to send their kids there.

The problem is that people tend to find a way to rate schools anyway.

For example, in the UK, they measure it by the percentage of students who receive school lunches. Here, the percentage of at-risk children may eventually become public, or schools could simply be rated on their National Standards and NCEA results, which is pretty much a matter of socio-economic status anyway.

These are all decile systems by proxy.  So, will anything really change?

The Real Solution

The real issue here is having schools compete for students. With this system in place, we will always see people abandoning schools in poor areas and heading for richer areas.

We need to abandon this idea that having schools compete somehow improves education. Looking at the international evidence, it simply doesn’t bear out in reality.

Schools and teachers should collaborate, learning from each other, and work to ensure that every local school is the school of choice.

This competitive model of Tomorrow’s Schools is also incredibly wasteful. Every school – no matter how big – needs its own principal, Board of Trustees, financial accounts and independent audit. It is a crazy waste of resources that could be spent in a much better way. For example, reducing school fees or providing more resources for special education, or student mental health.

Once again, establishment parties fiddle around the edges, while TOP’s Education for Life solution gets to the core of the problem.