Originally published 2012. The Minister of Education announced in 2016 that she proposes to replace decile with a social investment funding approach.
As of October 2012, the Education Review Office will no longer publish the decile rating of a school in its report. This will bewilder parents who believe that quality and decile are the same thing.
Decile has cachet, something that the real estate salesmen and the marketing mavens have made money from. It has class, if you’ll forgive the pun. Once upon a time, if you didn’t send children to the local high school, you were either Catholic, or a snob. I was brought up in a mid-Waikato town at a time when New Zealand was purportedly a ‘classless paradise’, the same rural high school as rich-lister Gareth Morgan. The convent school I attended included Maori children, migrant children from the Netherlands and the UK, many of whom were developing the new dairy farms around the town, and children from the mill communities surrounding Putaruru. Putaruru High School, now decile 3, no longer attracts students from the dairy-farming community around about. Gareth Morgan recently debated the point with Bob Jones: “So all of their kids are getting bused to St Peter’s in Cambridge and not going to Putaruru high schools (sic). So that beautiful mix that was in Putaruru, real cross section of society, is now being polarised by white flight. Even the bloomin’ teachers drive across from Tauranga to teach in that school. What the hell is going on? ” Good question.
We don’t understand decile very well. It’s actually read as a kind of star rating of educational worth. Decile rating for schools began life as administrative tableware. The Ministry of Education could use it to dish out its funding into schools serving poorer communities. Unfortunately, school decile ratings have a scale that runs in the opposite direction to the Deprivation Index (DepIndex2006) used in all other government social agencies: a low decile school reflects a community with high levels of deprivation; a high decile school reflects a community with low levels of social deprivation. Perhaps this confusing connection, high – low, rich – poor, made the decile policy publicly easy to misunderstand.
Decile has also become an ethnicity rating. This is ironic, since ethnicity no longer features as a factor in calculating decile. The number of Pakeha New Zealanders in low-decile schools has halved over the last decade. As middle-class New Zealanders have increased their incomes, their commitment to “community” has shifted. In Auckland, the socio-economic divide has separated out like oil and water. Auckland’s schools sit largely at the extreme ends of the decile range. North Shore and central/eastern Auckland schools are largely decile 8, 9 or 10. South Auckland schools are largely decile 1, 2 or 3. Of the 538 schools in Auckland in 2011, only 150 are in the middle, and they reflect the greatest diversity, chiefly the new-migrant mix of Auckland’s population.
Decile has become a marketing tool. The right school decile is a powerful lever in the housing market – you should purchase wisely and early; being zoned in the wrong market hammers house prices. “Quality” is like buying a T-shirt at the mart or in the high street at Newmarket: they might be identical, but you don’t feel identical when you try it on. The agonies of choosing a school are reflected in the discussions on advice websites for parents and discussion boards. Go to http://www.kiwifamilies.co.nz/articles/school-deciles/ to find:“Hi, My name is Liz and we are moving to Auckland in May of 2012. Our daughter is 11 years old. Could you suggested a god (sic) school for her, please. We’re moving from India. Do you suggest we pick a school first and then find a house in that neighborhood ? any info will be much appreciated. Thanks.” Or Duncan asks:“Hi, what is the effect on student achievement from attending a low decile school?”
The politically correct answer is nil. But when even the Education Review Office publishes decile ratings in its reports on school quality, it is very easy to see why the public thinks there is a connection. Do parents believe their children will get a better education at a higher decile school? Yes, they do.
Decile was meant to address socio-economic disadvantage. It is a “top-up”. Most of a school’s funding comes from “base funding” and “per student” funding. Less than 10% of a school’s funding is decile-related. Rich schools get compensatory income from international students, parent donations, and parent contributions in the form of payments for school activities (like buying their own sports uniforms or laptops).
If decile is not a measure of quality, and it is not a measure of ethnicity, and only 10% of a school’s funding comes via decile, why do we still persist with it? When schools market their decile rating in order to attract students, you know it has moved from being an administrative tool for disadvantage, to becoming a marketing tool for advantage. In a market-based system, decile ratings act to undermine South Auckland schools rather than to support them.
Using decile for marketing undermines government intentions for addressing disadvantage. lt advantages neither high-decile nor low-decile communities in the long run. The future of New Zealand will depend on securing better social outcomes for Maori and Pasifika young people; and that will result from growing community confidence in schools; and harnessing everyone to quality for all. We need better value from government interventions, and more collaborative approaches to growing potential.
The word ‘decile’ needs to go. Although differential funding is an indispensable tool, it is possible to find a replacement system of support that is better aligned with whole-of-community efforts to improve skills and economic and social wellbeing. We need a much more sophisticated approach to addressing education need.
This blog was written in 2012.