Dr Liz Gordon – The definitive guide to NOT scrapping school deciles


A National MP called Erica Stanford has had a private member’s bill pulled out of the hat that calls for school decile funding to be replaced by something called the social investment approach.  

This was one of National’s policies, and I am not sure where the government stands on it.  Although I do know that the Ministry of Education are still working on it. I am strongly opposed to it and in this column I am going to explain why.  I will do so by debunking three myths about the decile system and then considering the politics.

Claim #1: The decile funding system is clunky, a blunt instrument and unfair

I can remember when this system came in. I heard a conference paper on it.  Essentially what he said was that funding would be derived from the census using 5 or 6 indicators and based on where students lived. The results were updated with each census. In short, it used the same indicators as all the other calculators of deprivation that we have.  

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It replaced an old, clunky system that used around 160 indicators, some of which were unclear, many of which went out of date like a flash as children moved around.

In short, the decile funding system is based on accurate indicators of deprivation, showing only small movements over the years.  It is easy to calculate and accurate. What’s not to like?


Claim #2: The decile funding system leads to schools being stigmatised and unfairly judged

It is true that the decile a school is in for funding purposes (deciles 1-10) tends to be used by families as a shorthand for school quality.  Deciles are not a reflection of school quality, of course, but a shorthand for the socio-economic and ethnic characteristics of the families at the school.  

Before deciles, there were still judgements of this kind, amounting often to quite offensive descriptions of the children at a school.  Words such as poor, brown, trouble, dirty, gang… I don’t want to go on, but you know what I mean. In short, deciles have done nothing but attach a new label to existing prejudices.

Is Erica Stanford, a completely unknown National MP, thinking that the stigma and discrimination against poor schools is going to disappear once decile funding is replaced?  Is this newbie so naïve?


Claim #3: Is the so-called ‘social investment’ approach a better way?

Just for the sake of certainty – I am very familiar as a researcher with this approach and am a user of the IDI system the provides these measures.  Basically, the Ministry will use cross-government ‘real’ data to examine each of the children at a school for a range of personal characteristics and will provide additional funding on the basis of these.

In a 2016 report, Treasury suggested that four key indicators of disadvantage might be: child abuse notifications, parental sentencing, more than 2/3 of the child’s lifetime in a benefit-led family and mother’s highest educational qualification. I know that the Ministry has been looking at others. A multiplier effect comes in to play – children with multiple indicators of disadvantage will get more funding.

There are major, major problems with this model that have not been resolved.  All of you will have noticed the potential Orwellian aspects of using such personal information, even in aggregated form, for social policy purposes.

The unknown Erica puts her foot really badly in it when she says:

While it won’t be possible to identify the children that generate the funding, I have confidence that principals and teachers will know which young people need support.

And, of course, so will everyone else!  Is she suggesting that it would be nice to be able to identify each individual child, perhaps put a wee brand on their forehead?

Also, the getting of the data is an ongoing nightmare.  Putting together and maintaining and reading multiple databases about all of us (more than 5 million records) is immensely complex and hard to get right.  And will need to be done over and over again. A large department of the Ministry will be required to crunch the numbers and track all the kids through education.  And, for technical and social reasons (e.g. many kids have a father in prison but because he is not on the birth certificate, this is not known), accuracy will always be questionable.

Apart from the sinister connotations, there are practical ones. People change schools very frequently. This is especially true in lower decile schools.  If you base funding on individuals, either you move the funding as the children move in and out of schools, causing huge uncertainty from day to day for the school, or you leave the funding in place for a period of up to a year when the neediest kids may be long gone.

Oh yes, and have I mentioned that the current simple system is so powerful that it is very likely that all the minute corrections needed to achieve individual funding will probably provide little change overall from the funding that schools get now? All this for nothing!


The politics of all this

So, some National ex-Cabinet Minister has tossed a newbie backbencher to the wolves by getting her to front it in parliament.  Why would they bother? It’s just funding, isn’t it?

Well, not really.  Actually, it’s about individual funding, and in particular providing a voucher that expresses the dollar value of each person according to their educational needs.  The next step in having a voucher system is to make it portable, not only across state schools but in the private sector too. That is what Milton Friedman proposed in the 1950s and it is still a mark of the true believer anti-statist neo-liberal.  So, it is all about the politics and breaking down public/private barriers. Oh yes, and tossing more money, via costed individuals, to the tiny and struggling private school sector.

Why else would they push out a simple, dependable system and replace it with a complex one fraught with issues of privacy, a creepy whiff of the state knowing more about you than it should, and having to increase state expenditure on funding systems, by tracking every child every year on a wide range of indicators? (Sorry about the long sentence).

I haven’t really even got time to mention that if school deciles go, researchers like me will have no yardstick against which to measure the social effects of years of school choice, which are dire.  It becomes about individuals, not inequality and social deprivation.

The coalition government needs to toss the funding of schools into the mix of the overall education review and strongly oppose Ms. Stanford’s bill.


Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research.  Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).


  1. The entire school system needs to be trashed and replaced.
    It is an ineffective brainwashing tool that does not encourage healthy
    and creative and happy people of all ages. Big corporate greed has taken over
    and helped destroy the health and integrity of learning institutions.

    The greed behind the education system — ( and prison systems – etc. ) has crippled them and they are broken beyond repair. They, I believe for the most part, do not contribute towards creating happy and healthy societies.

    In the coming year – many systems will be put under the microscope and big changes are in store for the good of all.

    The education system has failed the majority and teachers are burnt out and kids mostly despise going to school. It needs – many of us feel – not a massive overhaul but a complete end of what does not work to give way to a learning system that is healthy and good and enjoyable so that kids love to go to school instead of hating it. The end of art and music classes was the beginning of the death of creativity and this needs to be changed right away. Less computer labs and more art and music rooms is a very good start. Things will start to get better in 2018 because we are in for some serious DISCLOSURE of the truths denied us.

  2. Lots of people go to the same school their parents went to (3 gens in my case) so that means if a school does well and helps their girls get higher qualifications then if their children go to the same school then they will be worse off funding-wise.

    The perverse incentive is to give girls an inferior education.

    • This ignores the whole point of the decile system, which is to fund the school to provide the same level of education provided in the homes of more affluent families, where there are more likely to be more books, two parents who can tutor (or even private tutoring) and so on. Yes, schools whose more affluent students have high achievement from generation to generation will lose out on hand-up funding, so that the public school system can give schools with economically underprivileged students the hand-up funding they need to give those students a chance of reaching the same achievements.

  3. 100% agree with this view so well articulate by Dr Gordon.

    Furthermore, our low decile schools need much more funding than present to even start to close the gaps in terms of resources compared to high decile schools.

    The idea that we have equal opportunity in NZ via state education is laughable. A quick walk around a school like Hillmorton or Hornby in
    Christchurch compared to Burnside will disabuse you of any notion that rich and poor kids have the same access to quality facilities.

    Furthermore low decile schools need much more staffing and lower pupil to teacher ratios to deal with the extra work that educating a poor community entails.

    I would also add a radical solution to the mix. We have educational segregation in NZ via real estate. Let’s be honest. All NZ children should be educated in schools with the same mix of backgrounds to be given an equal chance. Why should only poor kids have to be taught in an environment where disruption is rife and facilities are poor? We should allocate families places in schools within reasonable geographic distances from home based on ballot. So Auckland Girls’ and Epsom Girls’, Linwood and CGHS/GBHS end up with the same socio-economic mix. Maybe a few more buses would be involved but the poor kids would get the benefit of the educational values espoused by their middle class peers and the rich kids learn to interact with people from different cultures and learn that skiing holidays in the Dolomites are not normal.

    Where you can afford to live should not determine the quality of the education you receive. Talk away parental choice and zones and replace with random allocation.

    I know this will never happen. It would be too fair. The meritocratic free marketeers don’t really believe in equal opportunity when it comes to their own children.

  4. Well said Dr Gordon!

    The Natz are dead keen to get the ‘individualised’ funding system going so they can ‘share’ it with the private sector in charter schools for example.

    While the decile system is not ideal, it is FAR worse to have one attached to individual children and is really just a way to privatise education in the future.

    How about funding schools at levels so they offer a consistent level of teaching and actually take away so many of the pastural care issues for teachers and have social workers or the like working at the schools for the kids that need it so teachers are free to teach.

    One of the best ways to reduce poverty is to increase educational outcomes. Having the best teachers offering the best curriculum across ALL of NZ schools is the best way to achieve that.

    Also feel that the modern way of teacher has swung too far towards too individualised learning and this has meant that difficult kids are actually getting a worse education than previously because under the unfashionable ‘rote’ learning model every kid learn’t the same curriculum and therefore had the same chances to learn the same information.

    Now they don’t. There’s a type of streaming going on, and it’s not good and actually advantages the kids who are already advantaged and gives a second class education to those who don’t make the measures at the right times.

    If a child is identified as being behind, they are given less work, less attention and actually are falling further behind in most cases. The opposite of what should be happening in which they receive more help to catch up.

    In Finland they do not allow kids to fail, the teachers are trained to catch the kids up, not just blame the kid and give them less work and attention because they are labeled difficult or dumb.

    Our international league tables are showing our kids are falling behind internationally in particular after National standards which have been abolished, but the rot is still there, and this needs to be remedied.

    • “Also feel that the modern way of teacher has swung too far towards too individualised learning and this has meant that difficult kids are actually getting a worse education than previously because under the unfashionable ‘rote’ learning model every kid learn’t the same curriculum and therefore had the same chances to learn the same information.”

      Spot on comment.

      I encourage all parents to ask their 11 year olds to add two three digit numbers and to add two fractions with different denominators or divide 426/6. You will be surprised how poor our Maths education is in NZ. The MLEs and inquiry-based and invidualised programmes are bad for most kids in terms of them not actually learning much and especially disadvantage kids who don’t have parents at home who can close the gaps in knowledge or pay for expensive tutoring. There is a private tutoring industry out there for a reason.

      • Asking 11 year olds to add two three digit numbers and to add two fractions with different denominators or divide 426/6 will tell you if they can add two three digit numbers and add two fractions with different denominators or divide 426/6.

        It doesn’t necessarily tell you what they know, what they can do, what sort of people they are and what sort of lives they’re going to lead in the world.

        • I’d say it’s a pretty good indicator of whether a child has a chance in STEM when they’re older and a good indicator of potential social mobility – something sadly lacking in NZ education these days.

          The problem today is that middle class kids get that knowledge at home or in private tutoring.

          Our skills based curriculum is disadvantaging those who don’t come from middle-class homes.

          Knowledge is power. Our schools fail working class kids in this regard with the best of intentions.

        • I guess we not only want good and interesting kids, but also kids that are capable of getting enough education so that they can function in society.

          I’m not sure many modern kids in NZ are getting enough of an education to succeed and that’s new. NZ used to have an enviable education system in the 1970’s and now falling behind other countries.

          Essentially as a parent you pretty much have to fill in all the gaps or pay someone else to do it.

          Another issue in NZ is the government seems to be more interested in the real estate of schools above the teachers. In neoliberal style, there seems to be the idea that buildings and computers are more important that the teachers or the curriculum.

          Another part of the rot is that the board are not educationalists anymore. They are not even normal people, as often now you are getting accountants and lawyers on the board and trying to run the schools like businesses. The people running on boards are the type of people who like to be on boards and think it’s good on their CV and have a particular view point. The board picks the principal and the principal runs the schools. There is a narrowing of ideas and too much power put into the hands of people who know nothing about education but do know how to save a dollar or bill exorbitant fees, which is not really the point of primary and secondary schools!

          Because of the boards having too much power it is now pretty much hit and miss to how good they are going to be and the decisions that they make.

          As well as that it is not the class sizes or how good the teachers are, there seems to be a neoliberal 21st disease that seems to be producing the IYI (intellectual yet idiots) there seems to be a lack of practicality in both the curriculum and how it’s taught.

          In the previous generations, even the least academically minded could write beautifully. So a builder or butcher could write. Now kids can’t. They can’t spell too good either. Same gaps in reading and maths. Yes I know that everyone thinks computers will take over, but in my view there is a correlation between a lot of NZ kids not being able to read, write or spell anymore and this idea that it’s no longer necessary because computers will take over which is this dream of neoliberals so that then you can abandon schools and just have kids at home learning on line.

          In the old days there was handwriting, spelling, oral language, written language, reading. All of these contributed to literacy. Now out of thin air kids are supposed to automatically know all of that and use a computer. You actually have to be literate to use a computer!

          God knows what is going on in Maths. They just don’t seem to get equations anymore, it’s all literacy based maths and not much of it either. Rather than just leaning skills of equations AND then applying them into concepts. To my mind, it’s the wrong way around. Then you get the weird stuff, like the Year 3 maths that was so complicated and impractical (answer was something like 30.5 dogs) that of course it’s turning the kids off maths. Kids automatically know you don’t have .5 of a dog at the pet show but not the mathematicians dreaming up this crap for small children!

          Educationalists need to go back and recreate the Literacy based subjects in early primary that they were using 30 years ago.

          Maybe 60% of the old rote learning style and 40% of the modern free style.

          At least 50 years ago most NZ kids were literate when they hit the end of primary. By trying to make it interesting and fun, the modern way of training teachers are doing the opposite, making it complicated and confusing. Now it’s hit or miss how well kids can do any of it and a significant amount of kids can’t. Something is wrong!

          • Amen. You are so right. Rrogressive stuff has done nothing but create dumbed down citizenry and reinforced inequality. Big con.

    • “… have social workers or the like working at the schools for the kids that need it so teachers are free to teach.”

      Hear, hear SaveNZ. The Greens launched a policy some years back on establishing holistic health hubs based at schools, to identify and address both physical and social problems that might prevent a child from learning. In many ways, a return to the old days where every school had access to a health nurse, dental nurse, and regular checking of vision, hearing etc, so that any health issues could be caught early and resolved. I’d love to see Labour+NZ First pinch this policy and implement it ASAP:

      • +1 – NZ used to have one of the best education systems in the world. Rogernomics changed that in the 1980’s.

        We need to go back and do what we did 30 – 50 years ago, for pastural care and education and then do that for about 60% of the curriculum aka old style when teachers taught from a work book supplied by the ministry and then add in 40% creativity, individual projects, music, art, drama and so forth.

        The balance is wrong in our education system.

        NZ seems to have a complete disconnect between an incredibly unstructured education system where kids can do what they like at school and coast along and literally learn nothing in spite of being tested constantly. It’s bizarre!

        Then go into a workforce that is punitive and full of rote tasks with little security even if you are very well educated. It’s a massive culture shock.

        There is a complete disconnect between our education and our actual low wage or uncreative employment opportunities. Job offers these days are increasingly based on immigration scams or nepotism and hiring people who spend more time defrauding than working but still somehow keep getting employed in high roles.

        You can be creative, but there is little industry to support creative people in NZ. In fact companies don’t want people who can think for themselves. They want to employ a safe set of hands, which seems to be someone who pretty much does nothing but keep costs down. Then suddenly the company will just go under overnight because companies can’t operate like that and stay in business for long. They have to change and innovate.

        Huge disconnect between education and working in terms of desired skills.

        I’d say our workforce focus and attitude is actually worse that our educational one though in terms of long term survival.

        • In fact I’d say the only reason that NZ is still doing ok educationally is because we have an very high standard of teachers.

          The Natz final solution was to break that down via performance pay and break the teachers unions so that teachers could all ‘compete’ against each other.

          Cos that works soooo well (sarcasm) as we can see from our dysfunctional industry and productivity statistics and the daily frauds and scams of our business industry executives and owners when money becomes a motivator for success.

          Most of the decisions from both Labour’s Rogernomics and National’s privatisation have been to defraud our kids of a decent education and remove power from teachers and put the money into the hands of the managerial class who do not understand the purpose of education.

  5. Putting together and maintaining and reading multiple databases about all of us (more than 5 million records) is immensely complex and hard to get right. And will need to be done over and over again.

    It’d take a few weeks and that would mostly be in consultation and design. Once the data-warehouse was done it’d stay there and all that would be needed would be to run the queries whenever the information was needed.

    So, no, large government department not needed. Or, to be more precise, Stats could handle it easily.

    BTW, 5 million records is pretty much tiny in today’s computing environment. Facebook does a hell of a lot more with billions of records.

    So, it is all about the politics and breaking down public/private barriers. Oh yes, and tossing more money, via costed individuals, to the tiny and struggling private school sector.

    Yep. Pure National – looking to find ways to divert government monies into government guaranteed profit for their donors.

    I haven’t really even got time to mention that if school deciles go, researchers like me will have no yardstick against which to measure the social effects of years of school choice, which are dire. It becomes about individuals, not inequality and social deprivation.

    Which National would view as a Good Thing.

    Real information tends to prove them wrong after all.

  6. “It’d take a few weeks and that would mostly be in consultation and design. Once the data-warehouse was done it’d stay there and all that would be needed would be to run the queries whenever the information was needed.”

    I wouldn’t bet on this. The final queries would be fairly simple once the data was in the databases might be simple if the system was well designed. But aggregating all the relevant data for a system like Dr Gordon describes and keeping it up-to-date would not be a one-off task. Novopay dealt with a simple and fairly repetitive dataset, representing a much smaller number of people. Remember how many weeks that took to get right, and how much the public paid for the privilege of being dicked around by the incompetent contractors that the job was given to?

    • Remember talent 2!! One of the biggest database disasters. Then WINZ terminals that had no privacy.

      The government IT disasters are legendary.

      There is nothing competent about the ministry of education and IT!

      Someone I know was just saying they saw a person they knew just hired for high end IT at the ministry of Ed and described them as ‘a waste of space’ who didn’t know a thing and had actually coasted along on other people’s work and somehow made IT management without knowing anything. That is the caliber of people.

      To employ people these days you need to actually know what you are doing. They problem is we have too many monkey’s hiring other monkey’s to try to create Shakespeare.

      Competent IT at the ministry is not gonna happen under those circumstances. And I don’t want millions wasted for a IT experiment that siphon’s money from children’s funding, to create harmful and incompetent IT systems.

      • The thing with technological pyramids is it can pull up talent that’s just looking for a pay day. I believe the education system should follow your talents and to create environments so that talent can grow where you can become a good developed personality as opposed to the teach and test culture we have now. In the very early stage you have think about what you want to do as a job and for me that was about being a good person and what’s most fulfilling in my life, and these are economic principles that try and figure out how we can be useful for others and for ourselves.

        In my opinion it’s not honest earning more money doing simple things rather than doing more useful things like teaching or nursing. So in my opinion if you want to do something useful first start to learn something useful.

        Top down change benefits the schedule, so the whole curriculum is designed to fit with in a budget that is admin focused rather than what is student focused. But because of the schedule p, no one thinks to question the schedule and errors remain apart of the curriculum. So I think that the first part of the day should be scheduled around students needs and then after see if the teachers break can be the same as student interval at 10:30 or 11:00. The awareness of student needs and being a bit more fixable with other things is about questioning everything.

        Defensive leaders would see this as a nightmare. In my experience leaders are very open or defensive, nothing in between. And this is not difficult to close the gap between teachers and management because there are big frustrations with in the education community. If you use the language of teachers instead of management language and find ways to let teachers do there work the way they want to do work then things will change.

        When you have data driven solutions, money managers are not open about money flows and they save money for there own pet projects. To do this everybody has to work faster, productivity has to increase and no is ever open about why savings have to be made. So we have to save while every one is being stressed out to do big IT projects that are meant to save money and this drives IT cost blow outs.

        I think in general the economic perspective is to dominant. So if you work in education, health, police force it’s very important that the craftsmanship is leading tested people in what they are doing. But if you look at the last 30 years the minister of finance is leading every other ministry and what we are seeing is that the CFO (finance officer) types of ministries and departments are steering a lot of policy. There fore moving forward in every way we must work with and drag up higher and higher quality staff and work in a structure where teachers become happy by the way the education system is organised. And the system should use IT in away that the system doesn’t have so many overheads. So using IT to reduce over head costs with out a management structure. Imagine floating this to Bill English. It would have been way to risky.

  7. it will provide many more jobs for the untrusting managerial accountancy based style of governance.

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