National announced it was going to abolish the school decile funding system two years ago. Quite rightly, Labour paused on that policy and reconsidered. Now it has come up with a scheme similar to National’s, using administrative data instead of the census to calculate funding for school disadvantage. Instead of deciles, there will be a score of up to 200, presumably then not ranked into deciles.
The reason given for the change is always that parents use deciles as a proxy for school quality, when in fact they are a measure of the level of disadvantage of the school families as a whole, and this unfairly impacts on poorer schools, which have been getting smaller and smaller for 30 years.
There is a kind of hope that, with the language of decile removed, parents will make better judgements about schools in poor areas. Sorry, but this is faint hope. The reason is that all of the research – yes, all of it – that has looked into why parents choose schools has found that parents make social, not educational, choices in deciding on a school for their children.
In research studies, the sort of things they say are: “I want my children to go to a school with others with the same values”. This means, in the absence of a decile shorthand, parents will just go back to making judgements on the basis of ‘poor’, ‘brown’, ‘gang’, ‘naughty’, ‘don’t push the children to learn’ sorts of judgements. Sorry, but this is what will happen.
The new measurement options are dizzying. We can know a lot about the children living in particular areas. Rooms full of analysts can fine tune exactly how many extra dollars each school needs on the basis of the enormous amount of data pouring out of the Department of Statistics through what is known as the IDI.
It will cost a fortune and yet will barely make a difference to the actual funding that schools receive. The existing measurement system is cheap and has been extremely efficient. The failures of the 2018 census may have put a blip in that system. But isn’t this change just an excuse for a massive expansion in the Ministry of Education’s data division? It is, after all, a National Party policy.
There is only so much one can do with figures. Issues relating to school failure and success are highly complicated and cannot be resolved with better metrics alone. Nor can schools free themselves from the label of failure by abolishing the decile numbers.
Minister Chris Hipkins promised to address the issues of school choice. There is an urgency in so doing, because communities have become increasingly fragmented along class and ethnic lines. This measure does not do this. It simply removes one shorthand number that parents use to choose schools. This will lead to other names, some which are racist and unacceptable, being used instead. For as long as we allow parents to send their children to any school that will have them, for as long as school choice is mandated in our system, very little is going to change.
People are dreaming if they believe that this measure to remove school choice habits will change school choice outcomes. The government desperately needs to bite the bullet and announce that, in the future, children will go to their closest/ easiest to access school, and the government will provide a guarantee of a quality education at all schools.
This may include things like free school lunches in some areas, additional counselling and health services, kaupapa Māori services (and avid readers will know that I have recently called for the compulsory teaching of te reo Māori in all schools) in the poorest areas. We need to do more to achieve the same goals. Everyone, including the poorest communities, need to know that their children will be safe and will receive a world-class education in their local school.
A mingy-mangy data driven model that replaces deciles with something else will not achieve the gains beyond school choice that progressive educators are looking for in our schooling system.
I am disappointed indeed in what Labour has announced today. It is far less than we have been led to believe. This government has raised our hopes of a move beyond neo-liberal policies of choice and competition to a community-oriented approach. But I now wonder if they have the ability to deliver.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.