Auckland Grammar School is often in the news for the wrong reasons. It is a state school in central Auckland with an awful, and well-deserved, reputation for elitism.
This time the school is opposing proposed changes to enrolment policies which would mean the children of former pupils would not necessarily be able to attend the school – they would have to go into a ballot with other boys from outside the school’s zone.
This is an outrage to school headmaster (sic) Tim O’Connor who rails against the proposal and is urging his school old boy community to get involved with this consultation process, and “just keep making submissions until the system blows up.”
So what’s the problem?
School zoning was abolished in the 1990s and schools were told they had to compete for students in the “marketplace”. The result was an explosion in the rolls of high-decile schools and a dramatic slump in rolls of low-decile schools. Government funding was prioritised for schools with growing rolls so the schools in the wealthiest communities thrived with new buildings while middle and low decile schools literally crumbled which in turn further fed parental assumptions about “good schools” and “bad schools”.
Needless to say when schools were left to make decisions about which students to accept they chose the whitest and the brightest (aside from enough Maori and Pasifika students for a couple of champion rugby teams). Meanwhile schools like Auckland Grammar were frequently fingered for turning away students living close to the school who the school thought might detract from the image the school wanted to project in the community.
Instead of parents choosing the school they wanted, it was schools who chose the students they wanted while parents lost the option of their children attending their local school.
The enormous cost of funding this “parent choice” and the refusal of schools to accept local students resulted in National putting in changes in the late 1990s to ensure a student could attend a reasonably convenient local school.
Subsequent policy changes under Labour have given back a parent’s right to send their child to their local school but maintained their right to seek a place in another school if that school had a place available. If more students applied than places available then the school would be required to conduct a ballot. However, schools like Auckland Grammar lobbied hard to reduce the number of students selected by ballot so the following groups of students can be accepted before a ballot is held.
- students accepted into a special programme run by the school (like a formal rugby or netball academy);
- siblings of current students;
- siblings of former students;
- children of former students;
- children of board employees and board members;
- all other students.
(It’s easy to see how the top rugby players from South Auckland – and those top in other sports are fitted in at high decile schools).
The government is proposing removing the fourth point from this list which would give more places in the ballot for out-of-zone students. This is anathema to Auckland Grammar.
The conduct of ballots themselves is a real worry. There have been many stories of schools holding a ballot for a limited number of places based on the school saying they are not sure how many of their in-zone students will enrol. Later they hold a second ballot to fill additional places to which the families of “desirable” students are quietly invited to take part in while other families remain in the dark.
This important thing to remember is when Auckland Grammar launches its campaign to “blow up” the system it is driven by self-interest rather than the common good.
If we are serious about maximising parental choice the government should drop the list of exceptions above and have the Ministry of Education conduct all balloting.