Many in the education sector believe the decile system isn’t working. Even the Minister of Education calls it “a blunt instrument”, and says she’d like to ditch it. Exactly what’s wrong with deciles, and can they be fixed? asks ELIZABETH McLEOD.

The Minister of Education Hekia Parata declined to be interviewed for this article, and has refrained from predicting what shape her planned review of the decile system might take. However, in a written statement she stresses “it would need to be done alongside the profession and sector groups”.

Last November, as decile ratings were reset for the first time in seven years, Parata told Radio New Zealand’s Kathryn Ryan she thought deciles should go, “because they are wrong, they’re inaccurate”.

The decile system aims to level the playing field by providing extra funding for schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students to reflect the higher costs of educating them. Decile 1 schools get up to $905 per student, while decile 2 schools get around half that, decile 3 schools up to $350 and decile 10 schools no extra funding at all.

Despite popular perceptions, a school’s decile rating doesn’t represent the overall socioeconomic mix of the families attending that school. It indicates only the proportion of its students who come from the poorest, lowest-skilled and least-educated 20 per cent of households – but tells us nothing about all the other families at that school.

Why is this a problem? Firstly, it’s a crude indication of need: not all children in low-decile schools are poor, and high-decile schools have poor kids.

Secondly, a school’s socioeconomic mix directly impacts on its capacity to attract ’locally-raised funds’ – which include school donations, fundraising and fee-paying international students.

“The decile funding is only a small proportion of what goes into schools,” says Papatoetoe High School principal Peter Gall. “In high socioeconomic areas, schools have far more cash available to them than anywhere else in the system. We’ve got high-decile secondary schools in Auckland with huge numbers of international students – 300-odd in a couple. They bring millions of dollars into their school community.”

A 2013 NZEI survey of five decile 10 and five decile 1 primary schools found the high-decile schools’ total funding (including locally-raised) averaged $1,000 more per student than the poorer schools’.

Not only can low-decile schools not ask for large donations – they’re much less likely to receive any at all. Hamilton’s Insoll Avenue School asks for $10 a term, “and probably about 25 per cent [of families] pay,” says principal Linda McCabe.

By contrast, some high-decile primary schools in leafy suburbs ’request’ annual donations of up to $475 to offset their lack of decile funding.

Meanwhile, mid-decile schools get hit at both ends; not only do they attract less decile funding, but they miss out on programmes aimed at low-decile schools, including social workers in schools, Duffy Books, and KidsCan food, shoes and raincoats.

Then there’s the stigma. Papatoetoe principal Peter Gall believes “the overt labelling of schools by socioeconomic factor is the worst thing we do in our education system. It’s led to all sorts of unintended consequences.”

Not the least of these consequences is the use of decile ratings as a shorthand, erroneously, for quality. Some schools – and real estate agents – use them as a marketing tool.

McCabe says people visit her school “and say ‘oh it’s lovely’, and they get a real surprise when they find out we’re a decile 1. And then they become quite tentative and say ‘not sure I want to come here’.” Some then head for the decile 3 school further away.

Gall says low-decile high schools have trouble attracting international students because the overseas agents recruiting them fixate on decile. “They’re not interested at all in how good a job your school is doing.”

A 2013 NZCER survey of 1477 secondary school parents found that 40 per cent sent their children to a secondary school that wasn’t their closest school – usually a higher-decile one.

“White flight” allegations have been around for years, but were lent some credence by the New Zealand Herald’s revelation last November that the number of Pakeha in decile 1-4 schools has nearly halved since 1996.

However Parata is “determined to protect” parents’ rights to choose schools. Parents need to be educated in how to assess quality, rather than just looking at decile, she says, and the Public Achievement Information data on the Ministry’s Education Counts website is helping with this.

What are the alternatives?

The Minister won’t be drawn on what she’s considering, saying she has nothing to add to what she’s already said publicly.

What she’s said seems ambiguous. Parata told Radio New Zealand any new system needs to be “both needs-driven and outcomes-focused”. She wants to add the greater data now available – including factors like CYFS notifications, transience and truancy – to the existing socioeconomic data, to build a more detailed profile of schools and target resources better.

But she’s clear this targeting will no longer be just about identifying need.

“I’m much more interested in ‘how do we get a really good set of indicators that create a dashboard for a school to tell a fuller story about how well they’re educating their kids’ – other than simply ‘this is the level of need, therefore the funding we get somehow is correlated with the quality of teaching and learning’.”

Parata caused a furore last March when she appeared to suggest to the Herald on Sunday she was considering linking differential funding to student achievement.

She’d looked overseas and “the systems that have been most successful in closing the equity-excellence gap are the ones that have strongly incentivised a focus on ‘what difference have I made in my teaching and learning in this six-month period?’ Not just ‘what’s the final result?’”

She subsequently distanced herself from the comments, saying in Parliament “there are a number of options available to us, and those will be the options we will be looking at once we undertake the review”.

Parata has expressed interest in the top-performing systems of Shanghai and Singapore – both of which feature performance pay. However, neither country bases this on quantified student progress. Instead, both have sophisticated incentives that promote teacher development, rather than punishing poor performance.

The Government’s Investing in Education Success (IES) initiative certainly seems to be more along these lines; however, Shanghai and Singapore haven’t linked their teacher capacity-building with school funding in the way Parata is possibly contemplating.

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association’s Angela Roberts would be “very nervous” if funding levels hinged on achievement.

“We’ve seen how that has absolutely decimated the American public education system: if you don’t do well enough in the national assessments, you lose funding. It’s not working because teachers are only teaching to the test.”

However, Parata talks about measuring “progress” rather than simply “achievement”. It may be she’s considering something like Value-added Modelling (VAM), which measures teachers’ contribution by comparing students’ test scores with their previous year’s scores.

VAM has been used controversially in some American states to reward teachers and make teacher retention decisions. (Incidentally, the US continues to achieve mediocre PISA results: out of 64 countries, they rank 36th in maths, 28th in science and 24th in reading).

Roberts believes it’s a positive sign that the Minister wants to have a conversation about a more nuanced way of resourcing schools.  “But ahead of that I’d say ‘you can’t just be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’. There is no fat to trim. Any new model has to recognise that no student or school can be worse off.”

NZEI’s Louise Green observes that the range of data the Ministry now collects may help paint a better picture, “but what about the children who don’t fit into any of that, where their parents are working, but the kids are still poor?”

South Wellington Intermediate School moved from decile 7 to 8 in the latest round. It’s a school that slips slightly through the gaps of the current system; around two-thirds of its students come from affluent Island Bay, while the rest mostly hail from Berhampore and Newtown, which feature some state housing and a large immigrant population (nearby Berhampore School has 20 different ethnic groups).

Board of Trustees chairperson Sylvia Moe says a more detailed profile “would definitely work in our favour. If they looked at us as an individual school and what we’re actually made up of, they’d be resourcing us for our particular needs – and SWIS has particularly different needs because we take in such a range of families.”

Of course, many educators say decile is part of a wider problem; there’s insufficient investment in the whole sector.

NZCER’s 2007 snapshot of primary schools reported 95 per cent of principals said their funding was inadequate to meet their school’s needs.

The latest OECD figures show New Zealand spends far less per student than most comparable countries. In 2010 we spent US$8170 per student per year, compared with Australia ($10,350); the United States ($12,464), Ireland ($11,380); the UK ($10,452).

New Zealand might emulate Australia’s Gonski Report. It recommended that the Government identify a few high-quality schools and use their total resourcing – including locally-raised funds – to set a per-student funding level for schools, with extra loadings for disadvantage including disability, indigenous student numbers and lack of English proficiency.

“There needs to be an absolute minimum – or even better, an optimum level – of funding set,” says Gall.

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