A friend confided in me that she was thinking of sending her children to a decile 7 school in the next suburb rather than the decile 4 school for which her children were zoned. The fact that the decile 7 school would receive less funding fell on deaf ears. She had no knowledge of what either school had to offer, or how well they performed. She knew only the decile ratings. Her hushed tone implied embarrassment – oh the shame of living in a decile 4 community and not two streets over in the decile 7!

Deciles have done this to us. How did a system that was introduced to bring equality to our schools do just the opposite?

The decile system, for all its flaws – and we’ll get to those – actually has its roots in the right soil. The system is essentially about saying to a school, hey, we recognise your students come from a poorer area and are likely to have more obstacles to learning, so we’ll give you more resources to help with this.

It’s a fairly blunt explanation, but then so is the decile system – even labelled as such by the Minister of Education herself. Indeed, Hekia Parata has been public in her desire to introduce a new way of funding schools that better reflects their needs – and this, coupled with a groundswell of dissatisfaction with deciles, has led to the school funding review, now finally underway.

Short history lesson

Deciles made their grand entrance just over 20 years ago. The first stream of funding delivered using the decile mechanism, Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement (TFEA), was introduced in 1995. At first, funding was delivered only to decile 1 to 3 schools but within two years this was extended out to all except decile 10 schools.

Prior to TFEA there were three resources available to schools with a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds: the Equity Grant, the Learning Assistance Allowance, and the Notional Roll for specified schools. Schools were required to apply for these grants annually.

In 2003 there was a rather messy inquiry into decile funding. It began in 2001, but a change of government midway through meant the inquiry was dissolved. It was picked up again by the succeeding government and a report was released by the Education and Science Committee in 2003.

It basically concluded that the TFEA decile model was an improvement on the previous funding system and assisted equity goals. It raised concerns about the effectiveness of the programme, recommending the Ministry of Education conduct research into the extent which the decile programme achieves stated outcomes.

One thing from the inquiry that rang clear was that there was broad support for the notion of targeted funding to address educational under-performance resulting from socio-economic disadvantage. Nearly all submitters stressed that a close relationship between a school’s academic performance and the socio-economic status of its community is an overriding dynamic in academic performance.

So, what’s wrong with deciles then?

In 2008 Professor Martin Thrupp described deciles as “indispensable”. In a New Zealand Herald opinion piece Thrupp argues that decile funding is a means of partly compensating schools for socio-economic disadvantage, which has a direct effect on performance.

He says the decile system makes social inequalities in education harder for governments to overlook and helps to develop a greater understanding of socio-economic status.

Under the current system, schools are assigned a decile rating based on the household information of a random sample of students. This information is from five socio-economic indicators: percentage of households with income in the lowest 20 per cent nationally; percentage of employed parents in the lowest skill level occupational groups; household crowding; percentage of parents with no educational qualifications; and percentage of parents receiving income support benefits.

Decile 1 schools are the 10 per cent of schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities, whereas decile 10 schools are the 10 per cent with the lowest proportion of such students.

Not targeted enough

Many claim the decile system does not represent the actual mix of students and their needs. One school in a middle decile might have as many students requiring special assistance as a small lower decile school. Or two schools in the same decile may have significant differences in the socio-economic mix of their students and therefore very different needs emerging.

Professor Stuart McNaughton says the decile system obfuscates the lived reality of students, their families, their teachers and a school’s communities.

“We need to get behind the social addresses of schools and families to fully understand the processes that contribute to children’s learning and development inside and outside of school. This is needed to check the current arguments that schools can (or can’t) make a meaningful and long-lasting difference to all children’s achievement,” states McNaughton in Te Kuaka (2011).

The misunderstanding and misuse of a number

Arguably the biggest problem with deciles is the way they are perceived and used.

Deciles are often incorrectly interpreted as an indicator of the quality of the education provided at the school. In an education system already fraught with inequality, it is unhelpful to have parents assume that high decile equates to high-quality education or high achievement.

“I am stunned by the misuse and the widespread misunderstanding of the term. Media, schools and parents have loaded the term with meaning that was not intended and does damage to schools with the ‘low decile’ label,” Starpath’s Joy Eaton told Te Kuaka.

Former Papatoetoe High School principal Peter Gall agrees there is a wide degree of ignorance about decile rankings.

“The idea that low decile schools equal a bad school, high decile equals good school seems to be widely accepted.”

These perceptions have turned the decile rating into a marketable indicator of affluence for schools. A few years ago, visiting Fulbright scholar Christopher Lubienski researched this subject and found that many schools are aware of this conflation, and many play on it in their marketing to parents who perceive it as a measure of school quality.

Obviously, the better the decile, the better positioned schools are to gain from any confusion on the matter. Lubienski’s research found that lower decile schools tend not to note their decile ranking on their homepage, while higher deciles have a much greater tendency to trumpet their rankings.

A Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) conference paper in 2013 supported Lubienski’s findings. The paper described how some schools “deliberately seek to influence their intake so that their decile is raised and the school is seen as more successful”.

The Education Review Office (ERO) made the decision several years ago to scrap decile ratings from its school reports in an effort to “correct the stereotype that a school’s decile equals performance” – a decision supported by the Ministry.

What’s the alternative?

While the decile system may be well intentioned, the Ministry certainly acknowledges its flaws and has finally started the process of reviewing funding in schools.

Although the review is in its infancy the Ministry claims, one alternative proposal has leaked its way into the debate.

The proposal suggests giving schools extra funding for each child they enrolled from families with one of four risk factors: long-term receipt of benefits, a mother with no qualifications, a parent who has been to prison, and the child or a sibling being abused. Schools with a concentration of students with risk factors would receive additional funding. The Ministry says about a third of children have at least one risk factor.

Many view basing funding on the circumstances of individual students as an improvement on the current decile system, which approaches the socio-economic status of its students with a much broader brush.

Allan Vester, chair of Secondary Principals’ Council says he supports the proposed alternative, from what he’d seen of it. He noted that under the alternative, if a student moves school or changes from one sector to another then the data on that student moves with them. He told Newstalk ZB that it would likely help to reallocate existing funding more equitably between schools.

However, others are more sceptical of the proposed alternative. Labour’s education spokesman Chris Hipkins takes issue with labelling children with risk factors. He said there was potential under the proposed system to create more inequalities if it is poorly designed.

Auckland University ethics professor Tim Dare, an expert on assessing risk factors for child abuse, believes schools shouldn’t need to know which particular children were at risk, as it might be stigmatising.

“I feel the same about parents too, I don’t see why you’d tell parents,” he told the Herald. “They can ask. But what we need to do is to make sure it doesn’t matter – you are not taking people’s children off them, you are not labelling them as hopeless.”

Otago University social work lecturer Dr Emily Keddell, who has also written on risk models for children, agreed that schools should not be told which children were at risk, however she felt parents should be told, according to the Herald.

Vester told the Herald he sees no reason why the information on individual students would need to be used outside the team doing the funding calculations.

“I would be confident that any model that provides additional funding need not identify or tag students.”

Others believe socio-economic status is visible anyway. PPTA president Angela Roberts says the ‘at risk’ label was unnecessary and says teachers already knew their students’ backgrounds.

Professor Thrupp says that parents also have an inherent understanding of the socio-economic make-up of its community.

“Parents, especially aspirant middle class parents, have long used ‘the grapevine’ to gain a socio-economic ranking of local schools. Deciles often just confirm what parents know about the social geography of their area,” his Herald opinion piece reads.

It seems most are in favour of using socio-economic information to tailor school’s funding. Deciles do this, but in a crude, broad-brush way, and as such are criticised for failing to reflect the actual needs of a school’s student population. Yet, the more tailored alternative that seemingly fills the holes in the decile approach has been criticised for having the potential to single kids out.

We can’t have it both ways. However, if we are to move to a funding system that helps to address inequality in our schools we need to give full consideration to how any replacement system will function. The concerns about stigmatising individuals are certainly valid and should be taken carefully into account.

Real problem is underfunding

Many believe that a new funding system will not solve the root problem: that the sector is underfunded.

Teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa national president Louise Green says the lack of funding is the real problem that schools are facing, not the decile system. She points out that the OECD Education at a Glance 2015 report shows that New Zealand’s annual expenditure per primary student is significantly below the OECD average.

“This doesn’t surprise teachers and principals and it won’t surprise parents who are increasingly being asked to dip further into their pockets as schools ask for bigger and bigger donations simply to stay afloat.

“That’s why the focus on the funding review must address underfunding. Playing with statistics will not fix the problem.”

Allan Vester agrees. Real change would require more funding for schools, including allocating extra staffing to schools with high concentrations of high-risk students, he told Newstalk ZB.

Vester believes strongly that extra staffing is needed as part of the solution, and highlights this in his Herald opinion piece.

“I believe to really address the underachievement problem, the focus should go on the number and quality of teachers in schools with lots of at-risk students.”

Yet more staff education is just one of many sectors crying out for additional funding. With Budget time looming in May, many industries and sectors anxiously hope to see funding increased in their areas. However, as Waikato Principals’ Association president John Coulam told the Waikato Times in 2012, there isn’t a “bottomless bucket” of money for education and any redistribution of funds would likely create “winners and losers”.

What happens abroad

New Zealand isn’t alone in its quest to find a fair and effective method of funding its schools. There is much to be learned from looking at what is and isn’t working in other countries.

France’s Education Prioritaire policy works along the same lines as our decile system, classifying schools into three categories based on socio-economic status. And like our system, experts have found that teachers, parents and students are stigmatised as attending a disadvantaged school. They have also found that middle class families move away from these schools, which sounds reminiscent of New Zealand’s cringe-inducing “white flight” – the exodus of Pākehā/European students from low decile schools. Ministry figures showed that the number of Pākehā /European students at decile 1 secondary schools dropped from 60,000 to 30,000 between 2000 and 2010.

Across the Tasman, Australia’s school funding is targeted through the Low Socio-Economic Status School Communities policy, which targets around 1,750 schools in disadvantaged communities. Each school receives a $5,000 grant to assess the challenges, the appointment of an additional teacher and funding of approximately $200 per student per year for two years.

Britain’s Pupil Premium system allocates extra funding for schools with students eligible for free school meals; eligibility is determined by social factors including whether their parents are beneficiaries. For each eligible child, a school receives NZ$2,657 each year; this drops to $1,911 for secondary students. Students with additional social factors attract more funding.

The Netherlands operates a weighted student funding system, which draws some similarities to the proposed funding model being discussed in New Zealand. The government provides resources to primary schools on a per pupil basis but with the amount per pupil differing by the educational disadvantage of the group to which the student belongs.

Like New Zealand, these countries and others periodically tweak and review their school funding mechanisms to enable a fair and effective distribution of available funds.

New Zealand’s review

The leaked documents containing information on the proposed alternative to school deciles would suggest the school funding review is moving swiftly ahead.

PPTA president Angela Roberts told the Herald she was surprised the Ministry was so advanced in its thinking about new school funding models, as the sector had very little involvement so far.

However, despite reports that a funding review paper will be taken to Cabinet soon, Education Minister Hekia Parata indicated the Ministry was not rushing the process as the next decile recalculation isn’t due until 2019.

Parata says the focus is on how to get the “right amount of resources to the right kid at the right time to make a difference”.

Few could dispute this is a good aim to underpin any school funding programme. How to achieve it is more open to debate. The proposed alternative of more targeted funding has merit. The anonymity of the ‘at risk’ students is an important argument to be had. The discussions around staffing allocation and resourcing are vital. And no doubt other aspects will emerge as the funding review gains momentum.

As Vester says, we need to be sure that whatever funding policy emerges is more than “a simple re-branding exercise”.

It would seem we could be on the right track, assuming genuine sector consultation and a sufficient funding envelope are part of the process.

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