Education is one of our most critical sectors, and it is hardly surprising, therefore, that education policies and practices are often among the most controversial.

Government ministers want to make their mark on the portfolio, research and other international developments offer continually evolving ways of looking at the way in which we teach and learn, societal changes mean schools increasingly take on a larger role in children’s lives – all of which can mean increased funding pressures and regular changes to systems, processes, learning models, curriculums, and measures of achievement.

Those changes, and increasing immigration and mobility, mean parents have often learnt in different places and ways to their children, which can make understanding new systems and supporting children in their learning difficult, too.

The overall result can be one of confusion and alienation, when parents should be able to rest assured their school is equipping their child with what they need in order to go confidently and competently out into the world.

Various reports over the past decades have highlighted increasing inequality in educational achievement. Alongside that, the egalitarian notion of a free state education is fast becoming a myth, as the cost of the basics, plus “voluntary” donations for all the extras, puts immense pressure on families.

Political parties, unions, school boards, teaching staff, parents and children may have very different ideas about various education policies, yet it seems, when it comes to the latest debate – over the school decile funding system – there is a consensus.

The 20-plus-year-old system was designed to allocate funding and staff to schools according to the socioeconomic demographic of the surrounding area, yet it has had the undesirable effect of being used by parents as a perceived measure of educational standard, leading to distorted rolls, zoning implementations, and the use of terms such as “educational apartheid” and “white flight” as middle-class parents snub local low-decile schools.

The previous National-led Government had planned a new funding system based on the risks of each student underachieving (draft factors included ethnicity, mother’s income and age when she gave birth, and whether the male caregiver was not the biological father), and the new Labour-led coalition Government still plans to adopt the system – although it will make some alterations and has just said it will defer the introduction for a couple of years while it sorts out funding. Education Minister Chris Hipkins is also anxious to ensure the new system does not simply end up transferring stigma from schools to individual children (even though the data to be used will be anonymised) and, in line with this thinking, he has also renamed National’s “risk index” an “equity index”.

While change is clearly necessary, care and caution are essential for the sake of stability for the country’s educators and learners. It is vital to ensure there are no unintended negative consequences. It is also timely to examine whether a significant funding boost is required to help the sector cope with the diverse demands on it today.

An egalitarian education system remains an admirable and worthwhile aim, yet achieving that will be impossible in isolation. Until the yawning socio-economic disparities are addressed elsewhere, their effects will inevitably continue to be felt in the classroom – no matter how well-meaning any government or how dedicated the country’s teachers.

Source: NZ Herald

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