Papamoa is a growing coastal suburb in the Bay of Plenty. It’s a fairly under-the-radar sort of place, sandwiched between its touristy big brother Mount Maunganui and more rural Te Puke. A lot of young families live there, including mine. Lots of young families mean lots of schools; there are four primary schools – one newly built – and a high school, also new.

Until recently, I hadn’t given too much thought to which school my children, aged four and three, would attend. The one “down the road” would suffice, I’d always thought.

However, after my son and his peers turned four, it became apparent that other parents weren’t taking such a relaxed approach.

Despite strict zoning in place, my mummy friends all scheduled meetings and tours with most of the schools, then compared notes, eager to know where others were sending their children. Out-of-zone ballot dates were well known, but it transpired that connections with staff were just as valuable for securing an out-of-zone place.

Most alarmingly, it was the decile ratings of the schools that appeared to sway most opinion. National standards were discussed, briefly, but being somewhat harder to obtain – and for the first-time school parent to understand – the focus turned to decile ratings. While there is little difference between the deciles of the Papamoa schools, it became clear that most parents had a bias towards the higher decile schools. The argument that the lower the decile, the more funding the school received, did little to change their minds.

Suburban competition

The thing about the Papamoa schools is that they’re all good; they all have good reputations – you can’t really go wrong, and yet, such tension prevailed among the parents of soon-to-be five-year-olds. It got me thinking: if a relatively small and easy-going community like Papamoa can produce such competition, then it must be tenfold in city suburbs.

An Auckland friend with young children confirmed this. The tactics employed to get out-of zone placements, the gossip, and the comparison of deciles, national standards, and others’ anecdotal experience all played a part in “choosing” where to send your five-year-old, she said.

There is nothing wrong with a parent wanting to make the best decision for their child, but when that decision is made on the socio economic profile of the school, rather than zone, performance, and other factors, it is worrying.

A parent interviewed by the Bay of Plenty Times recently admitted that she sent her daughter to Otumoetai Primary rather than a nearer lower decile school because she thought a higher decile school would be a “better-run school with less bullying”.

A Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) paper, produced for the union’s annual conference, outlined several problems of the decile system, including the criticism that deciles were being misused by parents as a measure of a school’s quality and a way to compare academic performance.

“The belief of parents that high decile means better education exacerbates the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our education system. Some schools deliberately seek to influence their intake so that their decile is raised and the school is seen as more successful,” the report says.

Indeed, the oft-mentioned “white flight” – the exodus of Pākehā/European students from low decile schools – is supported by Ministry figures showing that the number of Pākehā /European students at decile 1 secondary schools dropped from 60,000 to 30,000 between 2000 and 2010.

Last year, the Education Review Office (ERO) made the decision to scrap decile ratings from its school reports in an effort to “correct the stereotype that a school’s decile equals performance”. The Ministry of Education supports ERO’s stance.

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. Higher deciles have a much greater tendency to trumpet their rankings, “even though it provides parents with virtually no direct information about the quality of education at the school. Instead, it apparently tells parents about the ‘quality’ of their child’s potential peers at a given school.”

It is rational to expect school leaders to promote higher decile ratings if it will help their school, but Lubienski says these patterns also suggest a systemic perversion of the purpose of the decile system, which is designed to offer advantages to schools serving poorer kids but has apparently been turned into a marketable indicator of affluence.

Proposed changes

Under the current system, schools are assigned a decile rating based on the household information of a random sample of students. 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. Decile ratings are then used to account for about 13 per cent of all operational funding.

However, the PPTA wants to replace the single decile figure with a more detailed socio-economic profile of each school using a wide range of data. It is not the first time calls for change have been made. Last year, the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) said clear information about the social and economic context of schools should be published in place of decile ratings. The union suggested that data on student transience, the number of children with special needs or English as a second language, and the number of children attending breakfast clubs would potentially be more use than a mere number.

The report claims that the system is too narrow and does not measure the average wealth of the school community: “Two schools in the same decile may have significant differences in the socio-economic mix of their students. A large school in the middle decile may have just as many students requiring special assistance as a small lower decile school.”

Many support this view; among them, Dave Randell, principal of decile 8 Otumoetai College. He told the Bay of Plenty Times about a quarter of his students were from well-to-do areas but a large chunk were also from low-income areas.

“We need to look at the whole profile of a school. There’s got to be a better way of doing this. Our decile rating doesn’t address our school’s needs. The system is archaic and needs a major review to address inequitable funding.”

Linton Camp School in Palmerton North has also been protesting its decile 10 rating on the basis that transient army parents don’t earn enough on average to warrant the high decile, which results in less government funding.

However, the Ministry of Education told Education Review that there were no plans to change the decile system just yet.

“The Ministry actively monitors and assesses the impact of the different components of school funding, including decile funding, but there is no formal review underway,” said deputy secretary for student achievement Rowena Phair.

Some have also expressed their caution about replacing the decile system with anything new.

Waikato Principals’ Association presidentJohn Coulam said that while he supported a review, he did not necessarily think the current system was “broken”.

“If there is a better system, we should be open to it,” he told the Waikato Times. However, he said there was not a “bottomless bucket” of money for education and any redistribution of funds would create “winners and losers”.

Parents continue to draw the wrong conclusions from the number stamped on each school and some schools continue to feel aggrieved that their funding doesn’t accurately reflect the socio-economic demographics of their school community. A formal review may not be underway just yet, but it would seem there is enough dissatisfaction with the current system to warrant one in the next few years.


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