In the next 10 years, 100,000 more children are expected to enrol in New Zealand schools.

In response to this “unprecedented population growth,” the Ministry of Education established the National Education Growth Plan (NEGP) earlier this month.

The NEGP includes a wide set of reforms: tightening of school enrolment schemes at 103 Auckland state schools, redeveloping existing schools all around the country, and constructing 30 new schools in Auckland and 31 across the rest of the country, among others.

One of the reasons for tightening school enrolment schemes is parents’ desire to send their children to certain schools. This puts pressure on high demand schools, particularly in Auckland where roughly 127,000 students attend a school within their zone; 38,000 attend a school out of their zone; and 58,000 attend a school that didn’t have an enrolment scheme.

Parents can have many reasons for preferring one school over another. Schools offer different programmes that may differently suit the individual talents and needs of their children. One could have a better rugby programme, while another has a better music programme.

For some parents, academic performance is the most important factor. When deciding which school to send their children to, parents often use NCEA league tables and decile ratings to infer the academic quality of a school.

Notwithstanding, The New Zealand Initiative’s research in Statistics New Zealand’s data lab shows that most observed differences in NCEA league tables come down to differences in the backgrounds of the students taught at different schools. This means there might be less reason to think that one school’s performance is a lot better than its neighbour’s. However, other differences can matter.

For this reason, the need to build more schools to meet population pressures under NEGP is an interesting opportunity to meet specific school demand and improve the quality of education across the entire system. In business good practices and products are replicated when there is demand – think of the hundreds of McDonalds, New Worlds and Warehouses all around the country. Good practices can similarly be replicated in education in New Zealand.

Why not invite successful schools to set up branch campuses to meet rising demand? The Initiative’s work in the data lab shows that while most schools are rather similar, once you separate out family background, there are some schools that do show stronger performance. High-performing schools facing strong enrolment pressure could grow, running some of the new schools that must be established and taking over others that are getting redeveloped.

There is a precedent for this kind of model. In the United Kingdom, under the Academies policy developed in 2002, high-performing schools were invited to take over schools that were having a harder time. The results from the 2002–09 Academies are promising. However, the results for the post-2010 Academies are still mixed.

Here in New Zealand, the satellite school system allows schools to set up satellite campuses in other locations; where students can receive specialist teaching from the base school while attending the host satellite school. In Taupō, the fullest school in the country, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Whakarewa I Te Reo Ki Tuwharetoa school, has 191 enrolled students but 118 attend satellite schools nearby.

The NEGP offers a pathway to address education infrastructure for the future; it also presents an opportunity to improve the education outcomes developed in the very classrooms they are building. The NEGP should not forget that it isn’t classrooms, chairs and desks that make a school – it’s the lessons learned inside those classrooms that matter.

Joel Hernandez is a policy analyst at The New Zealand Initiative

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