One of the biggest criticisms of Tomorrow’s Schools is that by giving families choice of where to send their kids to school, it has led to “unhealthy competition” between schools.
The taskforce wants to see the Education Hubs ensuring enrolment schemes are fair and equitable, limiting school donations and places for out-of-zone students, and ensuring students with learning support needs have the same access to schools as other students.
Schools with international students would provide for them independently of government funding.
And state-integrated schools would be treated the same as state schools when it comes to enrolment schemes and transport subsidies.
What’s so wrong with competition?
Nothing, say many people.
New Zealand Initiative’s Briar Lipson told Radio NZ that she is concerned that reducing competition between schools will reduce incentives for them to lift their performance.
“If we’re not careful, we will end up with a system that does not demand much of schools and students and disempowers the most important force for good in children’s lives, which is their parents and communities.”
But the Tomorrow’s Schools taskforce say competition has resulted in students bypassing their local schools and travelling to schools they perceive to be better, which has had negative consequences for the system as a whole.
“The theory was that competition between schools would raise overall school quality: that good schools would thrive and grow, and poor-quality schools would close or improve because of the ‘market pressures’ on them. It has not worked out that way,” reads their report.
The taskforce found that unhealthy competition between schools hasn’t improved the quality of education – rather it has led to ‘decile drift’, where higher decile schools are left bursting at the seams and lower decile schools have capacity. This competition has led to our schools becoming segregated.
“The consequences and implications of this social, ethnic and educational stratification should be a major concern for all New Zealanders,” states the report.
What’s more, they found that schools are spending valuable resources on ‘keeping up appearances’ when they should be investing in teaching and learning.
The unions believe enrolment zones help schools focus on the needs of their community rather than competing with schools for students.
Steve Mouldey says the focus should be not so much about choice, but more about how well the system meets the needs of the child.
How do you curb competition?
The taskforce considered two ways: ‘hard zoning’, which would stop schools from taking out of zoners by not funding or staffing them for those students, or ‘controlled choice’, which would widen the choice of schools to families, with schools required to take a similar proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The taskforce considered both options unfeasible for New Zealand.
The recommendation they landed on was for each Education Hub to oversee a zone system for their network of schools, with all allocated a notional catchment area and maximum roll number. The number of out of zone students would be capped.
However, such an approach will limit the choice to which Kiwi families have become so accustomed. It is likely to have implications for the housing market, too, as school preference dictates where they choose to live, transferring the Grammar Zone effect to other parts of the country.
But it does make for a fairer system overall, and might mean that the school is once again the heart of its community.
Will capping donations adversely affect schools?
School donations have long been a sore point with the Labour Government; Education Minister Chris Hipkins made it clear in his manifesto that he who would like to see them removed altogether from state education.
However, many schools – particularly higher decile ones – say they need parental donations to top-up government funding, which they say is insufficient.
Among them is Auckland Grammar School, whose headmaster Tim O’Connor told Stuff that they rely heavily on donations as a way of breaking even. If the school was limited in what it could ask parents to pay, he felt lower standards were inevitable.