Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: A league (all) of their own

National is planning a national grading system for NZ primary schools.
Photo / Thinkstock
National is planning a national grading system for NZ primary schools. Photo / Thinkstock

At the sharp end of 2002 I was the education reporter for the NZ Herald, and it was my job to compile the league tables. The table, for those that don't know, lists every secondary school's exam results for the previous year, giving the school a ranking, and is one of the newspaper's most hotly followed editions.

The accursed league tables, I should say. In those days, and many years prior and leading up to these ones, information sent to media outlets was as scrambled as possible to make compiling the tables a particularly heinous task. The reason for this was that the Ministry of Education didn't want us to do it - it compared "apples with oranges", apparently.

I was used to the MOE being difficult over sensitive information and felt it was also in sway to hugely politically correct forces, so none of that surprised me. But I underestimated how difficult it was to compile the list and also nearly chalked up an assault charge when, after several hours of toil, editor Tim Murphy told me I had left out the Gisborne area and needed to revise my work.

Finally I got through it - the usual suspects at the top of the tables, the usual suspects at the bottom, a bit of position shuffling through the middle. And then the complaints streamed in - information wrong; our school's actually much better; you should have published this weeks ago, and so forth.

What a pain. It's also a bit stupid because the Ministry is right - it isn't an accurate reflection of anything much. The more savvy schools have ways and ways of ensuring their results look better - including, but not limited to, dissuading certain students from sitting the kinds of exams that count towards these kinds of rankings.

The whole point of the NCEA system is that individual students are not labelled for life as hopeless based on their success or failure at one set of exams, and it seems to me that the larger philosophy is that schools should not be judged good or bad based on one cohort of exams.

Now we hear National is hoping to be able to grade primary schools in the same way, using its National Standards rankings to create all sorts of unhappy havoc between the haves and the have-nots, those grappling with unmotivated parents and those lucky enough to have an abundance of parental help, those who happen to be situated at one end of town and those that are fortunate enough to be sitting at the other.

Strangely, although John Key says the overall National Standards data would be very complex and tough to make in to a league table, it will still somehow explain to parents what they need to know.

He says: "What you can do is get good data if you go to the published data on the school and the progress they are making. But putting together a sort of hodge-podge of data, trying to compare a whole lot of schools across an area or a country is not as straight forward."

So, is the aim to give parents a clearer idea of what kind of schools they have access to - or yet another attempt by a National Government to dismantle the power of teachers unions and fundamentally change the way New Zealand's generally excellent education system works?


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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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