Vicki Carpenter: Bloodlines' aim for schools unfair

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Zoning changes will only widen the gap for those not well connected, writes Vicki Carpenter, principal lecturer at the Faculty of Education, the University of Auckland.

If there have to be ballots for places at schools, let's require them to be public, advertised, and fair. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
If there have to be ballots for places at schools, let's require them to be public, advertised, and fair. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

School zoning changes set to be introduced next year will further embed within our public schools a "bloodlines" priority system.

This latest policy change will ensure those families who are already privileged will remain privileged to the detriment of the not so well-connected or fortunate.

As part of the changes two further priorities will be added to the Out of Zone ballot. Priority 4 will be given to any applicant who is a child of a former student of the school and priority 5 will be given to any applicant who is either a child of an employee of the board of the school, or a child of the member of the board of the school.

Already in place are priority 1, which covers special programme availability, and priority 2 is given to the sibling of a present pupil. Priority 3 is given to the son or daughter of a past pupil of the school. The remaining category is priority 6 which covers all other applicants.

The possibilities that this new legislation further provides for the perpetuation of advantage within the state schooling system is of concern.

While the largely public-funded private and integrated school system already enables the continuation of privilege on the basis of financial capital and connections, it is worrisome that the public school system appears to have embedded a "bloodlines" priority system.

The Herald recently provided an example: Auckland Grammar old boy John Chisholm does not live in zone for Auckland Grammar and does not want his two sons to go to Western Springs (co-educational) College. This position is taken despite the fact that Western Springs College is a highly regarded school in Auckland.

In referring to the new legislation, Chisholm was quoted: "We are very much in favour of it; anything to give you an advantage over the next guy is probably worth taking, isn't it?"

If his first son gets in to Grammar his second son will be doubly advantaged. The second son will be a sibling of a current student and he will move further up the list.

While the merits or otherwise of attending Auckland Grammar could be debated, my focus here is only on the zoning issue. Before Tomorrow's Schools (1989) every child was expected to go to her or his local school, and zoning was reasonably well-enforced by the then Department of Education.

That was a time when resourcing within the state schooling system ensured there was as little as possible difference between schools and the education they provided. I was educated at Mana College in Porirua in the late 1960s, and I, like most of my peer group, had a very good education.

Since the early 1990s variations of zoning and dezoning have been used to entice voters and political party support. The National government in the mid-1990s abolished zoning; that policy move fitted well with their emphasis on the market and competition between schools.

The results of that dezoning legislation are well documented by the Smithfield Project - essentially there was "white flight" and a rush towards enrolment schemes by schools in wealthier areas.

Economically poorer schools lost pupils and became "sink schools". Those in the know, with the right cultural capital, quickly ensured they were "right in", resulting in those already at risk of being failed by the system being "left out".

The Labour government of the early 21st century took a third way option and brought backing a form of muted zoning. A variant of that policy exists today.

Children have the right to attend their local school but, if there is an enrolment scheme in place and places are available in a school, others can ballot for out-of-zone places.

While ballots per se can be seen as problematic, the priority system openly enables the embedding of existing privilege. The state school place allocation system becomes manifestly unfair when one can jump the queue simply because a person with the same bloodlines as you has already attended that school.

I believe this is not what was intended for our public system of education. Our education system purports to offer all young people "the most effective and engaging teaching possible" and it desires to support them to "achieve the highest of standards" (The NZ Curriculum, 2007).

There is an assumption and expectation behind this statement that the public system will provide all children with an equal chance and similar resources - each child will be taken to her/his highest level of ability.

International studies by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) demonstrate that, while our education system is performing well, the space between top achieving students and those being failed by the education system is one of the greatest in the Western world. Those who are succeeding and are "right in" tend to be white and middle class, those being failed or "left out" tend to be brown and in lower decile schools.

This new legislation will do nothing to remedy the Pisa findings; in fact, it has the potential to further widen existing discrepancies. Most children in lower decile schools will not have either the bloodlines or the social or cultural capital necessary to queue-jump.

Is this fair? Is this what we expect of our public education system? If there have to be ballots, let's require them to be public, advertised, and fair - without priorities.

The zoning system in state schools can be likened to the canary in the coal mine - it is perhaps a harbinger for what is to come. I feel nervous for education when policies such as the new priorities appear to slip in so easily.

- NZ Herald

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