John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Principles lost in a grammar zone

Eligibility for several schools worries some premium suburb residents

David Seymour could find himself in a difficult position if he wins Epsom.
David Seymour could find himself in a difficult position if he wins Epsom.

What goes through the minds of educational professionals when they see the lengths that property owners will go to remain in a prestigious school zone?

Amusement may have been their initial reaction to reading this week that an overlap of zones in Auckland's eastern suburbs has been resisted by a prominent market liberal, Matthew Hooton, and David Seymour, Act's candidate for Epsom.

Hooton lives in the outer reaches of a grammar zone and when he and others realised they were also to be in newly drawn zones for Selwyn College or One Tree Hill College, they consulted lawyers. Seymour, meanwhile, had started a petition against the overlaps after fielding "a stream of phone calls and emails".

These people were not being excluded from the grammar zone, they were being included in others - which they feared would allow the grammar school to shrink its zone in time.

Hooton and Seymour are not supposed to believe in restrictive protection but after educationists ponder the irony, what then? Do they give a thought to the fact that for every property enjoying a zoning premium one more poorer kid may be missing a lifetime opportunity?

Probably not. Public educationists pay lip service to the goal of ensuring every child can fulfil their potential but in truth the professionals would prefer to keep the best students in their nearest school for the sake of the rest of the pupils.

They want the grammar zones to be as large as possible so that those schools have no room for bright kids from families who cannot afford the real estate.

If Seymour wins the Epsom seat he would not be its first MP to find himself sitting in an awkward place for his party's preference for competition in all sectors of the economy. Christine Fletcher broke ranks with National in the 1990s when its abolition of school zoning threatened her constituents' property premium.

She ran an argument that all children should have a right to attend their nearest school, which would imply that schools should be at the centre of their zone.

If that was true the Epsom Girls' Grammar zone would go well into Mt Roskill. It doesn't. The Herald's map this week showed the school at the western edge of a zone drawn around Remuera.

The short-lived abolition of school zoning in the 1990s was one of the most promising steps taken in the era of economic reform. In Auckland, where everybody has numerous schools within easy reach, there were soon tidal movements of pupils to schools their parents considered better than the nearest one.

This caused alarm in the public education profession because the pupils accepted at "better" schools were probably the cream, leaving their previous schools without the sort of pupils who can lead and lift the rest.

That problem would have lasted only as long as it would have taken the "poorer" schools to change. Most likely we would have seen amalgamations and takeovers by the schools in demand as pressure for entry exceeded their capacity.

Soon - long before the present day - all schools would have been under a successful brand and poorer communities would no more have had poor schools than they have poor supermarkets.

If that outcome sounds fanciful, idealogues for public education found it all too credible. The last thing they wanted was an education system modelled on Auckland Grammar School. They mounted a furious campaign against what they called "the commodification of education".

Schools, unlike groceries, they said, were too important to be ruled by consumers. Parents, like shoppers, were liable to select a school on appearances and reputation, based on uniforms, discipline and external exam results.

They won the battle but not the war. In 2000 the Labour Government restored zoning for those state schools that had more applicants than they could take. The schools could propose their own zone. Auckland Grammar drew up one that was as small as possible. Former headmaster John Morris fought the imposition for years.

He wanted the school to be accessible to boys from any part of town who had the potential to benefit from its standards and values. A hostel was set up with Ngati Whatua so that Maori pupils from outside the zone could meet the residential qualification.

Meanwhile, non-zoned schools such as Selwyn College in Kohimarama continued to suffer falling rolls until they decided that uniforms, discipline and exam results were fairly important. Selwyn's roll has now grown to the point that it is required to have a zone. One way or another, consumer preferences in education will prevail.

The Government's $360 million incentive for schools to form clusters under "executive principals" and share "lead teachers" looks like another way to simulate the results of a competitive shake-down, without threatening the grammar zone.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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