Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political roundup: NZ's unequal education system

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How unfair is New Zealand’s education system? And who really pays the price? A number of recent reports and investigations highlight major problems in primary and secondary education, and a deepening divide and crisis in school achievement.
Recent reports and investigations highlight major problems in primary and secondary education. Photo / Greg Bowker
Recent reports and investigations highlight major problems in primary and secondary education. Photo / Greg Bowker

Last week the OECD released the report, Low-Performing Students - Why They Fall Behind and How To Help Them Succeed. It showed New Zealand children from poor families are over six times more likely to do badly at maths than children from well-off families. Among OECD countries, only Israel, Poland and Ireland performed worse - see John Gerritsen's Poverty holding NZ school kids back at maths.

The report has reignited debate about what appears to be a deepening socio-economic divide in education. Today socialist John Braddock published a strong condemnation of our education system - see: Rising school costs deepen class divide in New Zealand education.

Braddock says social inequality is being translated into the schooling system by David Lange's "Tomorrow's Schools" reforms, implemented in 1989. These effectively resulted in a system of competition between schools based on neighbourhood socio-economic status.

Likewise, the Herald's education reporter Kirsty Johnston says "New Zealand has known about the achievement gap between rich and poor for 25 years. And yet it persists" - see her must-read report from late last year: Search continues for schools silver bullet.

That piece forms part of an excellent three-part series by Johnston about the effects of hardship on student achievement. You can also read Education investigation: The great divide, and Our school divide: Simple project lets kids take lead on learning.

John Clark of Massey University's Institute of Education responded to this series with an excellent examination of The inequality of school achievement.

He argues that to make any meaningful changes to the education system, the government needs to also focus on "non-educational policies such as employment, taxation, family support, health, welfare and so on and so forth which are the primary causes of the inequalities which children bring to school and impact the most on school achievement."

Unsurprisingly the National Government thinks otherwise, and the Minister of Education has argued that we need to look elsewhere for understanding success: "What makes the biggest difference to a kid's education is something every kid and parent knows - the quality of the teaching in the classroom. Other critical variables are the quality of school leadership, parental engagement and community expectations" - see Hekia Parata's Socio-economic factors are often overstated.

And on the issue of teacher quality, the Minister has cause for celebration, with a newly released international survey ranking New Zealand teachers "fourth out of 35 countries" - see RNZ's NZ teachers rank high in professionalism.

But in terms of economics and inequality, you only have to look at its influence on where parents are choosing to send their kids to see that it has a major impact on the education system - see Michelle Duff's excellent report from last year: White flight: why middle-class parents are snubbing local schools. In this, the "educational apartheid" that has started to feature in the system since the introduction of Tomorrow's Schools is made clear.

The cost of "free" state education

The cost of so-called "free" state education was highlighted last month by the publication of a survey which added up all the various costs for parents of putting their kids through school - see Kirsty Johnston's Free education: Parents of 2016 babies will be shelling out $37,000.

This item also reports on a soon-to-be published University of Otago study on the stress parents face over the increasing cost of modern state education, and parents concerns to spare their kids any embarrassment and bullying for not being able to join in with their peers in paid school activities.

It is clear that even many middle class families find the cost of state education burdensome. The crucial difference is that they can, and do, stump up. This can be seen in the voluntary donation data released by the Ministry of Education last month, which is covered in Andy Fyers and Katie Kenny's Decile 10 schools take lion's share of school donations. According to this data, "More than half of voluntary donations paid to state and state-integrated schools in 2014 went to decile 9 and 10 schools". Decile 1 schools received about $56 in donations per student, while for decile 10 schools the average was about $324.

This inequity can be illustrated with examples of schools within a region - see Amy Jackman's Schools rely on $1b donations during 15 years of 'free' education system. In this she contrasts "Wellington Girls' College ($542,000) and Wellington College ($502,000)" with fellow Wellington school Wainuiomata High, which "received $13,500 in 2014 - or about $18 a student."

What are the donations being spent on? Jo Moir reports that Schools rely on parents paying donations to cover the cost of education: "According to many principals, the money is essential to providing the sort of education parents expect... the Education Ministry says they generally contribute to education costs - the same costs the ministry claims to cover through its operational funding to all schools."

A Dominion Post editorial argues that the real problem is Education is not free but nobody ever does anything about it. It holds out little hope that the current review of the funding system will do anything about the reliance on parental donations, with the Minister saying they are here to stay as she "congratulates herself" over her "choice" to fundraise for her own childrens' schools.

A Press editorial states that the reliance on donations makes it clear that the government is underfunding schools - see: When you're told education is free, they don't really mean free... The editorial declares "activities that are largely supported by parent donations at high-decile schools should not be denied children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. If anything, it is even more important those pupils have the extra learning opportunities they might not otherwise get."

That's certainly Duncan Garner's conclusion and he comes straight out and asks "Why don't we just fund our schools properly?" - see his heartfelt column, Do the maths - education isn't free and schools need more help.

Garner believes that it's simply wrong for concerns about money and fundraising to "get in the way of a decent and a full education for the next generation" and he's willing to pay more tax to help make that happen. For a similarly passionate declaration of the need to pay more taxes in order for the state to adequately fund social provision, see also Polly Gillespie's Go on, tax me.

So, is the education system being underfunded in New Zealand? A mixed answer to this comes via another OECD report, Education At A Glance 2015 - covered by Kirsty Johnston in New Zealand still lags behind on per-student education spending. She sums up the mixed findings saying "while New Zealand spent a high proportion of both its GDP and total public expenditure on schools and universities, our students still get about US$1000 less each than the OECD average."

Tales of education poverty and riches

Examples of how schools and parents are struggling with the cost and underfunding of education are plentiful at the moment. For example, Rosee Hodgson, who works as a Solutions to Child Poverty Advocate for the the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch, says "In my work I see over and over again that the back-to-school period is not experienced in the same way by everyone" - see: Back-to-school costs bite hard for the poor.

Schools have even resorted to using the Givealittle fundraising website to cover their costs. Last week the Westland High School set up a page to help rebuild the school following a fire - see Newshub's Westland High School closes after fire.

School swimming pools are also under financial threat, with fundraising becoming crucial. Jo Moir's Schools are relying on donations to keep their pools open reports that "In the last six years, more than 150 schools have been forced to close their pools due to the cost of maintaining them and another 130 school pools are at risk of closing."

And some students do not own the right gear to swim in the pools. Last week Glen Innes School sought donations of togs to go along with the donated towels that it already receives from local gyms as so many of their students were missing out on school swimming lessons because of a lack of gear - see: Tom Furley's School asks for swimming tog donations.

In the context of such struggle, it's not surprising to see the Ministry of Education facing especially strong public evaluations of it's own spending. The Ministry's current Wellington office building refit is being criticised by opposition parties - see Vernon Small and Jo Moir's Ministry of Education boss says $19.5 million on office revamp couldn't be spent on teachers. But for a contrasting view see David Farrar's A stairwell is a lot cheaper than a lift.

The Ministry's use of outside consultants is also being criticised - see Jo Moir's Ministry of Education boss promises to chop $40 million consultant bill in half.

Inequality of special education

There are rising concerns about the funding and arrangements for special education services in schools. This is partly prompted by news last year that "More than $32 million of funding for children with special needs has languished in government coffers for two years, leaving schools to foot the bill" - see Jo Moir's Government underspend punishes schools.

Since then, some cuts to "frontline workers" have been controversial - see Kirsty Johnston's Cuts, underspending, delays in special education revealed.

And the New Zealand Educational Institute has just released a survey of special education needs co-ordinators in schools showing "89 per cent of respondents thought students with special education needs had inadequate support" - see: Union calls for extra support for special needs in schools.

A parliamentary inquiry into how schools deal with children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorders has also been a very useful forum for further debate on how the system works (or doesn't). The Education and Science Select Committee's hearings late last year are well covered in John Gerritsen's Parents tell of failure in special needs system and Learning disorder heartbreak shared with MPs.

The provision of special needs education resources has a distinct inequality aspect, too, according to Jo Moir's article, Special needs students in poor communities missing out on exam help. This reports on Ministry of Education figures that show "Special needs students in private schools and high decile state schools are receiving publicly-funded assistance in exams at a much higher rate than those at low decile schools". According to the Ministry, students in decile 10 schools are 17 more likely to get special assistance conditions for students sitting exams than those in decline 1 schools.

Will education reforms solve the inequality problems?

Education Minister Hekia Parata. Photo / Doug Sherring
Education Minister Hekia Parata. Photo / Doug Sherring

A review of school funding is underway but Hekia Parata has indicated voluntary donations are here to stay, saying "Our system allows parents who are able to, and want to, to provide extra to get extra"- see Erin Speedy's How can we change the way schools are funded?

For more on the Education Act review, see John Gerritsen's Who should decide school closures? And the Minister of Education deals with some of the criticisms of her review in Newshub's Hekia Parata: Education Act changes shift focus to kids.

Some are calling for the current decile funding system to be overhauled. Critics say the concept is good, but in practice it is inadequate and further stigmatises poorer schools, acting as a sorting device for parents. For example, retiring principal Peter Gall from Papatoetoe High School says "it contributes to further inequity rather than addressing equity issues. Without a doubt we need differential funding but labelling schools with a socio-economic index is not called for. It's bad policy. We are the only country that overtly labels schools. To me, it's stigmatising for low deciles and it's very misunderstood" - see Kirsty Johnston's 'We're the only country in the world that overtly labels schools' - Harsh lessons from retiring principals.

At the last election Labour had a policy of providing an annual grant of $100 per student to schools that agreed not to ask parents for voluntary donations to fund general school operations.

Act's David Seymour claims this makes no sense, saying New Zealand is "not a communist country" - see Erin Speedy's 'Free' education cost set to mount to more than $1 billion. Seymour reportedly sees the policy as an assault on a "New Zealand tradition that parents had always contributed to schools, whether it be on the school board, organising a working bee, going on camps or taking part in a school fundraiser."

The current review of the Education Act has prompted the PPTA's Tom Haig to ask: Who has power in the education system? His conclusion seems to be that although the Minister of Education has significant influence, and the principals of top schools are powerful, the most influential figures on the system are actually the parents of students at the top schools: "Their choice to attend these schools, pour resources into them, and fight for them (with advocates like Matthew Hooton) is the flip side of the 'struggling schools' story."

Finally, a few weeks ago Mike Hosking asked "Are private schools worth ten times the amount of a public school?" - see his "Mike's Minute" video, Public vs. private schools. He reports that his family has used both public and private schools, and concludes that the $16,000 he spent on annual school fees was "not really worth it", and complains that much of it is simply "driven by elitism".

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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