It's been alleged that parents are using school decile ratings as a measure of the quality of the education the institution provides. In fact, it's more likely the parents are interpreting the decile rating as an indicator of the socio-economic profile of the parents whose children attend the school.

Decile ratings are calculated by taking the home addresses of the students at the school and analysing the relevant mesh-block's Census data for households with school-aged children. Five socio-economic factors are taken into account: income, occupation, household crowding, educational qualifications and whether income support is received.

"Decile 1 schools are the 10% of schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities, whereas decile 10 schools are the 10% of schools with the lowest proportion of these students," explains the Ministry of Education's website.

Decile ratings were devised as a tool to enable schools in poorer areas to be allocated more government funding than schools whose students hail from wealthier areas. Regardless of its core purpose, it was naive to then expect that parents wouldn't use the information to draw their own conclusions.


And charities can't campaign to get breakfast programmes into low decile schools without simultaneously making those schools look disadvantaged and therefore unappealing to some people. A Child Poverty Action Group spokesman said: "Every school day across New Zealand there are thousands of children going to school without breakfast... children aren't to blame for their situation, and neither are their teachers and classmates who often have to deal with unfocused and sometimes disruptive children as a result of missed breakfasts."

It's understandable then that some parents may be inclined to choose a higher decile school so their child is surrounded by motivated learners rather than those likely to fall through the cracks in our education system. Simple logic tells us that your son or daughter is more likely to be sitting next to a child who is hungry or tired or otherwise lacking focus at a decile one school rather than a decile ten school. Decile ratings have encouraged parents to play the odds and try to maximise learning opportunities for their offspring.

A private school, of course, is simply a decile ten school on steroids. The unspoken belief is that in sending your child to a private school you are buying a degree of protection from some of life's harsh realities. It would be fair to assume that children at private schools will be well fed, well rested and ready to learn each day in class - rather than poised to distract your own child from his or her education.

Similarly you'd assume that should a student at a private school develop potentially disruptive behavioural issues or learning difficulties that require professional attention, the appropriate help would swiftly be sought by well resourced parents - in a way that may be unattainable for families perhaps consumed with holding down multiple shift-work jobs and struggling to put food on the table.

Such cost-benefit equations apply to all sorts of service industries, not just education. Those who fly first class and stay at five star hotels are not buying anything as straightforward as just an airfare or accommodation; they're effectively insulating themselves from the petty inconveniences and lack of comfort associated with economy class and tourist grade lodgings. They're paying to ensure the removal of what can be categorised as the undesirable elements of the experience. They're paying for the privilege of not being squashed into an overfilled rear cabin or having to stay in a room in urgent need of a visit from television's hotel inspector.

Presumably the same sort of logic applies at private schools. Parents are paying to ensure their child is educated alongside motivated, like-minded peers whose behavioural issues are stamped out immediately rather than allowed to spiral out of control and negatively impact on classmates.

Yet private schools aren't foolproof. By all accounts you just might find yourself rubbing shoulders with people of dubious merit at some of these fine learning institutions. A friend of mine once said about private schools: "At least you know your child won't be sitting next to a kid whose father is a small-time dealer of illegal drugs. At private schools the other kid's dad is much more likely to be the one in charge - the drug-lord who controls the whole network." I think she was joking.

What are your thoughts on decile ratings? Have you used them to influence your opinion about a particular school? And what about private schools? Are they a great investment in your child's future or a complete waste of money?