Mt Albert Grammar used to have had the best schoolboy rugby team in the city. From 2007 through 2010, during the time I started writing about Auckland schools, for Metro magazine, they were almost unstoppable.
For several years before then, Kelston Boys' High School was top of the pile. Auckland Grammar was always in the mix, and other schools that shone in the prestigious 1A competition included De La Salle, St Peter's and, winners in 1997, Ōtāhuhu College.
Ōtāhuhu and De La Salle are decile 1 schools; Kelston, then, was decile 4.
After 2010, though, that all changed. Private schools have won six of the last 10 years of the 1A comp, 2011-2021 (Covid prevented the competition in 2020). Even Grammar, a state school with some of the trappings of a private school, has won only once in that time.
Other schools, especially the ones with a working-class catchment, are lucky even to come close. I watched Kings College play Ōtāhuhu a few years back and the score blew out, in Kings' favour, by 70 points.
Those two schools share a dividing fence but they might as well be in different universes.
And of those six wins by private schools, five went to just one of them: St Kentigern.
Tellingly, things changed again in 2018, when the other schools accused St Kents of poaching players. They complained that five students from first XVs elsewhere had been offered scholarships just so they could join the St Kents' top team.
Kings College has also faced the same accusations, including this year, when it wanted to field a boy who had been playing in the Grammar first XV.
Boycotts have been threatened. QCs have been wheeled out. A new code of conduct in 2018 included a six-week stand-down period, which has now been increased to two years. Since 2018, St Kents has not done well.
The problem isn't just about whether the "best kids" are pinched, wooed or rewarded, or however you want to describe the way they end up in an "elite" school. It's also about the coaches.
I did one story in 2016 about a low-decile Auckland school that was clinging to its place in 1A but feared it would soon slip out. The reason? A wealthy school had made its coach an offer he couldn't refuse.
And it's about the resources. "Elite" schools have teams of specialist coaches, superbly equipped gyms, artificial playing surfaces, night lighting, fully appointed aquatic centres. It's about the money.
The best schools we have
"Shouldn't the schools that serve poor children be the best schools we have?" The question is from Caitlin Flanagan, a staff writer with the Atlantic.
How could the answer possibly not be yes? And yet they are not, we have never expected them to be, and we do little to help them. Education is supposed to be about opportunity, but in more than almost any other area the gap between privilege and poverty in our schools is systematically baked in.
How do we know this? Because, as researcher Briar Lipson from the NZ Institute reports, this country has the strongest correlation between socio-economic background and educational achievement of any country in the OECD.
That suggests education is not about opportunity. To a far greater degree it's about reinforcing existing social hierarchies, not just in general but for most of the individuals in it.
It's true that many schools in poor areas are rich in so many ways. But poverty exacts a harsh toll, as does wealth, and they exact it on the same group of people: the students of our poorest schools.
Why do we accept this? Can we change it? Could we – should we – take the things that make our so-called "elite" schools what they are and use them to raise up the achievements of those at the other extreme?
The golden ticket
Sport, as always, is the metaphor for everything. What happens in school sport also happens in academia. Scholarships pluck a few students from the crowd: potentially it's great for them, while everything becomes a little bit worse for all those left behind.
And the sports resources of moneyed schools are mirrored in the arts: many of the best theatre, film, music and dance facilities in the city are in private schools and in the handful of state schools that have their own large-scale private funding sources.
It's like we give a golden ticket to life to the kids who need it least.
It's not that those schools are the only ones to taste success. Not at all. There are high-achieving and high-contributing students and teachers right throughout the school system. Academic pass rates in low-decile schools are rising and so are other measures of success: many do a remarkable job helping kids build productive, successful and rewarding lives for themselves.
But progress is slow and there is a stubbornly resistant "long tail" of failure. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to stay that way.
And while those low-decile schools throw themselves at the task of changing this, private schools and a thin layer of "elite" state and integrated schools continue to dominate national achievements in academic, sporting, cultural and artistic life.
Because the parents expect it, and the students do too. And because they have the money to do it.
In his recent memoir, "National Identity", former National Party leader Simon Bridges writes, "The inequality gap, the difference between the haves and the have-nots, is worsening. I fear it is no longer a gully, as it has always been, but a canyon. In its way, along with our nation's housing debacle, it has the potential to ruin us individually and as a body of people because it's not just an educational inequality. It goes, like housing, to real inequality and substantive poverty."
He's right. The Education Ministry's Education Counts data shows private schools spend three to four times as much as state schools on operating expenses, per student. Mostly, that's money spent on teachers: higher salaries and lower student:teacher ratios.
Private schools spend five to nine times as much, per student, on capital expenses.
Covid has thrown the divide between privilege and poverty in schools into sharp relief.
When the current lockdown started, the principal of Ōtāhuhu Primary School, Jason Swann, revealed his school was having to send out printed copies of class notes, just like it did last year, because too many of the kids still didn't have the means to work online at home.
A year and a half after the pandemic taught us the importance of distance learning, how is that even possible? What a disgrace.
Okay. Why don't we double the funding to low-decile schools? Or triple it?
Why don't we tithe the fees parents pay at private schools, to help pay for that?
I know, nobody likes a radical solution. But if we're not going to get radical about it, what are we going to do?
Crisis, private schools edition
We have a crisis in education in this country. Actually, we have several. But part of the problem is that a lot of the heat gets focused on things that are really not crises at all.
At Metro, our "best schools" issue used to outsell most others by three or four times. It's still a bestseller. And the main question parents wanted answered was: should I send my child to a private school or are the state options good enough?
That's not a crisis question. It's not even a question worth asking. Parents with the resources to have that choice can't get it wrong. The private schools have more resources but upper-decile state schools are well resourced too. All the schools they get to choose from are good.
It's worth remembering what private schools are for.
Put simply, they let your kids join the club: it's not what you know but who you know. This used to be literally true, in the days when the Auckland Club and the Northern Club were important.
Today, private schools and some prestigious state schools still foster enormous tribal loyalty, but is there any part of society where you need it?
Bridges has some revealing things to say about this in his book. A Māori Westie who went to mid-decile Rutherford High in Te Atatū and then studied law, he tells one story about a function for law students attended by the then-Governor-General, Sir Michael Hardie-Boys.
Bridges bowled up and started chatting, but the GG just stuck his nose in the air and turned his back. Bridges says he was left feeling like he had "shat on his shoe".
It was the 1990s. Do we still live in that country? I can't imagine a Governor-General indulging in such snobbery today.
Private schools themselves have changed, too. At Kings, there is a professional development focus on "cultural competence" and every staff member is learning te reo Māori. They take it seriously.
A new purpose for private schools has emerged quite recently: preparing students to get into overseas universities.
Maybe that works for the individuals. But there's very little benefit to New Zealand in having a growing bunch of our academically gifted students not attend local universities in their undergraduate years.
Underlying all this, the core function of private schools remains. They give their students the lived experience that society is organised to treat the wealthy better than everyone else. Generation after generation, they shore up the notion that class privilege is worth preserving.
They don't say this. On the contrary, they are officially steeped in liberal values. The four pillars of Diocesan Schools for Girls are "Honesty, Integrity, Respectfulness and Empathy". You could hardly ask for better.
Except, shouldn't a central question for any institution preparing young people for life in a wealthy country like ours be: How will we eliminate the poverty in our midst?
After all, every politician, every election, always tells us that's our goal.
The curriculum "crisis"
Here's a not-so-real crisis. Simon Bridges argues in this book that parents are confused about what happens in schools now. He complains that the modern pedagogy, or method of teaching, is "child-led", sometimes in large open-plan areas, with low achievement goals. "Skills learning", he says, is a distraction from learning facts.
Oddly, he contrasts this with earlier times when, he says, everyone got a decent education and no one "fell through the cracks".
He's forgotten that School Certificate was structured to fail half of all kids. We still have a long tail of failure but it's nowhere near as appalling as that.
Bridges seems unaware that enormous numbers of children used to find the curriculum unrelatable and the teaching patronising, and disengaged as soon as they could. Brown kids and poor kids were vastly overrepresented among those left behind.
That was a real crisis in education. When those alienated kids grew up, they transferred their low expectations of school on to their own kids.
For many schools, breaking that cycle – building support in the home for children's aspirations at school – is one of the most important tasks facing them today.
It's not an easy thing and it's not clear yet if the current pedagogy has cracked the code. The experts differ. But the aims are clear enough.
If kids were put off by books they saw as fusty and irrelevant, will it work better to allow them some choice in the study material? Start with the things that turn them on, and move on from there.
The emotional dramas of "Head High" or "Shortland St", say, contain a world of debating points about racism, sexism, gender identity, bullying, how to manage envy, the pressures of competition, disappointment and desire, with the values of teaching, medical science and the caring professions thrown in for good measure.
And if a teacher wants, they might even use all that to unlock the magnificence of "Romeo and Juliet" too.
And skills learning? That's about how to solve problems, how to research, how to understand scientific progress, use technology, process new ideas, identify bias and weigh up competing values. How to make your way in an uncertain world. How to think.
Frankly, it would be fabulous if some of our politicians had more competence in these skills.
Bridges believes systemic "complacency" has trumped ambition. Teachers are required to settle for too little and parents let it happen. The more likely explanation may be that he's come across some mediocre teachers, who would be mediocre whatever pedagogy they used.
He's resolved the problem for his own kids: he's sending them to private schools.
Maybe that's a rational choice: he's ambitious for his own children.
But is it ambitious for the country? When St Kents gets all the best rugby players, every single thing that's good about sport in schools is weakened. The state school system needs to be better, not abandoned by those with the means to do so.
The worst crisis
The worst crisis is the long tail of failure. The Howard League for Penal Reform reports that most people in prison can't read. Not to the degree that would allow them to hold down a job.
Often they don't have a driver's licence, which is also a critical requirement for many types of work. Often they can't survive in social groups or manage intimate relationships. Can't see how to be included in society in any valuable way and therefore can't see a future for themselves except outside of it.
Schools are not responsible for this. Most low-decile schools can boast a line-up of dedicated teachers and principals: they're heroes of the education system. But the pressures they face from outside the school – the pressures of poverty – can be immense.
For many kids, just getting to school means a daily triumph over hunger, chronic illnesses, violence at home, unattended learning difficulties, housing that's woefully inadequate, the disruptions of moving from one home to another, lack of transport, family anxieties over unemployment and unreliable work, parents who can't manage, parents who aren't there, drugs, the temptations of a criminal life. Lack of money, for every single thing. Poverty.
This is the real crisis in education.
Half the kids in low-decile schools, on average, are absent one day a fortnight. And when they are there, all of the above makes it harder for them to learn.
Again, it's not the schools' fault. And we sometimes say it's beyond the reach of schools to fix it. But is it? Schools are among the strongest social institutions we have. Could we build on that?
I suggested doubling the money. Tripling it. And then use that money to hire a lot more teachers, teacher aides, health workers, counsellors, community workers, sports coaches, cultural advisers, whoever they need. All of them better paid and better resourced.
In 2020, the state spent an average of only $9395 per student on salaries and other operational expenses, across all state and integrated (mainly church) secondary schools.
In Auckland's private schools, tuition fees are about $24,000 per year. On top of that, parents are expected to pay for a range of extra activities, including overseas trips.
The gap is even bigger when it comes to capital spending. All private schools have ambitious capex programmes. Kings has a $50-$60 million fundraising drive under way, to build a new performing arts centre and renovate some of its main buildings. At today's roll numbers, over the next 10 years they will spend about $55,000 per student on this programme.
In state schools there was a big bump in capital spending last year. But even if the higher funding continues, the state's capex over the next 10 years will be only $10,000 per student. If the spend slips back to the norm for the previous decade, it'll be about $6250 per student.
The state school numbers are averages. Lower-decile schools get more per student in opex than the higher-decile schools. But few of them try raising money for a performing arts centre, because their communities don't have any money.
But money on its own is not enough.
What makes a good school good?
The great leveller among schools is singing. At the Big Sing festival, held each year in the Auckland Town Hall, choirs from every kind of high school in the city come together for two days of competitive choralling. It's magnificent.
Close your eyes, and you would have no idea which choir is from what kind of school. Each one of them is as liable as the next to sing waiata, gospel hymns, deliciously arranged pop songs, madrigals, English folk songs from the village fair. All of them, leaning in to beauty.
There's only one requirement for a good choir: a music teacher with the skills and passion to make it happen.
And that's the first and most important thing that makes a good school good. The quality of its teachers. Related to that, it needs a quality principal. They're the ones who have to hire and keep the good teachers. They're the ones who know how to make the school ambitious.
The value of good teachers and good leadership are possibly the only two things that educationalists of all kinds agree on. And yet we don't pay them enough.
Resources are also critical. All those schools can turn up and sing, but not all can take their choirs on trips or provide facilities that expose the kids to a much larger musical world.
The rugby analogy still holds, by the way. In this year's 1A competition, which finished early because of the lockdown, Kelston Boys' High School was the winner. Good coaches and the squad's hard work made that happen, but they got the chance because the playing field was levelled up.
The best schools – the genuinely best schools, which is a group that might include some of the richest schools but is not limited to them – have something beyond all this.
Take a look at McAuley High School, a decile 1 Catholic girls' school in Ōtāhuhu. Its academic results are so good, they'd put many decile 6 or 7 schools to shame.
McAuley is not alone. Many Catholic schools outperform what you might expect from their decile level. Why?
McAuley does well for the usual reasons: it has very good teachers and its standards were built up by a fabulous principal. That's Anne Miles, who is still teaching at the school but has retired from running it.
But as with other Catholic schools, it has something else. The life of the school and the life of the home are integrated: schoolwork, extracurricular activities and the values of the school are actively supported by the whānau.
The great secret
I think this is the great secret of all successful schools: everybody's engaged.
Catholic schools can do it because the church provides the glue. Private schools can do it too: those hefty fees are a marker of parental commitment to the outcomes. Schools with strong cultural traditions – Māori, Pasifika and others – have an enormous wellspring to draw from.
But any school can do it, if it has the resources.
For state schools, though, it's often harder, especially if there are no strong community bonds already in place. Especially if too many of their parents think of schooling through the prism of their own bad experiences.
Kelston Boys' names its core values as Mana, Whānau, Kairangi and Tohea, which it translates as Respect, Family, Excellence and Resilience. It's decile 3, which is low but not critically low, and it's not hard to guess it ties the bonds of home and school as tightly as it can.
What would happen if we doubled the funding to state schools? Or tripled it, with a focus on the poorest? It would mean schools that find the whole process much harder than Kelston would get a real chance. But that won't happen if we keep expecting teachers on their current workloads to do it all.
As for the private schools, how about large-scale outreach programmes, so instead of focusing on a few scholarships, the "elite" teachers spend time working with other teachers, and with students, in their own schools?
Kings does a bit of this with Ōtāhuhu, but what about a fully integrated campus? They could throw in McAuley too, to teach them all a few things. It's only a five-minute walk away.
Okay, I might be stirring.
But what are we going to do? How will we turn the schools that serve the poorest communities into the best schools we have?
And if it's okay for a few schools to keep handing out golden tickets to life, what should we ask in return?
Maybe we should tithe them. Seriously.