For years now, I've been seeing Auckland's ethnic and income divides reflected in our schools. I've visited schools in South Auckland where sometimes the only white faces are the teachers'. At schools in Auckland's richest suburbs, it's a case of spotting the brown.

New Zealand had the fastest growth in inequality among rich nations in the past 20 years, the OECD reported last year.

The income divide is colour-coded. Poor suburbs are mostly brown. Rich suburbs are mostly white.

So it's no surprise that the number of Pakeha in our poorest schools has halved since 2000, as the Ministry of Education reported last week.


It's more middle-class flight than white flight. The brown middle-class flies too. And getting rid of decile ratings, as some have suggested, will make not the slightest difference to that.

Most parents who have the luxury of choice read ERO reports, talk to friends, and visit schools to get a feel for what they can offer their child.

I have Wellington rellies who, after doing all this, are looking to send their non-identical twin boys to two different public high schools next year. One is a liberal, high-decile, mostly Pakeha co-ed school, and the other a low-decile boys' school with a high proportion of Maori and Pacific students. For them, it's a question of the best fit for each child.

The kind of parent for whom a high decile ranking matters wants what it represents: a richly resourced, often conservative school where their children will mix with other privileged kids. Quality teaching is assumed to be part of the package.

For most of us, education choice is a mirage. Reformers on the right like to dangle choice as if it's an end in itself. Give poor people more choice and our educational ills will vanish, they say.

Choice is the justification behind vouchers and charter schools, and now league tables. The Prime Minister says league tables might be a good idea because parents are "desperate" for information. It's so they can distinguish "failing" schools from good ones, and take their business elsewhere if not satisfied.

Outing "bad" schools, it's assumed, will shame them into lifting their game, which means everyone wins. Except it doesn't, and we don't.

Competition and choice are overrated. They're part of a market approach to education that came at the same time as economic reforms that led to rapid growth in inequality.


The Tomorrow's Schools reforms introduced by David Lange in 1989 talked about promoting the interests of the "consumers of education" and were hailed as an end to cumbersome bureaucracy and the beginning of a brave new world of community empowerment and education innovation.

But, as the PPTA noted in a 2009 paper, in practice, "the application of market principles in schools has not so much encouraged individuality but produced a rigid consumer-driven conservatism. The schools that have increased their popularity over the last 20 years have been the traditional secondary schools, usually single-sex, situated in wealthy areas, characterised by a focus on academic achievement and recognisable by their compulsory uniform requirements."

And now we have a highly fragmented and competitive system with more than 2500 "self-managed" schools, more than double the number of schools than Victoria for a similar number of students.

Which means not only that "wastefulness and duplication are hard-wired into the system", but that "there is little in the New Zealand system to encourage the shared, national responsibility for the quality of education".

It's no coincidence, the PPTA noted, that under Tomorrow's Schools "there has been a systematic polarisation of schools along ethnic and socio-economic lines, a result ... of middle-class flight".

"As a consequence, these schools enter a 'spiral of decline', with falling student rolls, reduced funding, problems in recruiting and retaining staff and constraints on the capacity of the school to deliver the curriculum. In many other educational systems in the world, this would be regarded as totally unacceptable and addressed as a matter of urgency.


"In New Zealand, so-called 'failing schools' are accepted as the unacknowledged concomitant of 'successful schools' and may even be viewed as evidence that the market is working."

Markets leave "failing" schools to die; Governments have a responsibility to save them in the national interest.

That requires a different approach from the pointless tinkering that currently passes for education policy. Class sizes, performance pay, charter schools, national standards, league tables - they're all distractions that suck up time, money and energy while doing nothing to improve overall achievement.

As education professor John Hattie has written, "One of the most critical problems our schools face has been described as 'not resistance to innovation, but the fragmentation, overload, and incoherence resulting from the uncritical and unco-ordinated acceptance of too many different innovations'."

The PPTA again: "The future is collaborative, yet New Zealanders seem content to believe that a system based on competition and self-interest and designed to serve the needs of a vocal and wealthy minority rather than the national interest is acceptable. There is considerable evidence for the proposition that 21st century education will not be about isolated and competing units, but multi-campus, collaborative learning, facilitated by ICT [information and communication technology]."

It's not about choice; it's about ensuring that every school is a good school.