My daughter goes to university this week having been one of those secondary school all-rounders who also achieves stellar academic results. She is one of New Zealand's latest Top Subject Scholars and will soon attend an awards ceremony at Government House.

I share her story not just as a proud father but because it challenges the anxieties of some parents as well as the direction of education policy.

As a baby my daughter was entirely bottle-fed for medical reasons. About the age of 9 she then came from a "broken home" after her mother and I split up. My daughter has always attended state schools. She had two happy years at an intermediate, a type of school the Government seems to have little time for.

The Ministry of Education is keen on parent involvement in schooling but for many years I've hardly been a role model for it. I've gone to parent evenings and some prize-givings and I've inquired after my daughter's day. I don't think her mother has done much more. But from early on, our child understood far more about what her teachers were wanting of her than we did.


At intermediate she was invited to go into an accelerated class and I thought it might be a good idea. But my daughter wasn't having any of it: "It's too nerdy Dad!"

So what has worked for my daughter? I think it has mostly been general middle-class advantage. Two professional parents and the language environment that goes with that. Being read to frequently as a small child and access to good early childhood education. Living and holidaying overseas for several years. Attending schools with mainly advantaged peers and whose teachers were able to capitalise on all the advantages those children and young people were bringing to school.

I don't think of my daughter as "gifted". There are children who are genuinely gifted but there are many more who have been highly advantaged and whose parents prefer to think they are gifted.

The Key Government keeps trying to downplay socio-economic and other contextual influences on education. This is most unfair for many schools and the communities they serve. Schools get compared on raw results or by decile rather than in any "value-added" way that takes better account of social contexts.

Minister of Education Hekia Parata says New Zealand's PISA results show that socio-economic status accounts for only 18 per cent of student achievement. But what is being used to make this claim is only PISA's narrow definition of family socio-economic influence.

International experts tell me that by using PISA's wider criteria that include neighbourhood and school socio-economic factors, 78 per cent of New Zealand's results are explained by socio-economic conditions.

This strong link between social factors and student achievement in PISA results should not surprise.

A powerful relationship between social class and student achievement has been a repeated theme of world research in the sociology of education for more than 50 years.

I congratulate my daughter for her wonderful school achievements and I congratulate the teachers that helped her to excel. But none of us should imagine that patterns of unequal attainment in the school system will change very much without reducing socio-economic inequalities and related segregation between schools.

Martin Thrupp is professor of education at the University of Waikato.