Auckland consistently ranks highly in lists of the world's best cities but is never number one. So what would it take to turn Auckland into a first-class city? This week the Herald begins a 10-day series examining some of the biggest hurdles Auckland faces, from housing and transport to entertainment and education. We look at what we are doing, what we need to do, and why Auckland's success matters to the rest of the country. In part three of the series we look at education.

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WORLD CLASS AUCKLAND - Part 1: Housing
WORLD CLASS AUCKLAND - Part 2: Environment

Our school system is one of the best - but it could be better. Maths and literacy have declined, competition is getting in the way and some kids are still missing out. Kirsty Johnston reports.

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It's a particularly Auckland way to start to the day - driving the kids several suburbs over to drop them off at school. If the children are older, they'll pack buses and trains, zipping out of their local community to the "better" college of their parents' choice across town.

Up to 40 percent of parents now choose a school that isn't their local, according to NZCER research. Usually, the shift is to one with a higher decile ranking.

"Choosing up", as researcher Liz Gordon calls it, can mean extra time and hassle. The kids' friends, their after-school practices, meetings with teachers are no longer just around the corner. Roads are clogged. That higher decile school may also charge more for extras, bringing added financial pressure.

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But going to a "better" school is seen as the way to get ahead, and most parents will defend their right to choose the best education for their kid. So some will even save to buy a house in a "good" school zone or battle hardship to pay the mortgage on the one they've got.

Entrepreneur Tamara Waugh, for example, bought a house in Point Chevalier before her daughter Millie turned five. "The school has really good teachers and a good principal, and they care about the kids' well-being. Moving was and still is a financial struggle, but the community and school will keep us here," she said

However, some academics and principals believe our emphasis on parental choice is not only misguided (in that we're choosing those schools for the wrong reasons) but when paired with our competitive school model, causing more serious problems than inflated house prices and heavy traffic.

Firstly, many experts believe the competition between schools has stalled collaboration, affecting the teaching and learning for all. New Zealand has seen an overall slide in numeracy and literacy in recent years, despite increases in NCEA.

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Secondly, the drift upwards has left a significant imbalance in school size, with popular high decile schools becoming huge while those in the lower decile stagnate or shrink.

For some high decile schools, this has lead to overcrowding, "zone cheating" and increasing expectations on staff to ensure kids achieve at extremely high levels.

At the other end of the scale, academics say the drift away from lower decile schools is further entrenching inequality.

NZCER chief researcher Cathy Wylie says this is because many low-decile schools are now smaller than they were and less able to attract their community's higher-performing students. Instead, they migrate up the decile ladder leaving the schools to struggle with fewer funds and a concentration of high-needs students behind them.

In Auckland, disproportionate numbers attend those struggling low-decile schools. Disproportionate numbers are Maori or Pasifika. Reports show the education our children receive will not push back against poverty to the same extent as in other similar countries. The gap between the highest and lowest scores of our 15-year-olds is the widest in the OECD. And it is the kids at those low decile schools who are likely to have those lowest scores.
Ethnicities at poorest and richest schools in Auckland

Yet demographic projections show it is this same group - the Maori and Pasifika students - that we will increasingly rely on to make up our Auckland workforce, as the proportion of Pakeha workers declines. We need them to succeed to make Auckland world-class.

WHAT COULD WE DO?

Experts agree solutions to achievement and inequality will not be quick nor easy. Reforms have already been initiated by education minister Hekia Parata under the Investing in Educational Success policy, which is aimed at better collaboration and transitions. A trial of charter schools is underway for "priority" students.

But a large number of advocates, including Dr Wylie, believe more is needed - both in terms of resourcing the current school-wide strategies and creating change for the poorest schools.

"New Zealand's high rate of income inequality contributes to the isolation of students from poor homes, and the depth of the challenge for low-decile schools," Dr Wylie says.

"It is not a challenge they should face by themselves alone, school by school."

THE CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS

Before talking about solutions, it's important to note that New Zealand's education system is still extremely good. We have a world-class curriculum and our best schools match the best schools anywhere.

More than 85 percent of children leave high school with a qualification. Retention and dropout is improving. From 2013 to 2014 the percentage of 18-year-olds with at least NCEA Level 2 increased by 2.6 percentage points, to 81.2 percent, with some of the biggest gains made by Maori and Pasifika students.

However, there are gaps. As education minister Hekia Parata noted in 2013 New Zealand's education system is performing "less and less well" next to other OECD countries. In the latest two rounds of international testing - PISA at secondary level and TIMSS at primary - New Zealand student scores, and our international rankings, fell.

In the 2012 round of PISA, for 15-year-olds, New Zealand dropped in all three core subjects - reading (13th), maths (22nd) and science (18th). Of high-performing countries, New Zealand had the widest range of scores in the OECD between the top and bottom 5 percent of students. The average impact of socio-economic background on student's performance was above the OECD average.

At primary level, our 9-year-olds were ranked 34th out of 53 countries in the 2011 TIMSS test - effectively bottom equal among developed nations. Subsequently, a national monitoring study found that while while 80 percent of primary students were on track with their maths at Year 4, by Year 8, or age 12, that reduced to less than half.

While NCEA achievement levels are rising, the ministry itself wrote in a report in 2013 that "there is no clear evidence that levels of literacy in our school-aged population are improving, and, particularly in mathematics, we lag behind the top-performing countries. More young people are achieving qualifications, but that cannot be taken to imply that they are learning more."

COMPETITION VS COLLABORATION

Auckland Primary Principals' Association president, Frances Nelson, says every school has become
Auckland Primary Principals' Association president, Frances Nelson, says every school has become "an island". Photo / Steven McNicholl

Part of the decline has been blamed on a loss of collaboration and learning between teachers perpetuated through the Tomorrow's Schools model, introduced in 1989. The policy mandated self-managing schools and a level of autonomy not seen before.

But because individual schools wanted more students, and funding, it also introduced more competition. Schools hired marketing managers and public relations advisers, and those doing well published their results widely. They stopped talking to one each other as much, and the flow of ideas and collaboration declined.

Essentially, says Frances Nelson, Auckland Primary Principals' Association president every school has become "an island". While some informal clusters continued, teachers' ability to learn from each other was reduced.

In recognition partly of the collaboration problem, the Government last year introduced "Investing in Educational Success", where communities of schools share ideas, work on challenges and provide more seamless pathways. Teachers are paid to contribute, and schools are given extra resources when they join. It was allocated $359m in funding over the next four years, and $155m each year after that.

Even some of the government's strongest critics believe the plan may help with the overall slide in student achievement by encouraging schools to work together more on deliberate goals.

However there are concerns the policy has been brought in too quickly, and without enough support.

Dr Wylie, for one, says it will only work if there is a strong "backbone" of expertise schools are able to rely on for information and help. She says currently, our "tough target" (85 percent achievement of NCEA Level 2) is not backed by the knowledge, research and resources needed.

"Ministry of Education will also need to support communities to learn from each other, and share that learning nationally," she said. "The seeds are there, but they need careful nurturing."

There are also questions over whether IES will truly reduce competition.

"What they're looking to do is to change the culture of schools but trying to do it in one step instead of doing it over time," says Mrs Nelson. "That's the biggest issue, you can't legislate collaboration ."

The biggest concern, however, is whether "communities of schools" will be able to do enough to raise those at the bottom to the extent where schooling becomes more equal, to ensure those who don't have the ability to access high-decile schools are still getting the best.

Most of those spoken to by the Herald believe this will not happen without a more serious intervention that seeks to address inequality.

WHAT INEQUALITY LOOKS LIKE

An analysis of current figures show that Auckland has a disproportionate amount of students at both the lower and higher ends of the decile scale, which go hand-in-hand with lower and higher results.

In Auckland, the number of kids at decile 1 is almost the same as at decile 10. Nationally, the higher you go, the more students there are, meaning Auckland is somewhat unique with its binary of wealth.

However, just like elsewhere, the figures show there has been a drift away from the lower deciles. Since 1996, the proportion of students at deciles one to five all declined, while the higher deciles all grew. The change is more keenly felt at secondary level, for example, an analysis of decile 1 schools in the five years to 2014 found eight out of the nine high schools lost student numbers.

Deciles, and the shifts over time, run along ethnic lines. In 2014, 95 percent of decile one in Auckland was Maori and Pacific. Europeans made up 1.5 percent. In 2000 those percentages were 90 and 5, representing a loss of 1000 European kids. At decile 2, there was a loss of 3000 European kids, a drop from 22 to 6 percent.

Researchers like Liz Gordon are concerned about the growing school segregation, saying it could undermine our largely tolerant and understanding society. "The more segmented we become, the more that differences can lead to difficulties," she says. "The world becomes separated into 'people like us' and people 'not like us', and this is dangerous and sad."

The Ministry of Education said many changes in school composition simply reflect the change that is happening in the neighbourhoods around them. Others, quoting figures that show 4500 students bus into Auckland central from the south each day, see it as "white flight", from "brown" schools. However, because, although to a lesser extent, the climb is also occurring among Maori and Pacific families it may be more about upward social mobility than racism.

No matter the cause, Cathy Wylie argues a narrow mix of children is no good, particularly in low decile schools.

She says those schools already face more issues, particularly in in attracting and retaining experienced teachers; with attendance and behaviour; teacher burnout; with getting the right support and expertise; and with leadership and governance.

"Student attendance and behaviour issues are compounded specifically by the concentration of children from poor homes," she says. "If these children were more evenly spread among schools, there would be a lower level of disruption to learning overall."

Achievement-wise, the lower you go in decile, the lower the average results. The Ministry of Education was keen to point out some schools were making gains - but while there is excellent work going on, the overall pattern of achievement is hard to ignore.

Studies have shown a more even mix in schools would contribute to better results. In 2000, the OECD found if intakes were more socially even in New Zealand, the differences between schools would contribute just 7 percent to differences in reading scores, around one third of the current impact.

New Zealand isn't alone in struggling with the effects of poverty on education, but currently the OECD says socioeconomic factors have more influence on students here than in other similar countries.

A "PROXY FOR QUALITY"

Secondary Principals Council chair Allan Vester says without strict intervention Auckland will never return to a state where parents simply send their children to their local schools. Photo / iStock
Secondary Principals Council chair Allan Vester says without strict intervention Auckland will never return to a state where parents simply send their children to their local schools. Photo / iStock

Solutions to inequality are not simple.

Dr Wylie thinks influencing parental choice would help, although Secondary Principals Council chair Allan Vester and Edgewater College principal says that without strict intervention Auckland will never return to a state where parents simply send their children to their local schools.

Part of this, he says, is because "choice" is now locked into the Auckland psyche and tied to property prices (as seen last year when One Tree Hill College tried to draw up a zone and was knocked back by residents worried it would overlap with the "Double Grammar" area).

However he says it's also because many parents aren't necessarily choosing schools on the basis of results or reputation, but for the students they want their own child to be friends with and be like. Whether that equates to "white flight" or not is up to interpretation.

"In the end I think parents all want the best they can for their children and in the absence of any really hard data about how a school will work for their child and for their aspirations they tend to be conservative in their choices," Mr Vester says. "Education of your children is not something you want to experiment with."

Except, says Melbourne University education professor John Hattie, it needs to be remembered there is a "vicious" end of school choice, in that too many parents are using socio-economic status as a proxy for quality.

In a paper called "The Politics of Distraction" he points out this is wrong for three reasons - firstly because while there can be average levels of achievement in lower decile schools, there is no way to measure if they are less effective in adding value. And secondly, socio-economic status is a correlate of prior achievement (meaning that often those students have more catching up to do).

Also, Prof Hattie says, whole idea of choice is "misguided" from the start, because although there can be difference in results between schools, these are nowhere near as wide as the differences within schools. He says, given that, the choice of teacher would be a better thing to argue over.

Despite all of that, political change is unlikely. Education minister Hekia Parata said while she was a fan of diversity, and believed kids benefitted from learning alongside students from different backgrounds and attending neighbourhood schools, removing choice was not on the agenda.

"In New Zealand it is parents who decide what school to send their children to and this Government is not going to take that choice away from them," she said.

However, both Ms Parata and the ministry were concerned that decile rankings were seen by some people as an indicator of school quality.

"They are not," Ms Parata said. "We have many excellent lower decile schools and some higher decile schools that are not making as big a contribution to students' education as they should."

She had tasked the ministry of education with producing a dashboard of indicators to provide a more accurate picture of the educational difference being made by schools.

The Ministry said what made the most difference in any school, regardless of decile, was the quality of teaching and leadership, which is why the IES policy was so important.

It also had a new programme for improving initial teacher education, with "exemplary postgraduate programmes" now at three universities.

The moves will be an answer many have been waiting for, for example former Auckland Grammar principal John Morris. In a recent paper for the New Zealand Initiative he wrote: "It is time that government and education bureaucrats faced up to the realisation that teachers do matter more than any other thing in terms of their impact on improving student achievement."

THE ONTARIO SOLUTION

Ontario, one of Canada's largest and most diverse provinces, decided to focus on the basics of education. Photo / Getty Images
Ontario, one of Canada's largest and most diverse provinces, decided to focus on the basics of education. Photo / Getty Images

Many of those interviewed for this story expressed similar thoughts, saying there had been too many "reinventions of the wheel" in education, expressing a desire to focus on the basics instead.

Ontario, one of Canada's largest and most diverse provinces, is a current example of success who did just that, focussing only on three goals which were to improve literacy, maths, and high school graduation. It also sought to close the achievement gap; and increase public confidence in education.

Between 2004 and and 2011, Ontario improved its graduation rate from 68 to 82 percent. It was ranked fifth to our 13th for reading in PISA 2012. Where New Zealand scored 486 on the TIMSS, Ontario scored 518.

Ontario introduced two major initiatives as part of its reforms. It created a Literacy and Numeracy secretariat, a 100-person government department that worked with primary schools to set achievement goals and meet them (the kind of support Dr Wylie believes our "Communities of Schools" need). Highly skilled and experienced educators provided resources and knowledge, and shared successful practices with school boards.

It also began a Student Success initiative, which tracked students to identify potential dropouts. A "student success officer" in each school then mentored students to ensure none of them fell through the cracks, and ensured they took and passed the right courses. It also provided support and development for teachers at the bottom 20 percent of schools to improve leadership and practice.

There was also an emphasis on vocational pathways, and a deliberate move to get schools and unions back onside, stop "teacher-bashing", and show trust in profession.

The improvements were hailed worldwide. However, it must be noted that progress was not cheap, with spending since 2004 increasing by 30 percent. And while immigrant children experienced improved results, most First Nations children's' scores were not included in the data as they are taught on reservations.

WHAT ELSE COULD WE DO?

Decile-based funding is described as
Decile-based funding is described as "the most important tool" that lower decile schools have to address the disadvantages their students face. Photo / Thinkstock

New Zealand already has some initiatives similar to Ontario for at-risk schools - including "Programmes for Students" where mentors work with classroom teachers; and Achievement, Retention and Transitions advisors who work with secondary schools to identify students who may require additional support.

Building on Success offers learning and development for 22,500 Maori Learners, at a cost of $15m per year; there is extra funding for children with non-English speaking backgrounds; and for behaviour, PB4L.

Schools also get decile-based funding. For a decile 1A school, this works out around $900 per head and averages almost one-third of its operational funding. About 2.5 percent are in that category. At decile 2, it's $600 per head, and by decile 3 around $370.

It is described as "the most important tool" that lower decile schools have to address the disadvantages their students face.

"It allows them to hire extra teachers and other staff, and to put more money into programmes they believe will be help their students do better," said the Ministry of Education's Lisa Rodgers.

Except, Mr Vester says, that at his decile 2 school, by the time staffing is factored in, it actually makes up very little of the proportion of school funding, around 6 percent. "It's not nearly enough to close any gaps."

Mr Vester strongly believes that higher staffing ratios are needed at lower decile schools, plus a way of attracting high-quality teachers and keeping them. "It would be fantastic if teachers and principals saw working in a low decile school as a step up career wise. Currently the trend is very much the other way," he says.

One initiative aiming to improve that trend is Teach First NZ, which was set up to get high-flyers into teaching by offering on-the-job training over two years in low-decile schools. Chief executive Shaun Sutton says they aim to attract ambitious people who want to be challenged, with demand for the programme now well outstripping supply.

Another solution could be creating "magnet schools" - schools funded to run attractive or innovative programmes in poorer areas to attract a wider mix of kids. There's also balloting places in wealthy schools, capping and equalising donations, paying transport costs.

Some changes that would really make a difference - social housing in richer areas, better solutions to poverty full stop - are deemed to fall outside the realistic political realm.

"That's the worst bit," Mr Vester says. "With the situation we've now got, there will be active pressure against any government who tries to intervene in underachievement with something like staffing difference. Even if they didn't make any changes to those at the top, there would still be political backlash if they did extra for the bottom."

Dr Wylie says at the moment, the "best lever" is teaching and learning, and making sure the support given schools is really good. Educating parents about what to look for in a school, and about decile would also help, she says.

Mr Vester says the goal should be to ensure parents felt confident their kids would succeed no matter where they went.

"The secret to education is for all schools to be great schools."

NOTE:

A school's decile ranking is used to determine how much public funding it needs and is arrived at by scoring socio-economic factors such as students' household income. Decile 1 schools are the 10 per cent of schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities, whereas decile 10 schools are the 10 per cent with the lowest proportion of these students.