Education Minister Hekia Parata has talked for years about replacing the decile system of school funding. It was beginning to sound like no more than talk until our reporter, Kirsty Johnston, yesterday revealed one interesting alternative under discussion. It would give schools extra money based on the number of their pupils who had at least one of four identified "risk" characteristics. The identified risks are having a parent who has been in prison; suffering child abuse either personally or of a sibling; coming from a household living on a benefit for a long time; or a child whose mother has no educational qualifications.

This obviously would be a more precise guide to need than the decile system that uses Census data on incomes in the vicinity of each school. Decile ratings are never more than a rough guide to the wealth of the pupils' households and their ability to support the school. The system has suggested wealth was all that mattered. There are many reasons a child may be educationally deprived and the four that have been identified for this funding proposal are clearly among them. They have probably been isolated because research has found they have the highest correlation with educational failure.

The risks bear a striking resemblance to the factors Finance Minister Bill English often cites for the purpose of ensuring all social outlays are spent where they can do the most good, not least for taxpayers in the long run. Early intervention in dysfunctional households, he firmly believes, will more than pay for itself with savings in reduced social welfare and prison bills later on. He has all the branches of social policy working to this principle, which suggests the education funding proposal the Herald reported yesterday stands a good prospect of adoption.

For the moment, though, the minister declines to talk about it. It appears to be one of three "think pieces" she commissioned last year, which she refuses to make public. "The review is in its early stages and proposed changes will be discussed with the sector," she says. Her caution is understandable. Nothing in education is easily changed unless the teachers' unions have a decisive say in it. But it would do no harm to release all discussion papers on alternatives to decile funding. The unions are not wedded to the status quo on this issue.


The consensus in education seems to be deciles have outlived their use. As the public has become familiar with them, decile ratings have become a measure of a school's desirability. Every time educationists point to a low income decile as a measure of a school's need, parents have drawn the conclusion their child would not be in a favourable educational environment there.

Decile funding has been an attempt to provide poorer schools with some of the extra funding that better-off schools can raise in fees and donations from parents. That is a purpose that might not be met by the alternative under discussion. "Equity funding", as it is properly called, is a response to unequal parental means, not these precise characteristics. But it is good to see an idea on this subject at last. The minister should release them.