Every weekday Georgia Fa'anana catches the bus out of her home suburb of Glendene, past her nearest high school to attend her school of choice.

The 13-year-old Avondale College student is fulfilling her family's aspirations for each new generation to have a better life than the one before it.

"I'm Samoan," says her mother Margaret Manu.

"The generation before us were not well-educated; they did their best but they didn't know where was good and what options there were.

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"My generation of Pacific Islanders, we are way more educated in terms of knowing what's out there for our children, so we are trying to give them the best that we can.

"Why would I take my child to a local school that I know is not the greatest, when I can give her better?"

Decile four Avondale College performs well above average on the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA).

In 2016, 70 per cent of Avondale College school leavers left with at least Level 3 or the equivalent in the Cambridge exams which the school offers, compared with a decile-4 average of 46 per cent.

Manu sent Georgia to Avondale over decile two Kelston Girls College.

Glendene mum Margaret Manu (right) ends her daughter Georgia Fa'anana, 13, to Avondale College because she is
Glendene mum Margaret Manu (right) ends her daughter Georgia Fa'anana, 13, to Avondale College because she is "trying to do the best that we can" for her children. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"Avondale College is a bigger school. It has better opportunities there rather than what Kelston Girls could have offered her," she says.

"I also wanted her to get a co-ed school. I went to an all-girls school so when you see a boy walking around on the street you get all excited. I want her to be able to study around boys.

"And Avondale College teaches Samoan as a language right up to NCEA Level 3. Any Pacific language, just like te reo Māori, is getting lost. We are Kiwi-born, we don't know it fluently. If they can go to a school where it's taught, it teaches them."

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She also looked at Avondale's sporting facilities, and at the kind of students it attracted.

"It depends what crowd you put your child in. I drive through Kelston and I'm thinking like, 'Oh no, I don't want my child to go there'," she says.

"Everyone does that, we are all judgmental. I didn't want my daughter to be all drinking fizzy drinks and eating pies after school."

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Popular schools close doors to out-of-zone students


Manu is not alone. Since 2000, Kelston Girls' roll has dropped from 861 to 476. European students have fled, plunging from 229 to just 16.

Across the country, the rolls of schools in the poorest 30 per cent of neighbourhoods have dropped slightly since decile-based funding started, from 187,379 in 1996 to 179,559 last year, while the rolls in the richest three deciles have ballooned from 199,341 to 296,650.

European students in the bottom three deciles have halved from 69,771 to 29,896 (from 16.1 per cent to 7.6 per cent of all European students), while swelling in the top three deciles from 164,361 to 199,121.

All ethnic groups have moved out of low-decile schools, although at slower rates. For Pasifika students, numbers in schools in the lowest three deciles shrank from 68.5 per cent to 61.3 per cent of all Pasifika students.

Kelston Girls' College principal Linda Fox says between 2500 and 3000 West Auckland students travelled to schools in central Auckland last year. Similar numbers commute into the isthmus from South Auckland.

But the trend is now reversing, for two reasons.

First, population growth within high-decile schools' home zones is forcing them to reduce out-of-zone enrolments. Mt Albert Grammar and Glendowie College stopped running ballots for out-of-zone students this year, although they still accept siblings of existing students, and others may soon follow suit.

And second, the new Labour-led Government has launched a review of the "Tomorrow's Schools" system of self-governing schools which has enabled schools to compete for students, and to set their own enrolment zones with Ministry of Education approval, since 1989.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says the benefits of the competitive model of schooling
Education Minister Chris Hipkins says the benefits of the competitive model of schooling "have run their course". File photo

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has said the benefits of the competitive model "have run their course".

In an interview with the Herald before the election, he said every country that adopted a competitive model had been disappointed.

"You get pockets of excellence, a fair degree of mediocrity, and some really poor performance," he said.

"We need a high level of performance across every school and across every income group."

He welcomed the effects of population growth.

"The reality is in Auckland we are seeing more and more schools having to adopt zoning because of population pressures, so we are already moving well away from the competitive model," he said.

"But it took us 30 years to get to this position, and it's going to take us 15 to 20 years to get to some balance. We are going to have to bring parents along for the journey."

Hipkins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have kicked off a "national conversation about education", asking people open-ended questions such as, "What does a successful student of the future look like?" and, "If you were the boss of education in New Zealand, what would you do first?"

Over the next two weekends they are holding two "education summits", in Christchurch ne weekend and in Auckland the following weekend, each with about 500 people who will be invited to share their views on improving the system.

But it is hard to see any consensus, either on how we might reduce competition between schools or on whether we should even try. Although Hipkins has said "the competition was for students rather than improved education results", from the perspective of parents like Margaret Manu it's about the freedom to choose better options.

Waitematā Rugby Football Club secretary Hannah Hollands sends her eldest son from Henderson to Mt Albert Grammar "based on sporting opportunities", paying $40 a week for train tickets.

Auckland University education lecturer Dr Tanya Samu, who also lives in Henderson, says her son chose Avondale College for its Samoan teaching because he had attended Samoan immersion classes in primary and intermediate schools.

Samu is on Avondale's board of trustees and says the college has strategically targeted out-of-zone students because its in-zone population has been ageing.

"Our in-zone numbers have been dropping because of the demographics of our zone. Probably more than half are now out of zone," she says.

Waitakere Ranges Local Board member Saffron Toms says that when she was a student at Glen Eden Intermediate in the 1990s, "I remember the best students being written letters and personally invited to go and look around, especially for Avondale College".

"When I was going to Green Bay High School, our roll dropped enormously because of the massive grab on students. Avondale was the first real major uptaker of it," she says.

"I remember at school thinking how unfair it was that we didn't have a swimming pool and were struggling to keep our music department open, and meanwhile they were building a $30,000 bell tower."

The biggest schools on the Auckland isthmus, Mt Albert Grammar (roll 3061) and Avondale College (2832), now employ communications managers for the local market as well as marketing staff for international students.

Mt Albert Grammar is fundraising for a proposed $14 million
Mt Albert Grammar is fundraising for a proposed $14 million "Farm Experience Centre" in cooperation with ASB Bank, which owns its farm. Image supplied

Mt Albert Grammar is working with the ASB Bank, which owns its school farm, to develop a $13 million "farm experience centre" which could increase its farming and horticulture students from 160 to 500, potentially from all over Auckland.

Avondale College's website boasts of "a multi-million dollar rebuilding programme completed in 2014" including 120 new classrooms, science laboratories, a 750-seat theatre and "superb sporting facilities".

Avondale College boasts a complete redevelopment completed in 2014 to cope with growing student numbers. Photo / File
Avondale College boasts a complete redevelopment completed in 2014 to cope with growing student numbers. Photo / File

Meanwhile Fox, who retired this month after 21 years heading Kelston Girls, says the Ministry of Education's system of funding school property based on student numbers has led to "huge disparity between buildings in poorer areas and school buildings in wealthier areas".

"Low-income schools tend to have a smaller number of students, and funding per head means that the amount of money available for doing up buildings is less," she says.

"In the wealthier areas, often schools are a bit newer and have the benefit of parents who are comfortably off to pay the donations, and they have international students."

Linda Fox says current formulas have caused
Linda Fox says current formulas have caused "huge disparity between buildings in poorer areas and school buildings in wealthier areas". File photo

Across the six local boards on the Auckland isthmus, the ministry says out-of-zone students have increased from 10,830 in 2012 to 12,350 last year, keeping pace with in-zone growth to make up a steady 26 per cent of all students in the state primary and secondary schools that have enrolment zones.

Some of that apparent growth is due to more schools adopting enrolment zones.

Selwyn College and One Tree Hill College both introduced zones in 2014 that were planned to overlap with the Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls Grammar zones. Both deleted the overlaps after grammar zone residents protested that the changes might devalue their properties.

But growing in-zone populations are now forcing some schools to reduce out-of-zone rolls.

Western Springs College closed its roll several years ago to all out-of-zone students except those in its Māori "school within a school".

Mt Albert Grammar headmaster Pat Drumm stopped holding a ballot for out of zone students this year and now takes only siblings of existing students from outside its home zone. File photo
Mt Albert Grammar headmaster Pat Drumm stopped holding a ballot for out of zone students this year and now takes only siblings of existing students from outside its home zone. File photo

Mt Albert Grammar headmaster Pat Drumm says his board stopped holding a ballot for out-of-zone students this year except for about 50 siblings of existing students - a policy that will phase out all out-of-zoners over the next few years except for the farm school.

At Glendowie College, principal Richard Dykes says his board also dropped the ballot this year except for students who have or had other family members at the school.

Glendowie College principal Richard Dykes has stopped holding a ballot for out-of-zone students this year because of population growth in-zone. File photo
Glendowie College principal Richard Dykes has stopped holding a ballot for out-of-zone students this year because of population growth in-zone. File photo

At One Tree Hill College, principal Nick Coughlan says growth in his in-zone roll has reduced out-of-zone students from about 40 per cent when the zone was created to about 20 per cent.

Mt Roskill Grammar has accepted about 175 out-of-zone students each year in recent times, but principal Greg Watson expects that number to reduce over the next five years.

Avondale College is also likely to have to reduce out-of-zone places in the next few years because it is the only state school whose home zone will include a housing development on the Unitec campus, where Housing Minister Phil Twyford has promised 3000 to 4000 new low-cost homes.

Green Bay High School principal Morag Hutchinson says the squeeze on out-of-zone students at Avondale College will have flow-on effects reducing out-of-zone students at surrounding schools. File photo
Green Bay High School principal Morag Hutchinson says the squeeze on out-of-zone students at Avondale College will have flow-on effects reducing out-of-zone students at surrounding schools. File photo

principal Morag Hutchinson says the squeeze on Avondale will also force her to stop taking out-of-zone students eventually, after taking about 50 such students each year since introducing its zone in 2013.

"Although Avondale College has huge roll capacity, it will fill up eventually (as has Mt Albert Grammar), and that will have a ripple effect on our all our rolls in West Auckland," she says.

But nearby Lynfield College still takes a third of its students from out of zone, and Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor says his in-zone numbers have been steady despite 1200 new apartments in the Grammar zone in the past three years.

"We are yet to see that shift of family living into apartments," he says.

Instead, he says applications from outside the zone have increased to more than 300 for Year 9 places this year. The school accepted only about 40 from out of zone, including 10 to 15 from a ballot.

Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor accepted only 40 out of more than 300 applications for out-of-zone places this year. File photo
Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O'Connor accepted only 40 out of more than 300 applications for out-of-zone places this year. File photo

Zoning for high-decile schools such as Auckland Grammar has been built into house prices in a process of "selection by mortgage" that arguably causes just as much social harm as run-down facilities at low-decile schools such as Kelston Girls.

Auckland Council economists Shane Martin and David Norman reported last month that, after adjusting for other factors, lifting the highest-decile school available to a home by one decile adds $22,500 to each Auckland home's value - a gap of $225,000 between the top and bottom deciles.

Homes zoned for both Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls' Grammar - the "double grammar zone" - added a further $130,000.

Some researchers have found that schools have drawn zones that favour high-income families while shutting out nearby low-income areas. Glendowie College actually has two separate zones, one around the school and one in St John's, but shuts out students from the state housing area south of West Tāmaki Rd.

A 2016 study by Columbia University doctoral student Kat Thomson found that 37 per cent of NZ schools with zones drew boundaries that included higher proportions of high-income households than there were within a standard 2km radius of the schools.

"The case of New Zealand provides evidence that the extent of gerrymandering is perhaps more acute than what is seen in the United States," she concluded.

At one extreme, some say the solution is to abolish zoning completely. Waikato University economists John Gibson and Geua Boe-Gibson found in 2014 that axing zones for Christchurch secondary schools would lift the average value of all houses outside the popular Burnside High and Christchurch Girls' High School zones by $25,000 apiece, while knocking $20,000 off each house inside the favoured zones.

David Seymour suggests a new school to ease the pressure on Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls' Grammar Schools. File photo
David Seymour suggests a new school to ease the pressure on Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls' Grammar Schools. File photo

But Epsom MP David Seymour, whose electorate boundaries almost coincide with the double grammar zone, says any change in the existing zones would be unfair to families who have made "considerable sacrifices" to buy access to the grammar schools.

He commissioned a report by Property Economics last year which found that higher-density housing made possible by the new Auckland unitary plan could add 6000 extra school-aged children to the electorate over the next 30 years.

He suggests a new school, perhaps a co-ed junior high or senior high, and perhaps on the old Epsom teachers' college campus which Auckland University plans to sell.

At the other extreme, Waikato University education professor Martin Thrupp says the ministry - or perhaps a regional education agency - should take over zoning for all schools.

"It would be great if they took it out of the hands of the school - in consultation with the school, but with the ministry having much more of a role of trying to achieve a social mixing across schools and reducing the polarisation," he says.

Professor Martin Thrupp says the Ministry of Education should take over zoning to reduce social polarisation of schools. File photo
Professor Martin Thrupp says the Ministry of Education should take over zoning to reduce social polarisation of schools. File photo

He says families should still be able to choose between schools with different philosophies or languages, and between single-sex and co-ed schools - a choice now denied in the grammar zone which is zoned only for single-sex schools and on the rest of the isthmus which is zoned only for co-ed state schools.

But the pattern suggests that families actually choose single-sex schools where they are the highest socio-economic options, as in the grammar zone or on the North Shore, and co-ed schools where they draw richer families than the local single-sex schools, as in West Auckland.

"Class trumps all," Thrupp says. "It's part and parcel of the development of an unequal society, but that's not to say that government policy shouldn't try to address that to the extent that it can."

Thrupp found in the 1990s that students from similar backgrounds actually do achieve better at higher decile schools because staff at poorer schools are so overwhelmed by the students' social needs that they have less time to focus on academic issues.

Fairer zoning alone can't fix this. Some schools will always draw poorer students than others. Thrupp says funding and staffing formulas need to be much more skewed than they already are towards supporting poorer students.

"Unless you can really point parents to some real advantages in staffing or services that add to the advantages of those schools with low positional value, then I think it's going to be hard to attract middle-class parents back to local schools," he says.

The former National Government decided to replace the current decile-based funding formulas with a new system based on individual "risk factors", such as how long a child's parents have been on welfare.

Education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye says she promised that no school would lose funding, so she was committed to spending more overall so that those with more at-risk students got more.

Hipkins has yet to decide on the funding formulas. He said in a February cabinet paper that "further work is required on whether to proceed with the decision made by the previous Government to replace the decile system with a new mechanism."

Dr Cathy Wylie of the NZ Council for Educational Research, who has been appointed by Hipkins to a taskforce to review Tomorrow's Schools, has advocated about 20 regional education authorities to allocate "funding and resources to ensure as equitable as possible learning opportunities for the area's students".

"They would set school enrolment zones," she wrote in 2012.

Bali Haque, a former principal and former NZQA deputy chief executive, favours reorganising schools to achieve
Bali Haque, a former principal and former NZQA deputy chief executive, favours reorganising schools to achieve "mixing of students across socio-economic groups". File photo

Taskforce chairman Bali Haque has suggested reorganising intermediate and secondary schools into a smaller number of junior and senior colleges, supported by stronger regional branches of the Ministry of Education.

"Another very important advantage of such an approach, with fewer schools, is that it could encourage better mixing of students across socio-economic groups," he wrote in 2014.

"We have a crisis in this country based on social class, and it is conflated with ethnicity.

"If the gaps in educational achievement are not substantially and properly addressed urgently, we run major risks of social and economic dislocation and further declines in our international [educational] ranking."