Every parent wants to give their child the best start in life – but when it comes to schooling, can money buy success? In the second of a three-part series, education reporter Simon Collins examines how three schools - one private, one state-integrated and one state - prepare their students for the world ahead of them.
The chaplain at King's School was shaking the hand of every boy as they emerged from chapel when the Herald arrived at 8.30am on a Tuesday.
The sight symbolises some of the distinctive elements of New Zealand's 91 private schools.
First, half of those schools (46 out of 91) are Christian, and one is Muslim. Boys at King's School attend chapel four mornings a week and the fulltime chaplain, Rev John Goodwin, plays a leading role in pastoral care of the school's 668 students.
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"The chaplain knows every boy in the school," says Tony Sissons, its headmaster for the past 18 years.
"They don't have to be Anglican, but they have to accept that we are an Anglican school and attend chapel."
Second, like many other private schools, the King's culture is formal. The boys' red caps and blazers have barely changed since the school was founded as King's College's "prep school" on the current Remuera site in 1896.
The school, which takes boys from Years 1 to 8, is now completely separate from the college, although about 70 per cent of its boys go there in Year 9. Most of the rest go to Auckland Grammar.
And third, by 8.30am, half an hour before classes start in most state schools, even 5-year-old King's boys have been at school already for 40 minutes. Junior classes end at 3pm and older boys stay until 3.40pm.
"We have the longest day of any school in New Zealand," says Sissons. "So a boy that starts with us at 5 and goes through to intermediate [Year 8] would have received an additional year and a term of teaching."
Just a short distance away on the other side of the Ellerslie Racecourse, New Zealand's biggest state-integrated Steiner school, Michael Park School, is much more informal. Its 378 students across Years 1 to 13 have no uniform and the culture is low-pressure.
"We are focused on process. What that means is that things slow down a little bit, so kids have the chance to be kids and to grow into who they want to be," says principal Terry Storer.
And across the motorway at Ellerslie School, a regular state primary school for Years 1 to 8, the culture is different again. While King's and Michael Park have held their rolls steady for the past 20 years, Ellerslie School's roll has jumped over the past decade from 510 to 837 as it absorbed population growth from more intensive housing.
A two-storey block full of "modern learning environments" opened in 2016, but four years later the school already has six prefabs while it waits for 10 more permanent classrooms due by 2023, which will allow its roll to grow to 950 or 1000.
"Local schools are there for the community," says principal Nick Butler.
"You go to your local school, you play sport in your local community, you attend your local community activities. Kids walk to school. I think that is a huge attraction."
Paying for the best?
King's School, classed decile 10 based on where its boys live, is the most expensive of the three schools. Its parents pay $20,000 per annum in Year 1 and up to $24,400 in Year 8.
Michael Park School (decile 8) is also costly by the standards of integrated schools, whose teachers and operating costs are supposedly state-funded. It charges attendance dues of $1437.50 a year to cover property costs and requests "donations" of a further $650 to $1040 per student, depending on year level, plus $2510 per family.
Ellerslie School (decile 9) requests a "donation" of just $396 a year.
Michael Park School started as a private school in 1979 and integrated into the state system a decade later. Long-serving teacher Jane Patterson says, "It took us a long time to decide that we felt safe."
"A few years after we started the high school, it was clear that it was working, the kids were gaining entry to universities," she says.
"But it was going to be really hard financially, and we would be constraining things because of money if we didn't find an alternative income stream."
But Sissons says King's has held out against integration so that it can give parents a true choice.
"Choice to us is really important," he says. "I have a great belief that parents know their children and what is best for their child."
The school's purpose seems unexceptional.
"The purpose of the education is to create the all-round opportunities for the boys at this age group so that they will be able to contribute to society, and to prepare them the very best way we can for their secondary education," Sissons says.
But whereas children in state primary schools typically spend most of their time with one teacher, King's uses specialists for art, music, sport, science, technology and French. Its teacher/pupil ratio is 1:11.
"I don't believe teachers can be all things to all subjects," Sissons says.
When the Herald visited, art teacher Shelley Byers was helping the boys to create paintings inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
"When we first started talking about this, they didn't actually see racism," she says. "A lot of them have found it quite liberating."
In a technology room, boys were designing and making wooden catapults.
In a padded music room, three specialist teachers were working with small groups learning different instruments, using headphones so that they could hear their own students without being disturbed by the other groups.
Every boy learns an instrument from age 5 and French from age 6 because learning music and languages develop brain connections.
"Sport is a big thing in a boys' school, and we have five Physical Education specialists, but I've worked really hard to make sure that it's not the only thing," Sissons says.
Big artworks, some by leading artists such as Nigel Brown, adorn the walls of a new $30 million building with glass-walled standard classrooms, smaller rooms for boys who need either extension or extra support, and large foyers with couches for group activities.
But Sissons is an outspoken opponent of putting large groups together with several teachers in "modern learning environments". Despite all the specialists, boys still start in Year 1 spending three-quarters of their time with a single classroom teacher, reducing gradually to about half their time by Year 8.
"A boy will learn a teacher before they ever learn a subject," Sissons says.
Sissons sees his main job as "getting the very best people and nurturing and developing those people". A special room is set up with equipment for teachers to video their classes so that they can improve their teaching.
"We do pay more, but not a lot more," he says.
Despite the high fees, King's gets about 250 applicants for each annual intake of 125 boys, and Sissons advises parents to put their boy's name down by "age 3 at the latest".
The school website says selection takes account of "historical connection to the school, academic record and school report, excellent command of the English language, extra-curricular achievements where applicable, [and] character of the boy and fit with the school, including Anglican faith".
There is no academic test. Instead, Sissons interviews each boy with the parents.
"I'm really interested in talking to the boy and getting a feel for his love of life," he says.
"Even with a 5-year-old you can have a good conversation if you make them feel comfortable and engage with them. They all get to do a special puzzle.
"It's more about the boy than the parents. One of the criteria you are really looking for is behaviour."
And boys come from as far afield as Albany, Titirangi and Clevedon. School buses run from the North Shore, Herne Bay, Ponsonby and Mt Eden.
Like King's, almost all integrated schools are also founded on a religious faith. They include all Catholic schools and most other Christian and Muslim schools which, like Michael Park, often start as private schools and eventually integrate to gain state funding.
Seven of the country's 11 Steiner schools are also integrated, while the other four remain private.
Although not exactly a religious faith, Steiner education draws on Rudolf Steiner's belief in a spiritual realm and aims to develop "the whole child in the areas of thinking, feeling and willing and also spirit, soul and body".
Michael Park, named after the adjoining Michaels Ave Reserve, aims to "provide the students with skills, understanding and dispositions which enable and empower them to think independently and take responsibility for their actions in the world".
Its curved, irregularly shaped architecture "represents the balance of nature and spirit".
Its kindergarten for children aged 4 to 6 "values self-directed play in a creative, natural environment".
Formal learning such as reading and maths is delayed until age 7, and children then stay with the same class teacher for up to the next seven years. The curriculum includes fairy tales, Māori myths and Irish folk tales as well as mainstream subjects.
"It's a very practical curriculum, we connect to nature a lot," says Storer.
Learning about Norse mythology in term 1 involved cutting up a fallen tree into small name plates, forging students' names in Norse script in the blacksmith's forge, and stamping the names on to the wooden name plates for the children to hang on their bedroom doors.
"Our kids have a connection to understanding where things come from, how they are made, and the value of them," Storer says.
In Steiner tradition, each school day from age 7 up to the end of high school starts with a two-hour "main lesson" on topics such as Egypt or, at the higher levels, "philosophy and the nature of the universe", before starting on mainstream subjects that can gain credits at upper levels for the National Certificate of Educational; Achievement (NCEA).
Students are encouraged to mentor each other. When the Herald visited, a group of Year 8 students were teaching Year 1 children to knit.
"The little ones absolutely idolise them, it's the highlight of the week, and the [Year 8 students] love it too," says Year 1 teacher Sophie Hudson.
"There's no academic pressure on the kids in Class 1. They don't feel that they are working when they are playing with toys and games. But these guys will be at the same level as their mainstream peers by Year 2."
As at King's, Storer says parents' donations are used to hire specialist teachers and for facilities such as a large tent used as an outdoor classroom for practical activities. The school has 35 fulltime and six part-time teachers, a teacher/pupil ratio of about 1:10.
Michael Park's students also come from as far as Swanson, Maraetai and Waiheke Island. But the school is not big enough to have its own buses, so parents must either drive children to Ellerslie or send them by public transport.
The community school
State schools like Ellerslie School aim to be the heart of their community. They follow the NZ Curriculum, but the document is broad and schools are encouraged to make it relevant to their own families.
"We are localising the curriculum. We are using local people all the time," says Butler.
"We have a very good connection with One Tree Hill College for te reo and for their facilities because we don't have a hall at the moment. We are part of their Kāhui Ako [community of learning], there's a lot of sharing of knowledge and skills."
Within the school, too, the philosophy of shared learning spaces is that teachers draw on each other's strengths rather than struggling in isolated classrooms.
"That was mandated by the government, really. If you wanted a new classroom block you had to go with it," Butler says.
"It took a bit of adapting. We went through a lot with our teachers to get the pedagogy right. Finally, you have teachers working together day in, day out. It's a collective environment."
Actually the design at Ellerslie is not as radical as in some new schools, where up to 100 children work together in one large space, with break-out rooms for smaller groups.
Ellerslie's version looks like traditional classrooms with one wall missing. Three teachers still teach about 25 students each in three corners of the space, but each teaching area opens on one side into a common area.
"Each child has a guardian teacher, but they could move between groups for different subjects," Butler explains.
The Years 5-6 space has one small break-out room for teacher aides to work with individual children, but it has no external windows and is called "the cave".
"It doesn't suit everyone, just like single-cell classrooms don't suit everyone," Butler says.
"The majority of your school population will fit anywhere. It's the careful placing of those who need a bit more care to get a bit more out of them, and that also goes for the teacher as well.
"We spend a lot of time getting the combination of teachers right. Some teachers are brilliant with certain kids with alternative needs.
"We have six single-cell classrooms [the prefabs]. If you were to build a new school, I would look at a dual design to cater for those kids that would do better [in smaller classes]."
Butler's view of education is conventional.
"We are educating kids to get those fundamental skills for life, particularly reading, writing and maths. However there is a whole world out there that they need to be ready for that involves them being skilled in the key competencies," he says.
The school emphasises "the five Cs of learning (creative, confident, collaborative, compassionate, curious) and the five Bs of behaviour (be kind, be a good friend, be helpful, be respectful, be responsible)".
The school is funded for 43 fulltime-equivalent teachers, or one for every 19.5 students, but also uses parents' donations to employ two specialist music and technology teachers, a part-time counsellor and teacher aides.
Butler, whose father Bret Butler was headmaster of King's School in the 1990s, has taught in both state and private schools here and overseas and says there are excellent teachers in both systems.
"I would say that the quality of teaching in your local school is equally as good as your private school," he says.
"That is a New Zealand thing. New Zealand is blessed with many, many high-performing primary and intermediate schools that would sit on a global standard as being excellent."