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

Most parents seek to do their very best for their children, often at great personal and financial cost. They are faced with endless choices they are told directly impact on their child's future. In recent times, this has developed into a multi -million dollar education industry which feeds on parents' fears for their children.

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To give their child the edge in a highly competitive world, parents of 3 year olds are encouraged to have their children engage in reading courses, pointlessly and cruelly worrying they won't be school ready. Trading in the joy of play, of being free to be a child, these children are readied for their place in the global work force. Schools operate as competing business units, only too aware that the way they present themselves to the parent market is vital to their survival. Individual achievement at as early an age as possible is marketed and sold as a guarantor of success in later life.

Parents are warned make the wrong choice of school and you doom your child to a life of failure. Yet the truth is that achievement at school is a poor indicator of success in later life in the things that truly matter. Yes in some limited fields they determine entry into university. But there is no correlation between achievement at school and how successful you are at making and keeping positive and healthy relationships in your life, no correlation between achievement and happiness, no correlation between achievement and level of contribution to the betterment of society. In short, personal academic achievement is oversold. And selling schools on this basis, grossly undersells schools.

If you view schooling as purely about how achievement will help guarantee a good job in the future for your children, that too is delusional. The promise that higher and ever higher skill levels and qualifications lead to wealth denies the reality of global capital that constantly promises the dream but rarely delivers on it.

The choice that parents make on the school they will send their child to is a very important one for the child and also the community in which they live. Those of us who call Auckland home tend to curse parents who exercise their right to send their child not to their local school on the first Monday of the new term. The disaster which is Auckland transport is but one casualty of the replacement not only in government policy but our national psyche of the cherishing of equality for choice. Those old of us to remember the inane dullness, the beige of Auckland before the neo liberal revolution of the 1980s can truly understand the gift of choice. But we also know what we have lost.

Then, there was an assumption, and a fairly accurate one that the local school was as good as any school, that the state because it was committed to equality worked with the mission not of creating choice between schools but of excellence in every school. It was a time when charter schools would have clearly been seen as the nonsense they are because why would you need them if your local school was well resourced and teachers were valued members of the community they worked and lived in. Perhaps SERCO and the dismal record to date of charter schools is reminding us now that the market doesn't always get the delivery of core government services right.

So why would you choose your local school now? Simply because all the evidence suggests that the edge in education parents seek is not gained with fancy technological gadgets, nor in this idea of effective or good teachers. The key is in the quality of the relationship that children have with their classroom teacher. And we simply have in New Zealand amongst the very best teachers in the world and you can pretty much trust that the ones in your local school are as good as the ones in that expensive private school down the road. And in comparison to those in charter schools you know they are trained, registered and teaching a world class curriculum.

And if more of our kids go to their local school, we have a chance to rebuild a sense of community, not dependent on play dates but because our children play in the streets in which we live and they go to school together. And we refuse to be marketed to, to be sold the lie that our community and our school is not as good as that one down the road where the richer kids go to. We can build our communities from the school out. If more kids go to local schools then they could stop spending tax payer money on marketing, on PR, on differentiating themselves but focus instead on the core role of schools. That role is not literacy and numeracy but about creating a community of happy kids learning about the world and their place in it. And perhaps we might return to a notion that the great national treasure, which is public education, needs to be safeguarded in each and every school.

Oh, and the difference it would make to Auckland traffic all year round would be amazing.

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• Peter O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland.