I'm pleased to see The New Zealand Herald putting education in the headlines. It's important for society to understand the critical issues facing schools and students, and why some kids are not achieving the way others are.

But I have a problem with the reporting of schools and their success- or not - by decile.

The word 'decile' needs to be erased from our vocabulary. It has created more misinformed headlines than I care to remember. That's because the term decile, and in particular 'low decile' is misleading when it comes to talking about success.

There is a far more interesting question to thrash out in the public space, and it's this: why is there a greater variation of achievement within deciles than across deciles?


Simply put, there are schools in the lower decile range that achieve on par with higher decile schools, and there are high decile schools that do not achieve as well as low decile schools. What we should focus on is; what are those successful schools doing, and how can we replicate, and expand, this success?

As the principal of a low decile school - something I'm always loathe to describe given the stereotype and misinformation - I know our students' success is not just possible but probable when we focus on what matters. For us, this means great teaching every day in every classroom, being evidence-based about our practice, and having a learning-focused partnership with our community.

We've learnt that getting good outcomes for our students means designing a curriculum hand-in-hand with our students. Having our students ask powerful questions that matter gives reason and purpose to the need to read, write and calculate. We know our students need to answer these questions in a way that makes a difference not only to them, but to their peers and communities.

We teachers must stay focused on what highly effective teaching looks, sounds and feels like. We need to continue to ask questions about our teaching practice and work with each other to answer these questions. We're far from perfect, but we do have a good sense of our imperfections and we constantly work towards improving them. We've learnt not to be distracted by the 'noise' that sometimes fills the space about our schools.

And no, I'm not in any sort of denial. We have families that face hardship and need support in various ways, for all sorts of reasons. We make sure that we address these but we know that our efforts and energies must revolve around our greatest sphere of influence; the quality of teaching. If we don't keep this focus we need to ask why we exist.

Our local academic, John Hattie's work suggests (and this is based on his meta-analysis of tens of thousands of studies on education) that variability in the performance of teachers isn't being acknowledged. He says there are degrees of achievement within schools, as well as regions.

Hattie, who is now professor and director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, doesn't blame teachers per se, he says they need more support systemically - across schools and systematically within their own school. For these reasons we, as schools, need to work alongside each other on the things that make a difference.

Between us we have many of the answers to success for all our children, regardless of what school and classroom they find themselves in. Communities of Learners are an opportunity to do just this.


So we shouldn't just take it at as axiomatic that low decile means low achievement. What we need now is evidence. We need to work collegially and collectively across deciles. That's our challenge and our opportunity.

Barbara Ala'alatoa is chair of the Education Council of New Zealand.