School zoning a crazy archaic system

00:19, Aug 03 2014
deborah coddington
Columnist Deborah Coddington.

The government calls them zone cheats. They are the families who Ministry of Education officials catch rorting the system by pretending they are living in a zone and sending their children to a state school they think will deliver the best education.

One can only have sympathy for these parents. Robbed of choice, they are breaking the rules for the best intentions - they just want what is right for their children. They are desperate to get their sons and daughters into schools like Auckland Grammar, Epsom Girls Grammar, Mt Albert Grammar, Gladstone School and Ellerslie School but cannot afford to live in those areas, so they cheat.

For whatever reason, the schools in their neighbourhoods, the schools which their children should by law attend, are not the schools they would choose. However, if parents cannot afford fees for private or integrated schools, then they have no choice but to accept second or third best. They are stuck with what is on offer up the road.

Why this crazy system? With preschoolers we look around for an early childhood centre we think suits our needs, is convenient in terms of distance from home and work, and within budget - usually in that order. Then the government subsidies per child go to the provider.

When we go to tertiary training we choose where, geographically, we wish to study. If you live in Auckland, you are not restricted to Auckland University; likewise Dunedinites are not zoned for Otago University.  As a tertiary student, you choose, and the government funding for your qualification follows you to the tertiary provider.

But for some reason we do not trust families to choose their children's primary and secondary schooling. 

The only winners from this policy are property owners and real estate agents. It creates a headache for the so-called ''sought-after'' schools, and heartache for the parents who are told to remove their children. 

It also diminishes the standing of the schools from which the parents are fleeing, which are quite possibly good schools, but that is not the point. Imagine if the Government dictated what family doctor we had to enrol with, based on where we lived, or which supermarket we shopped at? 

If New World Remuera had inspectors at the door checking that every shopper who entered did indeed live in the vicinity, and was not sneaking in from Otahuhu or Ranui because they chose not to shop at the supermarkets in those areas, we would be outraged, and rightly so.

Some schools today are forced to hire private investigators to check parents' addresses are bona fide. Years ago I was a board of trustees member of one such school, and as a journalist practised in the cruel art of door-knocking, I was tasked with early-morning checks on suspicious enrolments. Back then parents were trying it on for the same right reasons - their kids' future. 

Many of these families were new immigrants using business addresses in the zone to try to enrol their girls in the grammar zone, scrimping and saving, anything to educate them out of the poverty they had left behind in their home countries.

It does not have to be like this. The Netherlands abolished zoning in 1917. The state pays for education while parents choose the school. 

But that will never happen here because of two powerful interest groups - wealthy property owners in grammar zones, and teacher unions. Both have a vested interest in this archaic system.

So governments will continue telling families that bureaucrats know which school is best for their children.


Sunday Star Times