Bill English sits on the mat with Taita College students and questions the value of deciles
It was back to school for Bill English on Thursday morning when he met with a group of high achieving students at Taita College.
The Deputy Prime Minister was invited to the school by two students after he told a Hutt Valley Chamber of Commerce audience in June that government should ask students from low-decile areas what worked rather than relying on overseas academic literature.
"Let's go and ask the 16 year-old born in Pomare about what happened. We don't do that, so we don't know what works," he said.
Seated on the mat at the school's marae, English spoke about the challenges the government faced in lifting achievement for the most disadvantaged 1 per cent of students.
The government was quite good at setting up and running schools. "But we're not quite so good at understanding individual needs and we're not that good at organising around your community."
Students would be surprised, he said, to find out how much time government officials spent gathering information and thinking about students like themselves and how to lift their prospects.
"What all this information tells us is what your grandma can tell you ... that is for young people, keeping them on track is really important."
The nine students then told English what was going well for them and their peers and what needed to be improved.
Kaisa Fa'atui , who was one of the students who invited English to the school, said there were significant struggles in his community.
"I won't sugarcoat it. [Some students] are fighting wars on two fronts, one at home and one at school."
Despite that, his fellow students had more pathways than most people would be aware of, he said.
Year 13 student Tessa Porter said the biggest challenge for Taita College students was around assumptions people made about the school.
Porter, who is half-German, returned to the college for her last year of school after spending a few years in a large school in Germany.
"People said to me 'are you sure you want to go to that college' and I thought that was really sad."
She believed students and teachers had been working hard to shift people from negative perceptions.
English suggested the government could do something significant to help change those perceptions.
"Can I test out an idea on you? You talk about a set of assumptions, right, some of those assumptions are driven by decile rates. And we could change that."
Decile ratings had become "a bit of a label" on schools and students which didn't accurately portray what things were like on the ground.
" Across your school there are some kids who are really struggling but there are plenty of them, even if they're from the state houses around here who are just doing what you're doing, getting on, taking up the opportunities."
"What do you think of the idea of saying 'let's scrap the decile label' and just focus on the individual kids?"
The response from students - near universal approval.
"Deciles definitely don't reflect the students," one of the year 13s said.