Editorial: Reconsidering decile funding

Editorial: If they can improve on the decile system for funding schools, then great. It has the flaws that can be expected from any such broadbrush measure. But let's be very, very careful to ensure that it isn't ditched or substantively changed until we are good and confident the replacement would be better.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has the Ministry of Education looking at the broad issue; a process that she cautions will not happen quickly.

The decile system, under which schools serving lower socio-economic parts of the community get extra funding, arrives at its rating figures by examining five aspects of each school community's background: household incomes, occupations, household crowding, educational qualifications and welfare benefit levels. People tend to assume that property prices are directly factored in, but they aren't.

A recent study from the New Zealand Council for Educational Research has found decile 10 schools (serving the most affluent communities) still get about $1100 more per pupil to spend a year than decile one schools, despite the lower-ranked schools getting more Government money.

That should hardly surprise anyone, because on top of Government funding, schools stick their hands out directly to parents and those who can afford to contribute more are doing so. It's not that the more hard-up parents care less. They just have less ability to stump up.

Ms Parata has yet to study this report and seems initially suspicious of its findings. But not because she is an ardent supporter of decile funding, which she calls "very clumsy" through its concentration on averaging everything out.

As the ministry considers the wider issue, it will need to factor into its thinking a report in the less-than-soothingly titled new book Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, which draws from many authors an examination of New Zealand's rapid increases in inequality.

Writing on education, Cathy Wylie acknowledges some progress closing the gap between pupils from poor homes and others, but concludes that it's not all about how funding gets allocated. Our education policy struggles with the consequences of schools being left to stand alone and compete. This makes it harder for schools to work together, to share and build useful knowledge and offer new programmes.

It becomes harder to provide children from poor homes with schools that have an even social mix.

Some of the suggested solutions go well beyond education itself; such as ensuring social housing is available in more areas.

Others are just plain non-starters, like making access to schools a matter of ballot rather than location.

Increasing social mixes in schools could be achieved, the author suggests, by moving to a district-wide approach to defining enrolment zones rather than "continuing to use enrolment zones that schools largely defined for themselves in the 1990s".

There's more - like setting the levels of parent donations; reserving 20 per cent of all school places for students from poor homes (but how to decide which without balloting, again?) and funding low-decile schools to provide innovative programmes that will also attract students from middle and high-income families.

Make of that little lot what you will. But, in any case, and however slowly it may happen, change is afoot. It's not a bad idea to try to get suggestions before the public good and early in the process.

The Southland Times