State-integrated schools: preserving elitism or providing diversity?
Trevor Barman sounds nervous.
The future of his school rests on a crucial application that could be sitting on the education minister’s desk right now.
Barman is headmaster of Hereworth School, a small private prep school in Havelock North set among 9 hectares of rolling, park-like grounds, and where 200 boys aged 5 to 12 wander to class in emerald blazers.
After 100 years, the school is planning to welcome girls in 2023, and has applied to fundamentally change its financial structure: joining the state system as a state-integrated school.
That means it would receive government funding, like a state school, to pay teachers and for books, equipment, IT and some property maintenance – while still being able to charge thousands of dollars in fees to parents.
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In May 2021, Hereworth School Trust Board chairman Jonathan Henseman, along with Barman, announced the proposed changes as the most significant developments in the school’s history.
Rising costs were squeezing the school’s finances, Henseman said in a media release at the time. “Becoming a state-integrated school for boys and girls is the best option to ensure Hereworth’s longevity.”
Nearly a year on and Barman is still waiting to hear the application’s outcome from Wellington.
“I’ll be honest, it will help with our financial sustainability, but, more importantly, over the course of the three years I’ve been here, we’ve had a large number of parents that would like their daughters to experience the same education opportunities as their sons,” he says.
Parents have told him they want to send their kids to the school but that it’s too expensive.
Day students pay between $14,000 and $18,000 to attend Hereworth, and boarding fees start at $26,000 a year.
And the school roll has staggered around 230 for the past several years – noticeably, it has not increased.
Barman expects becoming integrated and co-ed could increase the roll to 350 in a staged intake over the next few years.
The school could survive without state integration, he says, it is not in significant debt – but breaking even is tough.
“We financially plan very carefully, but it is an issue for us, and we have to look at the sustainability of the school going forward.”
Barman declines to cite exact figures, but suggests day fees could drop to about $9000 a year if state integration is successful, and boarding school fees could drop by a third.
He says the school will be able to maintain its special Christian character, quality of education, teaching, pastoral care and sense of community while doing this.
If successful, Hereworth would join a network of 331 state-integrated schools.
The origin of integration
The history stretches back to 1975, the third Labour government, and the Catholic Church.
Many of the country’s Catholic schools, which were private, were close to bankruptcy due to mounting financial pressure through the 1950s and 60s.
Priests and nuns who had provided free labour were leaving classrooms for parishes, and the schools needed to pay for teachers, while dealing with crumbling buildings.
The idea behind the Private Schools Conditional Integrations Act, credited to MP Jonathan Hunt, was that allowing these private schools into the state system would relieve the government of the gnawing financial burden of having to construct and fund an entirely new set of schools.
An agreement between the government and the school sets out its ‘special character’ – usually a philosophical, or religious belief. The schools must still teach largely within the New Zealand curriculum.
They receive government funding by numbers of students, but retain ownership of the buildings, through a proprietor: generally the school board trust or the church.
That means they can charge compulsory “attendance dues” to parents – including for some property maintenance, to construct new facilities, and to help pay off debts the schools had before integration.
The amount of those dues must be signed off by the Ministry of Education.
Seven decades on, nearly 93,000 students go to state-integrated schools – 11% of the school population. There are 236 such schools in the North Island and 95 in the South.
It’s the only type of school to have increased in numbers in the past 25 years.
Special characters and special fees
Since 2011, 10 schools have become state-integrated: four Christian schools, two Muslim schools, one Jewish school, a Rudolph Steiner school, and two te ao Māori-focused schools.
And just as the ethos of the schools varies, so do the fees, which range from the hundreds to the thousands.
Take Auckland’s Zayed College for Girls. A decile 3 high school in Māngere, it describes itself as providing a “supportive islamic environment within a New Zealand context”. Compulsory attendance dues are set at $300 a student each year. Its annual report shows government grants of over $1 million.
Motueka’s Rudolph Steiner school is set on a former sheep and apple farm. It’s computer free, offers wood-carving, hut-building and gardening lessons. The school charges $2099 a year in attendance dues, to fund new buildings on the farm site.
While attendance dues for state-integrated schools don’t appear to extend above $3000 a year, it’s the extra charges applied on top that could make some parents gulp.
Waikato Diocesan School for Girls, for instance, charges a comparatively low $431.25 in attendance dues, but then asks for a proprietors’ board donation of $5462, and a board of trustees donation of $2815 – taking the day students’ fees to nearly $9000. Boarders pay more than $24,000 in fees.
The prestigious Anglican school Whanganui Collegiate was controversially allowed into the state system by the government in 2013 following financial troubles.
It lists a golf course and indoor gym facilities at its heritage-listed site.
The school charges $2760 in attendance fees annually for all students, but $2015 for boarding meals, and $8685 in boarding facilities for day students. That brings the total number of charges for day pupils to $13,460. For boarding students it’s $23,285.
The 2020 annual report shows it received more than $4m in government grants.
Schools deserve scrutiny – expert
Whanganui Collegiate is a controversial example of a state-integrated school, says John O’Neill, professor of teaching education at Massey University.
Then Education Minister Hekia Parata initially recommended the school not be made state integrated, on the advice of the ministry, but changed her mind following Cabinet discussions.
Reports at the time cited the school owing millions of dollars in debt. Shortly after integration, Parata criticised the school for increasing its fees.
O’Neill questions the justification for allowing an elite private school into the state system to survive.
The schools should be scrutinised as objectively as possible, he says. How do they ease pressure on the state?
Using state funds while preserving an elite status through fees – even dressed up as donations – could act as a barrier for many families.
He questions Hereworth School’s reasoning too. “People are saying we would like to send our children to this very nice, elite school, but we can’t afford to – effectively that’s asking for a subsidy from the rest of us for them to be able to have their children enjoy a very privileged form of schooling.”
But it’s not black and white: state-integrated schools serve an important purpose, he says.
And it’s not unfair that the schools charge for upkeep of buildings or for a new science lab, music hall, or drama facilities. They are required to keep up to the standard of their state counterparts.
“It’s good in principle that the state system should accommodate diversity because it’s inclusive of people who otherwise might feel marginalised because of their particular passions or commitments.”
Education providing ‘choice’
Barman says he cannot comment on the ethics of state-integrated schools, but stresses that state integration would serve community demand, providing an extra choice for Hawke’s Bay families in an area projected to grow.
“[State integration] will make it easier for the parents to enrol their children at Hereworth. It will help enrolment accessibility, financial stability, and stronger and more diverse community relationships.”
Whanganui Collegiate headmaster Wayne Brown says government funding for teaching and learning can't cover boarding school costs for a school that’s 85% boarders.
The $8685 for day students includes access to “house” service facilities in the school, including the housemaster, matron, health centre, registered nurse, clinical psychologist and on-site tutors.
Day students participate in extracurricular activities outside the normal school hours, he says. They might arrive at school early in the morning and get picked up at 9pm, during which all school facilities are available to them.
Fees were also recently used to fix leaks in the dining room roof and excavation of major pipe issues in the on-site pool.
He strongly disagrees that fees create a barrier, or that the school is “elite”, saying scholarships are on offer to those who might need them.
Education is an investment and a choice, he says. “There is certainly no level of class, that’s not what we look at.
“We’re in a position where we are seeking to be the first-choice co-educational boarding and day school in New Zealand.”
Former Whanganui and Palmerston North principal Kevin Shore is highly involved in the state-integrated sector. He is chief executive of both the NZ Catholic Education Office and the Association of Proprietors of Integrated Schools.
He points to waiting lists for state-integrated schools, which indicates parents see the need.
“That need is around, do we cater for diversity within our education system? Diversity is not just ethnically based, it’s also the diversity of different religious beliefs and flavours.”
An entirely new Catholic secondary school, St Ignatius is on the cards for the expanding Pukekohe area, and that will be funded by parents’ attendance dues.
“That could cost anywhere between $50 and $100 million. Unlike a normal state school, where the government would fund that, the Catholic system would have to fund that, and the only way is through attendance dues.”
He maintains most Catholic schools keep attendance dues at $900 or less. When asked about all the extra charges the schools seek, Shore says integrated schools have the right to ask for them, just like top-decile state schools.
“I’ve worked in state-integrated schools where the highest decile was a decile 6, the others were 4s and 3s: to say that there's privilege there is very much a broad brush.”
Schools for ‘those at the margins’?
In Christchurch, St Thomas of Canterbury College principal Steve Hart is hesitant to be a spokesperson for all integrated schools.
But he’s confident in the mission by which he leads the year 7-13 college in Sockburn – and says it’s not elitist.
The philosophy of Christian Brothers’ founder Edmund Rice underpins the school’s teaching and learning, which is “to live for those at the margins”.
Fifty per cent of the school population is Pākehā, and 48% Pasific, Māori and Filipino, he says.
“We have one of the most diverse communities in Christchurch ... it’s by no stretch of the imagination a wealthy community.”
The school charges $839.50 in attendance fees, and $1110 in “contributions” or donations, which are tax deductible and can be claimed at the end of the year.
“We actively make sure we support our families who might be struggling financially, so they can keep furthering their Catholic education,” Hart says.
Back in Havelock North, Barman hopes a phone call from the ministry will guarantee state integration and assist the school.
“The school means an awful lot to me ... it offers lots of opportunities to the students, the staff are extremely dedicated, there’s a willingness to go above and beyond from all sides.”
O’Neill, on the other hand, is looking at the big picture.
The simplistic divide between free public schools and full private schools has gone, and the notion that public schooling should be free has been eroded.
The “extraordinary” charges some state-integrated schools seek goes against a core function of a public education system, he says.
“Given a state schooling system is supposed to be about improving social mobility and reducing educational inequalities, then it seems unfair in some senses that it allows them to do that, because it does create enclaves of schools that parents and families don’t have access to.”