Education sector happy to see deciles go, but not sure about what's coming next
It's one of the biggest school shakeups in recent years, but how is scrapping decile ratings for something called the Risk Index going to improve things for students and schools? Laura Dooney reports.
Aaliyah Vitime, a Porirua College student, could have gone to Samuel Marsden Collegiate, a private, high-decile school her cousin had been sent to, to get a 'better' education.
"I came to Porirua to prove a point," the 17-year-old says.
The high-achieving year 12 student says being at a decile 1 school does not mean she's any worse off academically than other kids at high-decile schools.
But it is hard to make other people understand that.
* Decile system to be scrapped and replaced with 'Risk Index'
* Scrapping the decile system won't change perceptions of schools
* Q&A: Why are we getting rid of school deciles, and what is replacing them?
"I think people think when we get excellences [in NCEA] that it's not the same as if someone got excellence at other colleges ... they think it's lower ... you'd get the same mark at [nearby] Tawa College."
The stigma attached to going to a low-decile school frustrates her classmate, Roseta Lopa, 16.
"I feel like ... we're judged based on it [the decile], not based on our learning, and what we're capable of within our school."
Sixteen-year-old Murray Faivalu has friends and cousins at boys' schools in Wellington.
"We have a lot of students who live in Porirua who go out to schools that are a higher decile than us, they live close to the college. When we ask them why, they've [said] we're a decile 1, we're a low school.
"It's better to be here."
All three agree an announcement by Education Minister Nikki Kaye this week, confirming that deciles would be scrapped by 2020, is a good thing.
In making her announcement, Kaye said she wanted to see a culture shift away from the stigma deciles attach to schools, like Porirua College.
Deciles would be replaced by more targeted funding for students that need it, through a measure called the Risk Index.
Rather than give equity funding to a school based on the wealth – and other factors – of its surrounding community, the index will estimate the number of children in a school who are at greater risk of under-achievement, and fund schools accordingly.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH DECILES?
Introduced after Tomorrow's Schools busted open school choice for parents in the late 1980s, deciles were a way to address inequality that existed between communities.
They were based on the small Census area in which a school's students live, according to the Ministry of Education, and are a measure of the socio-economic position of a school's community, compared to others.
They range from 1 to 10; decile 1 schools are the 10 per cent with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities, while decile 10 are the 10 per cent of schools with the lowest proportion of these students.
Lower-decile schools get more money from the Government, while high-decile schools get less, with decile 10 schools getting no extra funding.
Research shows parents who can will bypass their local school in favour of one they perceive as better, and deciles are often factored into that perception.
Kaye says the current model is focussed on neighbourhood characteristics and is not sophisticated at identifying what achievement challenges each school faces.
"We want to change the conversation as a country to be not about the socio-economic status of a neighbourhood, but to be about teaching and learning as schools."
She says for too long schools have been stigmatised and wrongly judged by their decile number.
Porirua College principal Ragne Maxwell says the news deciles are going is "very, very good".
"They've been used as an overall judgment on students and schools that does not represent reality. Schools that have been labelled low decile are often excellent schools in terms of making a different in students' learning."
If there's a principal who knows the flaws of the current system, it's Mark Potter, principal of Berhampore School in Wellington.
Between 2014 and 2015 the primary school's decile jumped from four, to seven.
The night the 2013 census was done, 80 low-income families in the school's neighbourhood were not at home, because their social housing was being refurbished, Potter explains.
"In a suburb this size if you take out 80 of the lowest incomes it makes the place look a lot wealthier. Equally if 80 of the wealthiest had moved out to extend their houses our decile rating would have gone the other way. It shows what a random act it is."
The school lost $12,000 in funding, and discounts to ministry-offered services like professional development for teachers.
He says the Risk Index could help curb such a dramatic swing in funding for schools.
THE RISK INDEX
The index will estimate how many at-risk students there are in a school. It is yet to be finalised, but is likely to look at the risk of a student not passing NCEA Level 2 using 16 indicators including income, ethnicity, benefit status and a father's criminal history.
Kaye says the index is designed to determine how many children at a school may be at risk of under-achieving, providing more funding to better target children in need, she says.
"No school will lose, and some will get significantly more."
The data will be anonymised – schools won't know who the kids considered to be at risk in their school are. There are fears within the sector that some data will be made public, showing how many at-risk kids a school has, swapping one form of stigma for another, with low decile becoming 'at-risk'.
Kaye acknowledges this is a genuine concern, and is aware of the ways data could reflect on a school negatively.
"There's work to be done, but I'm confident we can navigate our way around that."
She says children will not be able to be identified individually.
Clyde Quay School principal Liz Patara is not sure the new tool will be any sharper with which to better target funding for at risk funding.
She said without knowing who the at-risk children were, it would be hard to make sure they were getting the help they needed.
HOW WILL I CHOOSE A SCHOOL?
Patara says parents will continue to choose schools that reflect their values and socio-economic standing.
"The location of the school will tell them. If it's an affluent suburb, it's going to be an affluent school."
Waikato University's Professor Martin Thrupp says when it comes to school choice, parents rely heavily on the grapevine.
"The informal means by which they [parents] get information is very powerful. Conversations around the barbecue are where parents are finding out about people's experiences."
Kaye expects parents to rely more on Education Review Office (ERO) reports of a school, and that parents will, as they do now, go into schools and talk to other parents before deciding where they want to send their kids.
The minister acknowledges ERO reports could be easier for parents to get hold of, and that they can contain a bit of jargon that can be hard to interpret. She's going to work with ERO and the sector to improve both things.
THE JURY IS OUT
Principals are hopeful, but wary of the new system.
Principal's Federation president Whetu Cormick says there was no concern from schools about the loss of deciles, and principals thought it was a positive move.
But he said there was still the problem that schools were under-funded. The Government needed to make sure it was funding schools appropriately, he said.
"Parents shouldn't be propping up what is said to be a world-class, free education."
Potter doesn't think the Risk Index will go near deciles when it comes to making up the discrepancy in what schools in wealthier areas can raise through parents, compared to schools in poorer areas.
He says the Government's intentions are good, but finds it "intriguing" schools won't be told who the at-risk children are. "How can we be sure we're meeting those needs?"
"The magic question always comes – 'how much money are they going to attach to it? You can have the best model in the world, but if you don't fund it enough, it won't work," Potter says.
Professor Peter O'Connor, from Auckland University, says the jury is still out on whether this very direct targeting will make the difference the Government thinks it will.
"I think quite often with Government reform the devil is in the detail, and we don't necessarily know the detail yet, and what it means, and what it might mean for kids, and communities, and parents."
When it comes to the perceptions deciles have created around schools in the last few decades, most think removing them will not make much difference.
Thrupp again refers to the parental grapevine.
"Schools will continue to be stigmatised with decile numbers for years ahead, because the history of the school is part of this grapevine, parents will know what the deciles and socio-economic make up is now."
Society would still "beat up" on schools in low socio-economic situations and use data from National Standards or NCEA to reinforce that the local school was not good enough for parents, O'Connor said.
Kaye disagrees, saying the majority of feedback so far has been positive.
The Government would no longer label schools around what a neighbourhood's characteristics were, and let people mistakenly think it was a proxy for quality.
There may still be a group of parents wanted their children to go to school in a wealthy neighbourhood, and while the Government could not change that, it could create a culture where teaching and learning was important.
At Porirua College, Maxwell has no doubt people will continue to judge both school and community whether they're labelled with a number, or not.
"The only way such perceptions will change is if people come into schools and see the reality. We invite people to come and see what's going on here. We're not perfect, but we're growing and we're changing."