Emma Espiner: Should I engage in ‘Brown Flight’?

Emma Espiner ponders a flight away from a decile 10 school, towards one that would give her daughter a richer cultural experience

Reports of the demise of school 'deciles' have been exaggerated, with the system receiving a terminal diagnosis many times since its implementation in 1995. But an announcement by the Minister of Education Hekia Parata last year signalled the school rating system would soon be history. Its replacement? Undecided at this stage. A review of the funding system for state schools is underway, with implementation scheduled for 2020.

The Government's aim in setting up the decile ratings system was to identify schools with the highest proportion of students from the most deprived households and give them more funding. This was in recognition of the barriers to educational achievement experienced by students living in poverty.

'Unintended consequences' describes the fallout from this policy: the decile rating became a proxy for quality, and the decisions made by parents in response to this have contributed to significant demographic shifts in schools and impacted the state school system irrevocably. 

The most stark example of this has been the phenomenon of 'white flight' monitored by demographic researchers who have tracked the decrease in NZ European/Pākehā students in schools with the lowest decile ratings. This has been especially evident in South Auckland where our schools are increasingly segregated along ethnic lines.

The Ministry of Education's website states clearly:

"A school's decile does not indicate the overall socio-economic mix of the school or reflect the quality of education the school provides."

My husband and I knew this, yet when our daughter was born we gave our closest local school a cursory glance, noted it was a decile 10 and considered ourselves lucky to have the increasingly rare advantage of a home in Auckland and a good state school nearby. But in an alarmingly short time our baby became a pre-schooler, the choice of school weighed a little heavier on us and a high decile rating turned out to be a blunt and mostly meaningless indicator.

While not the leafiest of the leafy suburbs, there's a reasonable amount of foliage on our street and the demographic mix reflects that. So it’s hardly shocking that our local school is about as diverse as a Hobson's Pledge meeting. It's also incredibly well-resourced, has a glowing ERO (Education Review Office) report and is a 10 minute toddler dawdle from our home.

Our family has two major items on the wish list for our daughter's school outside of baseline expectations about a nurturing and safe environment. The first is academic rigour and the second is integration with Te Ao Māori.

'Academic rigour' deserves clarification. Neither my husband nor I excelled at school, and we're not currently hot-housing our 3-year-old to be Dux in 14 years. We see school as a vehicle for social education first and most importantly. Hopefully she will also accumulate some useful transferrable skills for the unpredictable work environment of the future.

'Integration with Te Ao Māori' is a bit more complex. The Education Review Office measures success for Māori students under the Government’s obligations as a Treaty partner. Reading between the lines, our local school scored somewhere around the 'is trying but could do better' measure. We want our daughter to have a strong connection to her identity as Māori including fluency in Te Reo. At the very least we expect the teachers to be able to pronounce our Māori family name correctly.

There are several special character state schools which offer bilingual learning and accept out-of-zone enrolments for bilingual or immersion units. None of the ERO reports come close to matching the academic success indicators of our decile 10 local school.

My own experience was of ethnically diverse schools and opportunities to celebrate my own and other cultures in authentic ways - with actual members of those cultures. I took Te Reo through to university and practised Mautaiaha and kapa haka. This early foundation in Māoritanga lay dormant for many years as my career took me to workplaces where I was often the only Māori in the room, yet it was there for me when I came back to reclaim it in recent years.

The Māori side of my family also placed a great deal of importance on success in Te Ao Pākehā. My Dad chose not to speak Te Reo at school. He wasn’t part of the generation which was punished for speaking it, but by the time he went to school the insidious shadow of the cynical attempts to assimilate our people had stretched a long way. He didn’t want to speak our language because “you couldn’t be bright and be brown”. And he was bright. He didn’t want to be a ‘hori Māori’.

My Nanny (his mother) was Ngāti Porou and when Dad told me about how she pushed her kids to walk with confidence in the Pākehā world he recalled the words of our Ngāti Porou tupuna Sir Apirana Ngata:

"E tipu, e rea, mo nga ra o tou ao, ko to ringa ki nga rakau a te Pakeha hei ora mo te tinana, ko to ngakau ki nga taonga a o tipuna Maori hei tikitiki mo to mahuna, a ko to wairua ki to Atua, nana nei nga mea katoa." (Thrive in the days destined for you, your hand to the tools of the Pākehā to provide physical sustenance, your heart to the treasures of your ancestors to adorn your head, your soul to God to whom all things belong.)

Back to 2017 and we’ve come to characterise this as a choice between our two major criteria: academic or cultural. But what if we want both? What if Te Reo was compulsory in New Zealand schools and our local school flourished in cultural as well as academic success? What if the bilingual and immersion kura became the model for all state schools? How multilingual could we become as a nation if all our children are bilingual from an early age? How much more integrated and cosmopolitan could our society be if our schools reflected our increasingly diverse ethnic demography?

For us, we haven’t decided which path to follow. In some ways, it comes down to who should have responsibility for what in the school-parent relationship. Which of the gaps is it easier to bridge ourselves? The cultural or the academic? 

Should we go against the trend and head down the decile ratings - that could be said to be Brown Flight. 

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