Stay of execution for deciles endorsed

Planned changes to the emotive decile system have been scrapped, but does anyone really mind the wait? Shane Cowlishaw reports.

In 1995 when the school decile system was introduced, the creation of the “double Grammar” real estate zone was probably not on the mind of politicians.

But today, few topics in education arouse more debate as we grapple with how to remove the stigma that has grown around those ten loaded numbers.

Based on census data, deciles are a measure of a school community’s socio-economic position.

They range from one to 10, with decile one schools having the highest proportion of low socio-economic communities and getting more funding from the Government.

The problem is that despite the deciles having no reference to educational achievement, many parents view low decile schools as automatically inferior and will send their children across town to what they perceive as a better option.

Last year, before the election, former Education Minister Nikki Kaye announced deciles would go.

In its place would be a risk index that would estimate the number of children at each school or ECE service who were at risk of educational underachievement.

This would be done through assessing a wide range of factors and would better target money to those in need, Kaye said.

“The problem is deciles have become a pejorative label - it’s like animal farm: high decile good, low decile bad."

Kaye pledged no school would be worse off and planned to make the change by 2020.

But the proposal has been whipped off the table by her successor Chris Hipkins, who announced on Wednesday any changes to deciles wouldn’t be happening any time soon.

In a cabinet paper, Hipkins described the scrapped system as a “major underfunded promise” of the previous government.

Under the per-child formula more schools would have lost funding rather than gained it and to keep things at the same level would have cost $100 million a year for just the schooling sector.

The risk index idea may still have a future, however.

Hipkins said work would continue on broadening it out across the education sector and whether it could be applied to areas such as school staffing or student wellbeing. In the cabinet paper, he indicated one possible use was plotting a student’s life trajectory after they finished school.

For now, deciles are here to stay and will be recalibrated in 2020.

Deciles are always a hot topic but the funding based on them only makes up around three percent of a school’s operational funding.

The Government’s first Budget received a resounding thumbs down from a disappointed education sector which was expecting much more than the 1.6 percent increase in operational funding.

None of Labour’s major election promises in the area were introduced, leaving unions and teachers frustrated.

"How the media present schools is always interesting. If you have a good First XV all of a sudden you're one of the best performing schools, and that’s not right.”

That tight fiscal approach will also have been a contributing factor in the decision to not push ahead with the risk index.

Both major education unions cautiously supported Kaye’s announcement to scrap deciles but have remained quiet on Hipkins’ decision.

For them, teacher shortages and pay rises are more deserving of the cash. Saving money by keeping the decile system should mean more wriggle room to address those problems.

While some may not place deciles at the top of the to-do list, they are often on the mind of one important group - the students.

The stigma that surrounds low decile schools is keenly felt by many who attend them, as illustrated by the students filmed for this story from Stuff.

“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,” one of the Porirua College student said.

Neil Watson, the principal of South Auckland’s decile one Otahuhu College, told Newsroom he doubted deciles were top of mind for his students but they were well aware of how their community was portrayed.

“Our students are aware that when anything bad happens South Auckland gets mentioned … you don’t hear there was a stabbing in the Auckland Grammar zone and I think how the media plays on that has more impact than the decile system.

“The media coverage doesn’t help, to be honest. How the media present schools is always interesting. If you have a good First XV all of a sudden you're one of the best performing schools, and that’s not right.”

While agreeing the decile system was outdated and needed to be refined, Watson was happy to wait for it to be done properly.

This view was echoed by Ann Dunphy, an honorary academic at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education, who said it was important to take time to have a thoughtful and mature discussion about how to reform deciles.

“The problem is deciles have become a pejorative label - it’s like animal farm: high decile good, low decile bad.

“I think the current Government is being cautious and see how they can strike a path and see how they can make the best of both worlds. It’s a vexed issue.”

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