How to fix NZ’s school funding shortfall

Some high-decile schools argue their high fees from international students do not add up to a meaningful advantage. But as Dr Vicki Carpenter argues, perhaps New Zealand needs a more equitable approach than letting well-off schools feather their own nests while others suffer.

When is advantage not advantage?

Apparently, some Auckland decile eight to 10 schools are not feeling advantaged despite the high fees they are able to command from international students, and their ability to do what they like with that extra money.

As a case in point, Macleans College told RNZ it would be in a "world of trouble" without the extra $5.65 million it earns from fee paying students. The school’s principal, Steven Hargreaves, said the school’s offerings would be "very bread and butter" without the international students – 30 extra teachers would not be employed, class sizes would be bigger, there would be less learning support, and much less on offer in extra-curricular areas.

The school faced parental demand for specialist teachers in areas including the arts, sport and music, Hargreaves said. Yet this privileging of students in an Auckland, wealthy, middle-class suburb is seen by stakeholders as a natural right. The school leader appears unable or unwilling to recognise the advantages the school and its community reaps.

In the three decades since the Tomorrow's Schools reforms of the late 1980s, situations like Macleans have evolved and grown. From the early 1990s, researchers established the lack of any level playing field in state-provided education. Those schools with financial and (the dominant) cultural capital became very advantaged, and those financially and/or geographically poorer usually missed out.

Macleans College, and what it appears to offer, is worlds away from what is feasible in schools in low socioeconomic areas and in many other parts of New Zealand. This is partly because of inadequate state funding, but mostly because aspects of privatisation are now considered acceptable in state-provided education.

Competition between schools is today seen as natural and normal. One result is that many of Auckland’s decile eight to 10 school communities are in a unique position to feather their own nests.

Whose interests are being served by the current situation and the anomalies it presents? Certainly, most pupils in schools in wealthy communities are very advantaged. However, don’t we have a schooling system which purports to take every child to her or his potential - not just those in schools which can make millions extra from international students? Statistics constantly remind us that pupils not reaching their potential in education are most often Māori, Pasifika, and those resident in low socioeconomic areas.

A state education system which consciously enables and endorses advantage by certain school communities over others is not something we should  condone or be proud of.

No matter how we spin the dice we cannot, hand on heart, say that every child in every secondary school in New Zealand has the same or even equitable opportunities provided by the various state schools they attend. We know that much fairer opportunities and resourcing are necessary in schools where community educational resources are lacking, and where home circumstances (such as food poverty, crowding, health issues) affect students’ abilities to learn.

Solutions are possible. Here is but one suggestion: arguably fee-paying international students make huge use of existing state provided resources and facilities. Why should individual schools be able to pocket all the fees? Why not a requirement to "bank" a good percentage of fees in a communal fund, which can then be redistributed and used in a way that means education for all is more equitable and better funded?

The advantaging of some schools over others is one of the dilemmas those on the Tomorrows Schools taskforce attempted to address. Our country needs all students to reach their potential, not just those attending schools which are able to recruit overseas students, and/or charge high fees.

All schools need adequate and equitable resourcing. Replacing school donations and fees in economically poorer schools with a grant will undoubtedly help, as will the recent announcement regarding extra infrastructure funding. I sense, however, that these and similar moves will not be enough.

As election year approaches one can already see some of the important recommendations of the Tomorrow's Schools taskforce vanishing into the ether. A fairer education system needs virtually all those recommendations to be enacted, and more.

The disparities and inequities such as those discussed here require enormous political wisdom and fortitude. A state education system which consciously enables and endorses advantage by certain school communities over others is not something we should  condone or be proud of.

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