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School competiton vs cooperation

John Laurenson

I have been a principal of a secondary school for more than 20 years. In that time just about every principal I have come across will privately acknowledge that the way the country’s school network functions has to change. However until the central government recognises that legislation is required to achieve such a change, things are going to remain the same.

My intent here is to provoke discussion and if I am successful in my intent, just maybe, like the little boy, who alone stated that the emperor was naked, get parents of school-aged children to recognise that what this country currently accepts as normal and good, is in fact completely unacceptable and ultimately destructive of this countries egalitarian foundation. When that occurs it is my hope that the power brokers in Wellington will be pushed into action.

To better understand the points I wish to make below, here are some observations:

  1. The current school system is creating homogeneity, as schools become less diverse and segregation along socio-economic and ethnic lines increases.
  2. Schools better prepare their students for life after school when they truly represent the heterogeneous mix of people that is found in general society.
  3. While this is palpably apparent to most, the people at the centre who create policy are not willing to admit that the system they allow to continue is doing major damage to society. This unwillingness arises because the people at the centre work towards re-election every three years and the power brokers in society mistakenly believe that maintenance of the ’elite’ schools that (mostly) their own children attend, somehow benefits all children and everyone in society.
  4. The state system is separate from the private school system, however this does not stop predatory actions by the private schools who target the brightest and best in state schools through scholarships and the like. This situation is exacerbated by a government which props up the private system to the tune of nearly $46 million of taxpayer money each year and in addition makes more than $4 million of taxpayer money available for private school scholarships.

Since the advent of Tomorrow’s Schools, when schools became self-governing, inter-school competition has exploded to the extent where education in New Zealand is built on competition between schools. On the surface as most people will recognise, this competition is focused on things like sporting activity; however at a deeper and much more significant level the competition between schools is actually for students, and far more sinisterly, for the ‘right’ students.

Because of this fact our educational community has become polarised. At one end of the spectrum lie our most successful schools, these are the ones the media often label ‘Top New Zealand School’, the ones real estate agents are fond of promoting. These schools tend to be ‘white’ except in the sporting arena where they tend to be (courtesy of scholarships) brown.

At the other end of the spectrum lie our so called less desirable schools, where failure features prominently, even though such schools, in most cases, add significant value for their children. They are not where most parents would willingly send their children – negative publicity and a less than level playing field sees to that.

Schools compete for students because school funding is dependent on the number of students enrolled and also because schools are judged by their current communities, by Ministry and by potential customers- i.e. future students – on the degree of success achieved in examinations, as well as performance in sport and cultural activity. Schools have to live with this competitive reality, so naturally to thrive – or at least survive – they compete with each other for students in the first instance. But then beyond that, the unspoken reality is they compete for the ‘right’ student, one who brings collateral that allows the school to successfully compete in the world of academic activity, sport and cultural activity.

And the outcome of that competition?

The strong get stronger and the weak weaker; the inhabitants of The Leafy Suburbs see their schools grow larger and consequently they get more resources while the inhabitants of the poorer suburbs, where the streets are mean and survival involves more of a hand to mouth existence, get weaker, less able to meet the needs of their community. Worse than that, because of competition, the best and brightest who live in those mean streets are snapped up through scholarships (or more subtle means) by the schools on top of the heap, further strengthening those schools and while hollowing out schools that struggle.

Much more could be said, but space does not permit that in this particular forum, so what I would like to do is raise some questions with you, to get you thinking and hopefully debating whether the continuation of what we currently do, is desirable, or not.

The raw material for all this competition is children, and in my view that is neither professionally nor morally justifiable. Further, most if not all educators recognise this, but recognition of what is wrong does not stop them from living with the harsh reality of the need to survive. An example of the reality of living in a competitive environment is the huge amount of taxpayer money that is given to schools to help children learn, which is subsequently diverted to publicity, to promoting the school in the public domain through a glossy prospectus, attractive web site, media advertising, open days, scholarships for academic, sporting and culturally strong students and a whole host of other things. My belief is that in this area alone, millions of dollars of taxpayer money, meant to help children, is of necessity diverted elsewhere. One point to keep in mind when thinking about this fact, state schools do not just compete for students against each other, they also compete with the taxpayer subsidised private and integrated school system, with all the extra resources  those schools have to offer.

Two comments and some suggestions for a way forward to finish off:

I believe that our current definition of what constitutes success needs to change, it is far too winner/loser and exam orientated.

Secondly if a young person fails, there is a negative economic and social impact on all of society, no matter where particular people might live. We ignore the development of the ghetto at our peril.

Finally an answer? Truthfully I do not have one, but I do have a suggestion. The quest for an answer must start with the government, not the education sector.

What would happen if a government decided to change things?

  1. What would happen if at central government level a committee sat down and began working on the goal of removing competition for students from the way we do things?
  2. What would happen if it decided to create a new definition of what constitutes success and if it began with the aim of making every school in the country equally desirable?
  3. Finally what would happen if they asked how every school could be made responsible for every student’s success, no matter where that student was enrolled or lived?

I, along with many of my colleagues, would love to be involved with such a government initiated project!

Categories: Education, Inequality
John Laurenson
About the author

John Laurenson

I am neither spectacularly good at things, nor at the other end of the spectrum particularly awful either. I am best described as an ordinary Kiwi who has taught in several schools – lower decile and mid decile, single sex and co-educational. I have been Headmaster of Shirley Boys’ High School for almost 21 years. One thing I am passionate about however, is our Kiwi egalitarian traditions, the erosion of these has prompted me to speak out.