School governance overhaul

Bernardine Vester

Why removing decile and creating communities of schools is not enough to transform learning in South Auckland


Jane and Cory send their children to Stonefields School, a Decile 9 primary school within walking distance of their home. This fits perfectly with the family’s aspirations for free, compulsory, quality, public education.

Education in Auckland has become what economists call a positional good – that is, something you value because everybody else desires it. A positional good is finite: not everyone can have it. Which school is ‘best’ for Cory and Jane’s children depends on location (zone and travel distance) and price (fees) and social status (who else goes to the school). When the market rules, the rules of markets matter. One of those rules is that scarcity raises price.

This partly explains school zones and why families rearrange their lives around them. Private education is elite and the price is high. In a market, public education will replicate some of this exclusiveness too. In Auckland, as elsewhere, that means popular public schools have a zone, not so small that the local and vocal majority can’t take advantage of it, not so open that the exclusive nature of the school disappears, and not so tightly prescribed that its public value vanishes.

This fine balancing act makes Jane and Cory’s decision-making incredibly important. They shifted house to be in-zone to Stonefields.

The investments people like Jane and Cory make are financially and socially significant. Though school choice has unpleasant side effects – like adding to housing unaffordability in parts of Auckland – winding it back is politically unthinkable.

The minister of education proposes to remove deciles, the brand label of school choice. Decile is a complicated measure. The funding attached to it arrived in the 1990s because of the escalating social problems in distressed communities. It doesn’t measure a school’s quality, but in the public mind it has become the same. Decile values not just the school, it values the surrounding real estate. It adds almost no value to a high-decile school’s income; but adds weighty marketing cachet. From a policy-making point of view it was meant to shift student achievement; it’s been disappointing.

However, it has made a difference to the way Auckland’s schools look. Mai Chen in her 2015 Superdiversity Stocktake report defines the impact of immigration on this city. Less than half of the children in Auckland’s 545 schools are European/Pakeha. Even the biggest and highest-decile Auckland schools don’t fit the Euro-centric model of New Zealanders. The greatest ethnic diversity can be found in the 150 mid-decile schools of Auckland. But, separated out like oil and water, many schools in the south are almost exclusively low-decile and brown. Of the more than 53,000 Pasifika students in Auckland, seven out of ten attend a decile 1-3 school. Eighty-eight Auckland schools have rolls of 50% or more Pasifika students, most of those in the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu and Ōtara-Papatoetoe local board areas. New Zealand’s largest city has segregated housing and segregated schools – and that segregation is sharpening into no choice at all for many families.

Disadvantage is often concentrated. In some South Auckland schools, almost 100% of the children will fall below the expected new entrant standards at first assessment. Schools in highly stressed communities have to manage the presence of security guards, health workers, social workers, psychologists, teacher aides and special needs support staff, community liaison and police, not to mention parents with erratic or anti-social habits. Principals in these schools report that they are constantly firefighting in addition to their regular responsibilities to consult on charter, prepare budgets, lead learning, manage teacher appraisal and help trustees bewildered by their responsibilities. In these circumstances, policy-makers must take a global view of the supports needed.

So what will replace decile?

Prime Minister Bill English is hot on social investment. His preferred policy direction is to connect government funding to statistical risk factors. The New Zealand Treasury’s analysis of children at risk of poor outcomes suggests that a penny spent now saves a lot more pennies later. Thanks to Big Data we now know, down almost to the individual level, which students need early intervention.

Nevertheless, number-crunching to determine the most disadvantaged individuals carries dangers of unethical practice and social stigmas sticking to them and the schools they are concentrated in; little different from the present situation. Schools with few high-need students may find new reasons not to bother enrolling them since the compensation won’t be high enough to reward them for their trouble, nor win them points for inclusion.

Decile funding salves the middle-class conscience about poverty. But the social and academic gulf between middle-class public schools and schools in distressed communities, and the language of competition and failure that are a feature of markets, will not disappear with the removal of decile, however well-intentioned its replacement. This is because the market still requires schools to relate to each other in competitive ways. Removing the decile label is a fair call; social investment policy offers a ‘better value for money’ tool. But it is a tool, and not an answer.

The uncomfortable discovery some years back that our education system is slipping down the ladder of international comparability has triggered the Communities of Schools initiative. Auckland is broken up into 546 competitive individual schools, led by 546 principals unevenly governed by boards of trustees. As Cathy Wylie notes, we find it hard to consistently share expertise across the system. Boards and principals have widely varied capacities to improve and learn about change. 60% of New Zealand’s decile one students learn here. The minister is setting great store by Communities of Schools as the answer to community and learning disadvantage. “It is the difference between schools competing for roll size and education providers collaborating in an organised and systematic way in the best interest of all children,” Hekia Parata said. Will it happen in South Auckland?

To compete or collaborate is a real-world tension.  In low-decile areas, competition has scarred relationships and created a climate of suspicion and retrenchment. It is possible to shift ways of working, of course, but Communities of Schools (CoLs) are just a halfway house to a bigger-picture view of how area-wide public educational services could or should function.

Improving the whole system – as distinct from improving individual schools– means having a local intermediary to monitor and manage public education services across an entire suburb—all of Papakura; all of Ōrākei, for example. Networks of public services nested within local communities, owned by them and accountable to them, will only arrive when we add governance that creates area-wide thinking. To change how key stakeholders in the system relate to each other and exercise power requires next-generation governance; an overarching catalyst – perhaps a Papakura Educational Network Commission or a Manurewa Network body – able to inquire, from a community development perspective, into the choices all families have within an area; support the quality of individual school board decision-making and professional leadership; and identify the strengths and gaps in public services in the area.

A fundamental purpose for public education is to build social cohesion and inclusion. Our public policy for governance of schools has patently failed in that purpose. To make every school a good school is a core public service task. The current school governance arrangements have been subject to much tweaking, with little impact on the segregation of Auckland or the life chances of its Maori and Pasifika children.

Jane and Cory’s investments in school choice can be preserved. However, to connect their decisions to social equity means that policy-makers must think harder about the levers within the system. School Governance 2.0 should be a policy-making priority.




Categories: Education, Inequality
Bernardine Vester
About the author

Bernardine Vester

Bernardine Vester is the author of Southern Transformation: Searching for educational success in South Auckland, published by Victoria University Press and available from good bookstores and online from She is the former Chief Executive of the City of Manukau Education Trust - COMET (now Comet Auckland), a former PPTA Vice-President, is Chairperson of Teach First New Zealand and Te Tuhi Contemporary Art Trust in Pakuranga.