Schooling in an era of economic inequality

Liz Gordon

In mid-2015 I published an article revealing the effects of 25 years of ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ on the schooling system in New Zealand. It showed that, as a result of families choosing ‘up’, socially and economically, the schools serving New Zealand’s poorest communities were now, on average, 2.5 times smaller than those serving our richest communities.


The first effect of this shift is that the poorest schools lose the economies of scale that larger schools have. In any enterprise, having more people makes the per capita cost cheaper, at least to a certain point. This economies bonus allows schools to build halls, upgrade facilities or offer additional services.


The main secondary effect is that needy populations become increasingly concentrated into the schools at the bottom. If 321,000 children now live in families with incomes below 60% of the median income, and half of these children go without necessities because of that, then these children have significant contextual barriers to learning.


Also, New Zealand has a big learning gap caused by social and economic factors. The OECD in 2009 noted that the most potent indicator of learning gaps at age 15 was the number of books in the home, followed by, in order, mother’s educational achievement, father’s educational achievement, and amount spent on schooling (up to $5000 – apparently investing in private schooling does not promote learning).[1]


The average child living in poverty begins school around two years behind in basic literacy, numeracy and readiness to learn. It is a crucial gap and in trying to overcome poor early learning teachers find that whatever they do, their students continue to lag behind the school-ready, book-enriched, experience-rich, travel-rich, talk-rich, rich-rich affluent society. Whereas these gaps are nothing new, increasing inequalities put a major strain on what has always been difficult for our schooling system: giving everybody opportunities to succeed.


The Minister of Education often notes that the learning gap is caused by teachers that fail to properly teach the children of the poor. There is no evidence of this, and plenty of counter-evidence that New Zealand has a very evenly qualified and committed teaching workforce. It is a shame that, for 30 years now, attacking teachers for not doing their jobs, rather than looking to causal factors, has been the main government response to inequality of educational outcomes.


Elsewhere I have written about the social gaps that have grown up between groups in New Zealand. In an article about a bus ride on the 486 bus from Auckland city to Otara, I talked about the shift in passengers from the leather handbag brigade, to the night and shift workers with their tired looks and work uniforms, to the single parents with pushchairs who all seemed to know each other, to the two patched gang members taking their son/brother to the Manukau mall. I asked why others did not travel all the way on the 486 bus, and thought there were three reasons:


One, we live in an economically segmented society and those with lives or business in the wealthy parts of the city are rarely also needed in South Auckland (and vice versa). Two, the poorest areas are out of our sight and out of our minds; they are marginal to us and our sense of place. Three, our bodies are scared of South Auckland, of what we will find there in that gang, alcohol, violent, arson, disorganised, brown, different space, to use some of the images of the south often portrayed in the newspaper.


Indeed, the principal at the school I was visiting noted that her school was best known for the barbed wire fence it had been forced to put up to stop vandalism, rather than for its significant anti-poverty programmes.


There have been two main political responses to schooling in an era of poverty and inequality, although more are to come this year with the review of the school funding system. The first has been the creation of what are known internationally as charter schools, but here are called partnership schools. These are based on the fallacy that the private sector always does things better than the public sector. Perhaps the private sector, if given the funds that schools get, can sort out the education of the poor? Thus schools in the poorest areas, already struggling with decreasing numbers, have these newcomers foisted on them, and the change is supposed to improve outcomes.


What I am most concerned about is the content of the curriculum these schools will teach, and the lack of a requirement for trained teachers. In any other field, like plumbing or hairdressing or auditing accounts, qualifications are seen as a pre-requisite for doing work.  Teachers are expected by the state to be qualified, but in charter schools teaching qualifications are not required, and this is seen as a strength. It is all a bit worrying and puzzling.


The result is that charter schools can adopt any approach to learning they like. Models that have been lauded in other countries include those that require students to walk along the corridors holding a finger to their lips, to remind themselves to be quiet. Silencing the poor is surely quite a political act, but in this case it was seen as a way to get children to focus and learn. What learning means in such a context, of course, is being spoon-fed knowledge from above, and expected to absorb it whole. This contrasts with the learning we expect for kids in our highest decile students, which is expected to be challenging, of high quality and focused on the whole person. Powerful parents would be outraged if their kids were silenced in the school context.


The second political response has been to embrace the possibilities that occurred as a result of the shift from School Certificate to NCEA to increase the number of qualified school graduates. NCEA has been uncoupled from everything. There are now multiple routes to it, inside and outside the school (for example the youth guarantee fees-free scheme), and 85% of 18 year olds are expected to have passed the benchmark NCEA level 2 qualification by next year. This is pure credential inflation – it does not improve our comparative position on international scales of learning at all – but is aimed at opening up pathways to higher learning.


What is means in effect is that kids who are three or so years behind in their learning end up with the same qualifications as the rich kids – although there are hierarchies within NCEA qualifications based on subject choice and performance. I do support the idea that all our students can get qualifications, but predict that, at some stage, there will be a backlash.


2016 will be a big year for the schooling system. The best that can be hoped for is that the very clear evidence about the causes of schooling gaps will guide the likely change agenda.



[1] Gordon, Liz (2013) Who achieves what in secondary schooling? A conceptual and empirical analysis. Retrieved from

Categories: Education, Inequality, Poverty
Liz Gordon
About the author

Liz Gordon

Liz Gordon in Managing Director of Pūkeko Research Ltd and an Adjunct at the University of Canterbury. Her research interests cover the field of education, social policy and justice. She carries out research for government and community organisations and private clients. She is also very involved in community and research sector governance.