Archive for Deciles

A fair share in an unfair world – The Demise of Deciles

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

3 August 2017

 

At last the decile system has gone! Announced in the early 1990s. it was intended to be a mechanism to take account of the socio-economic status of schools in assigning resources to all schools or, to put it more crudely, it was meant to deliver increased funding to schools who taught students who were at risk of failing.

The formula was built around five factors related to the socio-economic standing of parents and caregivers and their level of education, their occupations, the number of people living in the house, and the degree of benefit dependency.

Through a complex process of ranking across the five areas, the numbers were crunched and a “decile rating” tattooed firmly across the forehead of each school. This was to become a badge of honour for those in Deciles 8-10 or a mark of shame for those in Deciles 1-3. Schools in the Decile 4-7 range were in something of a state of suspended judgement in which the reputation of the school depended on other things.

At a time when it was launched there was a developing maniacal level of the worst sort of competition between schools. There was no show at all of the decile rating system being used as a neutral means of assigning resources more fairly. At that time, I was a Principal of a low-decile school. Rather than hugely increased resources which the high-decile schools alleged was being delivered to low-decile schools, I was instead the beneficiary of commiserations and voices lowered as a sign of deep sympathy by others when they discussed the school. That scheme could hardly have been launched at a worse time.

So, let’s be clear – when it came to reputation, high deciles were the winners and low deciles were the losers regardless of school quality. The shocking history of the way low-decile schools were regarded over many years was certain evidence that our national system was broken and that New Zealand could harbour no false impression that it was a united country at least in terms of schooling, This was a situation that flowed from the perceptions of groups of people about other groups of people; it flowed from the “secret courts of the hearts and heads of men and women”; it flowed from a media with a voracious appetite for slinging the dirt at those who were down; it flowed from real estate agents whose views on schools were based only on decile-ratings and “what that told you” about one area or another.

But those going to the low-decile schools saw themselves in this way. Of course, those who went to high decile schools knew they were better than others, those who went to low decile schools often enjoyed going to school, were taught by many excellent and a fair proportion of superb teachers. Teachers who knew that education was about helping people to grow and making changes were attracted to low decile areas. Never make the mistake of thinking that ‘high decile’ and ‘low decile’ are or ever have been an automatic proxy for ‘high quality’ and ‘low quality’.

But that has all changed with the announcement that deciles are out as a risk assessment of the student body in each school replaces it, perhaps 2019 students is in. While not a lot of detail has yet been revealed, some clear distinctions emerge between the old and the new.

  • The money will be follow the students assessed as carrying a risk into their schooling rather than being apportioned on the basis of a statistical generalisation based on a set of untested assumptions about a demographic group in a geographic area.
  • Schools who have disproportionate numbers of students with considerable risk will receive their fair share of the funding that reflects the actual proportion of their student numbers who meet the criteria and not be limited because they have been assigned to a category based on a relatively crudely decile or some part of a decile.
  • The early information suggests that the assessment will be on risk factors known to have a close association with low achievement, be based on actual families and young people who go to the school. The assessment will be based on data which reflect the actual issues faced by a student which impact negatively on their school progress.

The actual categories are a comprehensive list of factors that are known to directly impact on a young persons school performance:

  • Proportion of time spent supported by benefits since birth
  • Child has a Child, Youth and Family notification
  • Mother’s age at child’s birth
  • Father’s offending and sentence history
  • Ethnicity
  • Youth Justice referral
  • Benefit mother unqualified
  • Proportion of time spent overseas since birth
  • Most recent benefit male caregiver is not the birth father
  • Mother’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • School transience
  • Country of birth
  • Father’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • Migrant /New Zealand born
  • Number of children (mother)
  • Mother received third tier benefits (payments directed to alleviating hardship)

Clearly the calculations will achieve a far higher level of granularity than previously and, most importantly will not be made public – schools will receive their funding as part of the annual process – bulk funding, however unpopular with teachers, would be the ultimate protection of this anonymity.

The biggest challenge will be to the professionalism of all in education to resist attempts to undermine this new approach and to “leak” or to become partners in dirty tricks with the media that might wish to deconstruct the funding package – were this to happen it would simply perpetrate the dubious behaviours of the past. I have faith in the integrity of the our profession which I hope will in turn  have faith in this unique and bold approach to finding a level of social equity between schools.

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More blessed to give donations than to receive a compulsory fee?

Something seems to have gone a little awry when the principal of a large Auckland school calls for state schools to be allowed to charge a compulsory fee especially when that school collects $1.9 million from 78% of its families through school “donations”.

The claim is made that a student in a low decile school gets $932 more than a student in a high decile school.  This might be true but I do know that some time ago I did a little exercise to compare the low decile school of which I was Principal with a particular Decile 10 school and, when roll numbers were equalised and other factors such as incidental costs and other forms of income taken into account, the high decile school had an overall funding advantage of about 25%.

Now that was a long time ago (mid-1990s) and I accept that the gap has narrowed a little as governments have set out to address the differentials in student achievement and student need.

That is why it is a little less than the whole picture to claim advantage for low decile schools – that is perhaps why the principal was careful to note that the differences were for state funding. The whole picture needs to include:

  • the capacity of the school to collect “donations” from its parents and a high level of fee (oops, that should read “donation”) from a very high percentage of parents;
  • the capability of the school to attract international fee paying students which is generally income at the margins with perhaps additional support with English – but it is a worthwhile income stream for high decile schools;
  •  the willingness of parents to pay the costs of participation in many activities;
  •  the support that is derived from alumni of the school;
  •  the response of parents when asked to provide digital devices for the students
  •  the generally large size of the high decile schools’ rolls;
  •  and so on…

The fundamental principles of the New Zealand education system are that it be universal, free, and secular.

The first of these, universal education, is clear and remains the goal. The level of children under the school leaving age who disengage from school challenges the system in achieving universal education which could well be better measured in terms of outcomes rather than the simplistic and now inadequate measure of whether they can get to a school.

The third of these, secular education, was strengthened with the development in the early 1970s of the category of “state integrated” schools. Most school systems have their church school with varying degree of independence and that provides for parent choice in the matter of values and religious observance.

But “free” means “free” – no child should be denied an education because they cannot pay. It does not mean that those who can pay more shouldn’t do so, but in “state schools” parents cannot be forced to pay more. Of course schools all over the country test this principle with donations requested in a manner that implies compulsion, extravagant school uniforms that cost ridiculous sums of money, demands that students have their own digital devices, and increasingly charges associated with activities.

State schools are state schools. I am not troubled, as Chris Hipkins seems to be, by the thought that the schools raising the matter of compulsory fees would become more elite. Too late Chris. They already are. Look at housing costs in the XYZ Zone. The recent report in the newspaper about all this concluded that rather than buy houses at inflated prices to get into the XYZ Zone and taking into account the subsequent cost of schooling, parents might be better off to buy outside the zone and send their child to an independent school. That is a telling conclusion that surprised me.

 

And coming in at number five!

 

The New Zealand Government spends $13.3 billion a year on education and of that $130m is directed towards reflecting the increased needs of some communities when it comes to education.

Despite the relatively small size of this decile funding pool, the media is trying hard to get a beat-up going even before the actual impact of the recalculations are known. “Deciles” were introduced into our system to achieve one thing, provide a mechanism that would allow additional funding to be directed towards areas of greater need.  It is a relatively sophisticated approach that takes into account the multiple factors that compound to create educational disadvantage.

Deciles were not introduced to allow schools to have bragging rights.

Deciles were not introduced to make it easier for real estate agents to talk up house prices in some areas.

Deciles were not introduced to make possible the absurd level if daily flight that occurs (especially in Auckland) as parents drive their SUVs across and around the city to deliver the little ones at a “better school”.

But the most elegant aspect of the decile rating system is that it is based neither on untested assumptions nor on blind prejudices. It is simply a picture of the slice of the specific members of the community who attend a specific school.

So there is no need for the bleating that has started already about “losing” funding. Funding is what you get, no more no less. Schools get funding also on the number of students, the age and experience of the staff, the property needs and so on. The decile funding lags a little behind over the actual period during which a school’s demography changes to produce an increase in the decile rating. Such a school has probably been over-funded during the period when this change has taken place. On the other hand, a school that experiences a decrease in decile rating has had to get by on a little less than that they will have when their situation is accurately reflected in the rating.

The decile ratings were introduced for noble reasons. But have they fulfilled these? Probably not.

We still struggle with student achievement levels that only creep upward and certainly the gaps that still exist between schools, suggests that the decile tool has had little impact. No wonder, when 90% of the funding to schools is delivered with blatant disregard for decile ratings. If there is an issue with decile funding it is that it is too small a proportion of the education spend.

The answer would be to attach funding levels not to schools neatly lined up in ten groups, but to individual students. It would not be difficult to attach a dollar value to the provision that needs to be made for each and every student and the complexity of doing so would be lessened by the ability to engage technology to achieve it.

This would be a powerful lever to lift the schools that have to face up to the hard yards of underachieving students, that have high levels of transient student swirl, that have widespread language issues and so on. The provision of adequate services and assistance boils down to having the funding to provide it.

If the task of having an individual education plan for each student is too large a task, then have some lines below which all students have a plan. Start with next year’s intake at Year 1 and build up the development over the following years. At that point, decile ratings might be a thing of the past.

The media make an automatic link between decile ratings and white flight that has reached seriously troubling proportions. Aucklanders dream each day during the school terms of the bliss of less cluttered roads that will arrive when the school holidays are on. It is marked to such an extent that seriously tolling roads at higher levels during the school delivery / drop-off / retrieve periods of the day might have to be considered. And what are they fleeing from? The very same communities in which they live? Their neighbours? It is all symptomatic of a social issue that is not talked about.