Zoning out

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.13, 10 April 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

Taken at face value, reports that current arrangements for zoning are preventing students enrolling at the secondary school attended by their mother or father suggest that it is time to look at zoning again.

A key role for schools is to serve the community and this can be interpreted in terms of geography, a physical local zone, or in a variety of other ways. The communities that cluster around different sets of religious views are well served by their particular schools – Church of England, Roman Catholic, Jewish, conservative, evangelical and so on. Those with specific views on education can opt for Montesorri or a range of other schools with different ways of working.

Different ethnic groups are catered for through nga kura kaupapa Maori, or Muslim schools, or Pacific Island language nests and other kinds of schools.

But it seems that wanting to attend the state school your father or mother went to will not be a reason to allow the school to give preference to that child rather than another who also comes from out of the zone. This seems daft.

Having spent time at Berkeley a little while ago I was greatly impressed by the Homecoming Weekend when families – two or three generations of them – return to their alma mater to celebrate the connection of schooling that gives the family members something special to share. And so too could it be with some of our schools that over many generations have educated different generations of the same family.

Of course it is a simple thing to correct – this strange business. The rules of school zoning need to allow for a next generation student to be enrolled thus reducing the number of out-of-zone places to go into the ballot by one. Would this be too hard?

The argument that having some schools well over-subscribed while others have space is wasteful is a good one. We don’t want that. So school rolls should be tightly regulated to make effective use of the state’s resources. Independent schools can do as they like – that is a straight business decision for them. But state resources should be managed well.

Perhaps a solution is to create another category of student – son or daughter of former student. As space becomes available at schools, zones can be adjusted to ensure effective use of sites. In this case the rights of siblings to attend the same school would need to be protected.

We have had twenty years of searching for the market that was going to deliver the uplift in quality. We have waited in vain for competition to lift achievement standards. We have been patiently waiting for the system, freed from provider capture,  to relentlessly pursue the private gain of students without any clear change to the profile of success. Education marches on.

The reforms of the late 1980’s attempted to change the business of education into an education business and in so doing turned school zones and the freedoms to enroll students into key strategic factors in the battle for market share. Then the rules were changed and it seemed to settle down. But every now and again the issues rear up. Real Estate agents continue to plug the GZ and add $100,000 to a house that is in it. Understandably there are plenty of people whose concern for their children drives them to make the investment.

But many others have no choice and happily attend their local high school or primary school and do well. But not in the same numbers. It is therefore a little bizarre to hear reports that 20% of students in state schools are from “out of zone”. Several high schools have in excess of 60% out of zone enrolments while many are around 50%. This is surely unwise.

In New Zealand’s largest city education is credited with generating 30% of the daily traffic. How things have changed in a lifetime. Fleets of buses criss-cross the Auckland region delivering young people to schools outside of their part of town.

In the old days (fade in Andre Rieu), we attended local schools, travelled by foot or by bicycle and parents were comfortable in the knowledge that the local school was a good school. There was none of the mobilising of battalions of SUV’s to transport platoons of little soldiers to far off battlefields where the fight against ignorance could be fought. No, it was simple. We packed our school lunch, said goodbye to Mum and set off. To primary it was on foot and our group grew as we called in on successive friends who then joined the trek. To secondary it was on bicycle, wet or fine. Remember the sea of bicycles at each secondary school as recently as the 1970’s?

A review of school zoning has been announced so let’s get back to the basic principles.

All parents should be able to send their children to the local school and be assured that the quality of education is high quality, well resourced and likely to give opportunity for each student to realise their full potential.

  • State school resources should be regulated to maintain maximum use of facilities through regulating the size of schools.
  • School should have some flexibility in accepting sons and daughters of alumni but not at the expense of maintaining a controlled size. 
  • Where schools have special character (single sex, religious orientation, special character and so on) should have some flexibility in enrolments but state schools in this category should operate in an environment in which schools size is regulated.
  • Minimising the impact on traffic in urban settings should be a consideration.

Getting an accurate picture should be more easily achieved now using the unique student identifier and the postcode. But just like much that we do, progress will come only if we want access to educational institutions that is equitable, fair and recognizing the different aspirations of members of the community.

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