A transport of dilemmas

Stuart Middleton


22 February 2010

The recent Inter-Party Working Group for School Choice Report, Step Change: Success the only Option, is something of a curate’s egg. This issue is whether you will want to scramble it or use it for throwing at the Church Fair.

Produced by a working party of members of parliament from National, ACT and the Maori party, it sets out to abolish school zoning without actually doing so. To achieve this it wraps itself in a mission to address issues of underachievement, especially that of the low-achieving 20%. All very noble and who could disagree with that? But being a political report it must keep faith with the faithful so it also links into it suggestion the 5% “most gifted and talented”. And who could be surprised by that.

And what is the key recommendation. That those two groups be able to take their education resource and take it to another school that will be “out of zone”.

I have argued for a long time for increased flexibility especially towards the senior secondary end of the compulsory sector. But I think that this proposal has in it some real difficulties.

What does 5% and 20% mean? Will it be 5% / 20% measured nationally within each school? If it is 5% / 20% nationally then who is in that group and how do we know other than in general terms? And between schools, the  “most gifted and talented 5%” and the “low-achieving 20%” will be groups that are as different as chalk to cheese.  

Those identified as being in the low-achieving 20% group in a low decile school will be a very group from those identified in a high decile group if “20%” is to be the measure. Similarly, drafting out the gifted 5% from dissimilar schools will produce results that are all over the show. That is, unless there is to be a national test of some kind. It seems not only difficult but certain to introduce another inequity into the system.

Remember when Reading Recovery was available to the bottom X% of students in each school captured in a net at 6-years old? Yes, the programme was excellent but access to it skewed in favour of students in higher decile schools who received the wonderful extra help while many in low decile schools who would have been easily eligible had they been in a higher decile school missed out.

Further, the sheer numbers are cause for reflection – could this ability to transfer resources to other schools really be given to 25% of the school population?  In 2009 that would have meant that 190,214 students were changing schools. OK, it will have to be restricted in some way. Would decile ratings help? Supposing for a minute that the concentration of low-achieving students is in Decile 1 – 4 schools, and forgetting for a minute the comment above, that would result in a group of merely 60,376 students in the scheme. Using the same logic the gifted, were they thought to be in high decile schools (7-10), would number just under 18,000 in the scheme.

Please don’t tell me that this makes little sense – I know that. But this is a curate’s egg that is very hard to slice.

There is some interesting commentary in the report on the performance of students and some words wrapped around a commendable wish to see increased flexibility. But is this the way to get it?

It was instructive that, in commenting on the report, John Hattie, whose research is called in to support its drift said that this was not the way to achieve it. You need to address these issues within the school rather than believe that they will be addressed by movement between schools was the message he gave.

But what of the low-achieving students who wait while this is done? What of the gifted and talented who want a different stimulus. The two groups are different. The first waits while their lives are put increasingly at risk by an accumulation of failure that will finally sees many of them disengage. (Is this where the 20% comes from? 20% of students have left school by age 16.) While the second group will continue to demonstrate their talent and giftedness but experience a frustration that is more benign in its impact on the community despite being really frustrating to the students and their parents. There seems to me to be an easy and attainable solution for the talented and gifted. Less school, faster progression through school and increased opportunity to have breadth of experience will in many cases meet their needs. The issue is that the talented and gifted plod the same path as those of us who are not. Liberate them to use their special talents and to express their giftedness, just get on and do it.

The low-achievers are another challenge. Low achievement is often an accumulation of factors of which learning in schools is but one. But it happens also to be the only one that can probably change that. This is where the effort must go. Nothing must be spared to address the issue of low achievement in the interests of both the individual students and of us all. New Zealand cannot sustain the current patterns of achievement without serious future consequences.

So what might be done? Three ideas:

Shifting a few students around will not get a step change; shifting teachers around might? If the Working Group believes that shifting low achieving students to other schools is the answer, then get the same effect by shifting teachers to where those students are.

Giving students likely to become low achievers access to quality early childhood education would be a good place to start. Abandon the 20 free hours scheme – it is so badly targeted that it just about misses every bulls-eye and use the resource to increase the impact of quality early childhood education.

Tighten up the school zoning requirements so that we return to an education system where schools reflect their communities and have in them the mix of students that the proposed scheme seeks.

 The report is understandably ideologically driven. Interesting ideas, thought provoking, challenging – it is all of these things. But a step change it will never be.

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