Money makes the world go round, is education making it go flat?

(with acknowledgement to George Bernard Shaw who had an opinion about us)

I work with a colleague who is fond of saying that “when money walks through the door, love flies out the window.”  So too, it seems do a few other things such as professional principles, concern for equity, decent behavior and a sense of modesty.

Well that is what it looks like with the various issues that money raises in education at the moment.

First there is the one related to school fees, compulsory donations, call them what you will. Such requests (and let’s be clear, in many cases these are demands) range from a modest $30 per family up to sums in excess of $1,000 per student. Private schools can and do charge whatever they like so that is not an issue. But state schools cannot. These requests are not allowed and this is confirmed year after year when the full flush of summer brings this issue to the attention of the community. Every year it is the same old story.

But this year there has been a new twist. One school hands out a badge that in essence identify a student as coming from a compliant home which has paid the fees demand. Another has isolated students until the “matter” is resolved. These are the instances that make it into the media. I would imagine that there is a further range of pressures applied that are less draconian and more gentle.

Will next year see the debt collectors actively engaged in following up the defaulters?

This issue needs tidying up. As for the bleating from high decile schools that they are struggling for funds – my estimation that equalizing the funding coming into secondary schools for size and factoring decile ratings and all that goes with that, high decile schools are at least 20% ahead of low decile schools in terms of actual funding. A school of 2,000 students charging $1,000 is collecting $2.0 million – to suggest that this compensates for the funding going to low decile schools but not to them is simply laughable.

Secondly there is the matter of partnership schools (charter schools some insist on calling them) and the employment of teachers. It is reported that a partnership school has recruited teachers from a high decile school and is paying them more. Teachers are paid more to shift schools all the time – it is called promotion. The practice of attaching MUs to certain positions in order to be more effective in attracting applicants is a standard practice.

The money mentioned is that up to five teachers were recruited and paid up to $16K more. Let’s assume that the five teachers were all paid that amount extra – that is a total of $80k spread among the five. That could be done in any school if they had the capability of managing their own destiny with regard to the deployment of teachers. Appointing five teachers and using the funding available for six would achieve this result.

Perhaps many teachers would be prepared to negotiate a contract that allowed this to happen.

And this brings us to a third money issue. Despite the notions of “self-managing schools”, now entering its fourth decade as an organizing principle for education in New Zealand, schools actually have very little capacity to manage themselves. Funding continues to be delivered in pre-spent bundles of cash attached to categories of expenditure which are predominantly fixed in a formulaic manner.

This is not much different from my dear Mum who would take the monthly pay that my father brought home and assign it to a series of tobacco tins each labeled with a category of expenditure – power, the milkman, school uniforms, food, etc. Despite the rhetoric, schools have about as much flexibility as my Mum had, including knowing at the end of the month just how much “cash” she had for other things.

This lack of flexibility on school funding acts as a brake on schools being comfortable in encouraging students who would be best to pursue a pathway other than in a school (such as the many pathways that are opening up now for students to do this). This is because there is some weight in the argument that as a student marches off to find success elsewhere, they see a little bundle of resources marching off with them, resources that have probably already been committed.

A self-managing school needs greater ability to manage money rather than simply do with it what they are told they can do.

Money is a real issue in education. It is time that issues such as the delivery of resources to schools were examined. And it is certainly about time that the demeaning issues of school fees in state schools was dealt to decisively.

New Zealand spends about as much money on education as do the very successful (in both achievement and equity) systems. Let’s now set off to get a similar bang for our buck.



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