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The Rosy Glow of Equity Continues to Evade New Zealand Schooling

Stuart Middleton


25 October 2018 

It started with my sitting down to my cornflakes, opening the NZ Herald yesterday and reading that the New Zealand schooling system has become slightly more equal[1]. That’s good news! As someone who has a deep professional interest in such matters, it seemed that the tide of inequity was turning. However the pleasure of this disappeared as quickly as the milk in the bowl as the article revealed that this was the result of the richer students slipping downwards while the poorer students raised their achievement a little. The improvement you get when you don’t get an improvement!

Simon Collins had distilled from the report the essential nub of the equity issue in education. The current schooling system cannot and has never led to equitable outcomes for all students. The lift for poorer students was recent and slight. The downward drift of the richer students has been shown steadily in the past nearly twenty years of data.

There are those who take solace in the fact that we are not the only country in this position – Australia is one. I bet the other English-speaking schooling systems are in this all together. It is a systemic feature of such systems but since this is an OECD Report, their long-held and oft-stated view continues to shine through – “while no country in the world can claim to have eliminated socio—economic inequalities in education………it does not have to be a ‘fixed feature of education systems.”

The NZ Herald article goes on to describe the gap as “huge” and as previous reports have noted it is “the equivalent to about three full years of schooling.” New Zealand is worse because it has a very low score compared to the average.

The article held interest for me in another piece of information:

“On some measures, the socio-economic gap in New Zealand has continued to widen. For example, the proportion of poorer NZ 15-year-olds  feeling that they ‘belong’ in school           slipped from 85 per cent in 2003 to 66 per cent in 2015.”[2]

I have over many years drawn attention to the inability of schooling to hold the attention of a significant number of students in the Year 10 to Year 13 age group. It is where disengagement has become a feature, where a number of students are yet to find purpose in the schooling and is a time for many when a pathway to a future is no longer apparent. Again New Zealand is simply weak in this area, it is as weak as Australia and 29 (out of 35) OECD Countries.

This is the very statistic the drove me towards seeking a different way of working which led to the development of the Tertiary High School. Has this development and the pathways that followed – trades academies, dual pathway programmes, Youth Guarantee fees free – had an impact? Since 2010, a total of approximately 84,000 students have been shown new pathways through these developments.  It might be helping but it is far too early to declare victory for equity in all this.

[1] Simon Collins, 24 October 2018, NZ Herald,

[2] Simon Collins op.cit. accessed at

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  1. Bernardine Vester Bernardine Vester

    Having consistently identified inequities as an issue in OECD and PISA reports, we do indeed need to move from hand-wringing to action. But it seems there are systemic issues, embedded by attitudes, about what is fair and not fair. One of those attitudes, supported by the findings of this report, is that equity – like everything else in education – is a competition. That is, if some students improve, then the situation of others gets worse.

    The net effect of this mindset is that shifts to improve equity are strenuously opposed by those in powerful positions. Watch what happens as funding gets adjusted for equity; and the Tomorrow’s Schools workforce reports its findings.

    Until attitudes about equity change, all efforts to raise achievement overall will have less than transformational impact.

    • Peter Alsop Peter Alsop

      Yes, by definition, someone needs to give something up (and they should in a population-focussed system), whether at existing funding levels or with new injections of funding.

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