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Category: Funding

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

Stuart Middleton


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.


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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.


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Two out of three just isn’t good enough!


Universal, secular and free were the concepts that underpinned the establishment of the New Zealand education system in the 1877 Education Act. It was considered to be forward looking in world terms at that time.

The same sentiment was captured in the Beeby / Fraser statement in 1939 which tried to restate the 1877 commitment in a system that was growing quickly and admitting to a greater diversity.

“The Government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their ability, rich or poor, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers. So far is this from being a mere pious platitude that the full acceptance of the principle will involve the reorientation of the education system.”

This greater diversity spawned the Thomas Report (1942) which fiddled with the secondary curriculum with regard to School Certificate and later The Currie Commission of 1962, undoubtedly at that time, the most comprehensive review of education since 1877, reinforced the qualities of inclusiveness. Since then a succession of governments have interpreted through policy their own particular bent on what it all meant.

Universal? Well if you put to one side the students who are denied early childhood education and those who drop out of the school system, the system can lay some claim to being universal. So we will give that a pass mark.

Secular? By and large you could say that our schools are secular. Except for the state integrated schools that have permission to be non-secular and a range of schools with special character that reflect different sets of beliefs. It is unclear in the 1877 Act whether ‘secular’ meant ‘free from all religious observance’ or simply ‘non-sectarian’ but that might simply be a construction put on the Act to allow for the use of prayer and the singing of hymns that characterized school assemblies when I went to school. But certainly the system could be said to be secular in as much as the bog-standard school (not private, not state integrated, and not special character) is considered to be not based around or promoting religious practices.

Free? Well this one is the joke. Of course education is not free! Huge amounts of government funding in early childhood education ends up in the hands of business who charge huge amounts to parents for early childhood education. Yes, some get it for free but a large number do not. And the 20 Free Hours give parents some relief in accessing  ECE services but often as a supplement to the other 20 hours that they pay in order to work a 40 hour week.

The school system? Free? Now this issue has really surpassed itself in its annual outing which came later this year then previously. It has become apparent that the differences between compulsory fees (never, of course, called that) in high decile schools runs hugely above that able to be sought as community contributions in low decile schools. Not only that, the attempt of some high decile principals to describe the demands made of parents of primary students as “compensating for the advantageous funding that low decile schools get” should be treated as the joke that it is. Or perhaps it is simply delusion.

Of course, they righteously claim on the one hand that such fees are for activities and not tuition and on the other speak about the importance of a wide curriculum that involves the very same activities. The funding advantage of high decile schools over low decile schools is a very serious attack on the principles of equity and in these practices lie some explanations for the continued stubbornness of some of the statistics of disengagement and student achievement.

If it is appropriate for communities to fund education through direct contributions (school fees / contributions etc) as well as through indirect contribution (income tax) then some level of equitable funding across all schools should be achieved even if it calls for a lowering of the level of funding for high decile schools.

We spend as a country quite enough on education. The issue is not the quantum of funding but rather the use to which it is put.

And have we achieved an education system that is “free”? Not on your life and that is without mentioning post-secondary education – I shall take that up on Thursday!


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Ploughing the fields on a weekend


Weekend newspapers are meant to be a relaxing read but this weekend has raised some education issues that exercise us quite a bit. The Herald on Sunday made a bit of a meal of school funding while the Sunday Star Times had a few stern words for some.

The Herald started an editorial on school funding with the strange statement that:

“Up to half of the funding available to New Zealand’s 2500 school principals is allocated according to the 2006 Census…”  This is of course highly misleading as it suggests that somehow the decile rating of a school has an impact on half of the funding going to schools. The reality is that very little money goes to schools on the basis of its decile rating.

There seems to me to have been very little movement in the obvious rates paid for the Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement, the Special Education Grant and the Career Information Grant over the past decade. Perhaps someone can tell me where the “up to half” chatter comes from. It might well be embedded in the folklore of some in education but the hard cold reality is that perhaps at most a couple of percent is decile related.

And whatever is targeted for low decile schools in no way compensates for the disadvantaged faced by them in contrast to their rich high decile colleagues’ capacity to access cash from the community.

Another funny bit of thinking in the editorial is a paragraph that hides an implicit belief that low decile schools are “struggling” and “straggling” and that they need to “catch up” to high decile schools. This might not be seen to be the case if a “value added” approach is taken to funding. The schools that add the most value would receive more favourable funding. This could well be the low decile schools which start from a very different place and bring children through to a point where they can continue the education journey with some confidence. Compare that to a school full of Decile 10 students who arrive at the school as Decile 10 students. It would be much harder to show the value added in such cases.

Of course we would join the Herald in not wanting a repeat of the well-intentioned but misguided No Child Left Behind campaign initiated by George W. Bush in the US.

The editorial finished on a plea that we do not “drop needs-based funding.” Gandhi was once asked what he thought of British civilisation and he replied that he thought it would be a good idea! What do I think of needs-based funding? I think it would be a good idea.

The decile rating scheme was well-intentioned, hasn’t worked and it is time now for it to go.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The Sunday Star Times appropriates a Lyndon B. Johnson quote about J. Edgar Hoover in its headline that “Teacher unions need to get inside the tent.” This is a comment not only about where they should be, inside the discussion rather than standing aside but also about what they are doing. I have known no Minister of Education that has worked harder to be inclusive of the teacher unions than Hon Hekia Parata and I can understand why the Sunday Star Times side-bars a comment that “It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Hekia Parata.” But this is not a Minister that looks for sympathy rather it is a Minister that looks for results, raw clear achievement for students.

The Sunday Star Times editorial characterises the unions as being inclined to adopt a default position of opposition. It notes that the Principals Federation is looking set to oppose the lead principals proposals put forward by the Prime Minister. One hopes that the Acting President is misquoted in saying that there is “no evidence” it will work and that the newspaper is being mischievous in noting her issue with the term “Executive Principal” because it “reeks of the word “boss”. Dear me.

But the editorial hits a big nail right on the head when it notes that all this opposition might have some point to it as there are hesitations about some of the proposals but that “it is a better idea than anything the teachers themselves have come up with”.  I have long said that if national standards are not the way to move forward then come up with something better. If the re-organisation of schooling is wrong then simply weeping and asserting the right not to change is no argument at all.

It is not hard to agree with the editorial’s conclusion that this lack of participation in change can only be the result of a clear attachment to the status quo. I for one do not accept that this is so – teachers in schools are being done a great disservice by those who speak on their behaviour and would claim to lead.

The voice of the student might well be saying…

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!


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When editorial licence become rant


Every now and then the NZ Herald[1] simply gets it wrong and they waste a lot of their ammunition in blasting away this morning at Charter Schools (known in New Zealand as Partnership Schools and in other places variously as Academy Schools, Free Schools and so on).

Take for instance the confident assertion early into their piece – “State schools would not use their state funding for commercial advertising…” Not much they wouldn’t! For some schools image is everything and the costs of this come out of their funding. The Herald might be employing a cute logic that says that funding sourced from elsewhere is not “state funding” but that argument is spurious. Decisions about spending are simply decisions about what is important and all money is capable of being used differently. But spending to promote itself is well established in the education system.

Then there is the fuss about the “establishment grant”. When a new school is developed in the state system the establishment grant is simply huge – principals are appointed up to two years previous to the opening of the school and their senior team a year before. Much money goes into the establishment board and so on.

Then there is the matter of charter schools requesting that students be able to access some subjects at state schools. One of the excellent developments over the past decade has been some increased fluidity in students accessing programmes in a more flexible manner. Some of this is across the secondary / tertiary line but some of it is also between secondary schools. It is a very good use of resources.

The Herald acknowledges that size matters in these arrangements and that issues of subject availability challenge small schools, state or charter. And it is not a question of inflexibility that suggests this course of action to charter schools – quite the reverse. Because they can act more flexibly (both with regard to use of time and use of money) they can present options to students that are tailored to individuals just as some state secondary schools seek to achieve but with some frustration in an inflexible funding system.

Then there is the claim that the funding levels of the charter school is almost three times that of a state school on a per student basis. I would be very surprised if it was and suggest that Chris Hipkins is comparing two very different figures. The true comparison should be taken with all variables being equalized – establishment costs and all. It is again silly beyond words to dismiss the establishment costs simply because the schools weren’t needed.

This is followed by a suggestion that the partnership school development simply adds “needless capacity”. This might be true if only student numbers are taken into account but is grossly inaccurate if student achievement is taken account of. The partnership school development is aimed at adding to the capacity of our system to bring more success to more students and to turn around some of the disappointing performance of various groups. This is far from “needless” – it is essential.

Finally there emerges in the Herald piece the standard hysteria about public-private partnerships. They have served education well – integrated schools are public-private partnerships and New Zealand has managed these with success for 40 years. And the snide reference to the “clipper of the ticket” is getting into tricky territory.

Who is clipping the ticket in an education system that serves many students well but fails to serve too many others? Who is clipping the ticket when state schools demand money from parents to have their children in a school fully funded by the state? Who is clipping the ticket when the funding made available to a student to be in school fails to result in a positive outcome?


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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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