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National Reneges On Social Equity Goals

12 February 2002

Liz Gordon Alliance Education Spokesperson

In late 1994, the then Minister of Education, Hon Dr Lockwood Smith, announced that a new system of school equity funding called targeted funding for educational achievement would be introduced from 1995.

Last month, the National Party leader announced to a stunned nation that 'some of these lower-income schools are awash with cash' and that his party in government may end funding based on decile.

Which decile one schools did he visit to come up with his swimming in cash assessment? There are about 280 of them nationwide - how many did he go to?

My suspicion is that Bill English came to his startling conclusion not after visiting decile one schools but after visiting decile 10 schools, in particular the same group of rich Auckland schools which have resisted every positive measure made by this government to improve educational opportunities for those currently missing out.

It seems that he didn't even ask schools in his own electorate. According to the Principal of Ohai Primary, a decile one school in Clutha Southland, any cuts in decile funding would mean the closure of the school, as Ohai Primary "virtually relies on targeted funding" to provide a full education to the community.

It should mean something to Bill English that it was Lockwood Smith who introduced the current decile funding system. Dr Smith is a mainstay of National's unreconstructed right wing, whereas English presents himself as a modern liberal, concerned about social as well as economic goals.

But he's not. Even the Treasury, that bastion of 1990s right wing thought, is now calling on the Government to boost funding and teacher numbers at lower-income primary schools, in a bid to reduce 'disparities in achievement' between Maori and Pacific Islanders and the rest of the population.

Bill English needs to ask himself why Lockwood Smith first brought in the policy of decile funding in late 1994. This was the deep dark days of new right politics in New Zealand, when the government routinely ignored social casualties. For that government to be forced to provide additional funding for the poorest schools, something much have been drastically wrong.

Well it was. The policy of Tomorrow's Schools had seen the community's worst social problems concentrated into the very poorest schools. Policies of social and income inequality and high unemployment created vast wastelands in the major cities, which affected the ability of schools and teachers to bring education to the children. Reports of children arriving at school hungry with no lunch and no money, of growing youth suicide in particular of Maori youth, of falling educational standards and teacher despair, led Dr. Smith to respond by introducing a decile-based system of funding. The poorest areas would get the most. The most deprived third of decile one schools would get a large cash injection.

National's proposal to abolish the small amount of funding that is allocated according to decile is pure politics: beyond reason, beyond sense and beyond the available evidence. Mr English cannot win this ideological fight, because the evidence is too clear. Educational achievement dipped markedly in the first half of the nineties. In the second half of that decade it substantially recovered.

Lockwood Smith should be thanked for introducing decile funding, and we should also be grateful to Wyatt Creech for introducing the national monitoring project that allows us to track educational improvements.

Year 4 students in 1996 had received their first two years of schooling in the pre-decile funding. 29% were below average in reading. By 2000, only 17% of year fours were below average - still too high but a vast improvement over four years. An amazing outcome, and most of the improvement occurred in low decile schools.

However, there is no evidence that high decile schools are deprived of funding in a way that affects educational outcomes. Fully 52% of children in the 2000 study were reading at the highest levels 4 and 5.

While Bill English acknowledges that some children suffer "systematic disadvantage" he does not think that lower-income schools should get extra funds to ensure equity. He claims that National will be 'much more lateral about it'. I strongly suspect 'lateral' really means vouchers. Education vouchers would be a disaster for New Zealand and could well put our highly regarded public school sector at severe risk. When the voucher runs out, schools could well be sending out a Bill for English!

The question the voters of New Zealand need to ask the National Party is: what is broken in our schools that needs a good dose of vouchers to fix? The answer is - very little. There is no over-riding problem within our schooling system that requires radical surgery. In fact, we have one of the very best education systems in the world. We used to have the very best. If the bottom 15% of underachievers are taken out of the calculation, we still do. The conclusion is inescapable: we must target extra resources to the bottom level of under-achievers, to lift their educational achievement and thereby provide them, and our nation as a whole, with better opportunities.

The National Party talks about education in the same way that it talks about economic development - as if it were a zero-sum game; as if giving a little bit more to this individual or that region will reduce the returns to the rest. This government does not see education or development in that way at all.

Our goal is to ensure that everyone, wherever they live, have access to a high quality schooling in a state school, free of charge, until at least the age of 16. If this requires extra money t6o be spent in some schools to ensure that good outcomes are achieved, that is simply good social and economic sense.

The claims this year by Bill English and last year by Gerry Brownlee that high decile schools are missing out is nonsense. Educational achievement at these schools is the highest it has ever been. Why would we want to pour more resources into schools that are, as their principals would tell us, performing exceptionally well?

National is getting its advice from a group I can only call the rich schools club. They have gone by various names: bulk funded schools, for example, and more recently Vision Schools. Some are members of the Business Roundtable's Education Forum. This group has its own political agenda, for example the instituting of foreign examinations into New Zealand schools, regardless of quality or cost. Some, like Rangitoto College's Allan Peachey aspire to be National MPs themselves. This is not a neutral group, but they appear like clockwork in the media criticising every move this government is making to transform the educational outcomes for disadvantaged young people.

Before the 1999 election some of these schools were criticised for their political stance. A number used their newsletters to parents to propound the advantages of bulk funding or state that a change in government would impoverish their schools. Isn't it interesting that the extra money gained by these schools from bulk funding was considered acceptable, but that extra money given to alleviate real social and educational problems is subject to sustained attacks?

National needs to think very carefully about which side it is on in this debate. The issue of school decile funding is not about rich versus poor but about whether all New Zealanders are to be offered high quality educational opportunities into the future.

The government is most certainly ready, if necessary, to fight the election campaign on the decile funding of schools. Most New Zealanders have actually got the message that the twenty first century must not be about making New Zealand less equal, but about developing all in the nation so that we can be strong, not divided. Education is the key to future prosperity for the nation as a whole, not just for particular individuals.

If National forgets the lessons of the 1990s and embarks on an election campaign for the conservative reconstruction of New Zealand's schools, well, to borrow one of my leader's favourite phrases - make my day.


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