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In defence of the decile system

In defence of the decile system

6 September 2015

The decile-based funding system provides a simple but accurate population based system for measuring the socio-economic position of students at any given school, so that schools can receive (or not) additional funding on an accurate level. In other countries, the general measure is ‘free school meals’ – a school with 100% getting free lunches has 100% of parents in the bottom socio-economic tiers.

Our system is much more accurate and better than that. It is linked to the census. It can provide information on important things like household crowding in the area (the percent of families which have more than two persons per bedroom – in decile 1 schools this is 59%), income, percent on benefits, and so on.

But there are people who want to get rid of the system. The Minister is not enamoured of it. The argument is that, whatever it was developed for, parents use decile rankings as a measure of school quality.

This is true, but it is not new. Parents have been using neighbourhood characteristics – “a bad area” – to choose schools ever since state schooling was implemented. What has got worse is the level of socio-economic dispersion and ethnic segmentation, so the stakes appear to be much higher.

In a sense successive governments have also bought into this. Instead of campaigning on the quality of all our schools -to recognise that all teachers in all schools are well educated and that more money is provided to overcome the effects of socio-economic and ethnic disadvantage – it is a misfortune that ministers have tended to buy into the untruth that children in poor schools do poorly because of bad teaching and learning.

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Any Minister worth their salt knows this is not true. I always remind people of the simple truth in the PISA data, that children from families in NZ with more than 500 books in the home are about 3.5 year ahead, at age 15, of children in families that have less than 10. This is not about education, but deprivation.

I have never heard a Minister acknowledge the difficulties that schools have in struggling to overcome the deprived backgrounds of many poor children. The learning gap at entering school is very large between the school-ready, able-to-read kid from professional families, who have never lacked for anything, and children brought up in chaotic homes which do not own a book.

I am concerned that the decile funding bathwater will be thrown out with the social discrimination baby, and that nothing will change, except that we will have a worse school funding system.

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