Hard News by Russell Brown


Of Monsters and Old Boys

If it were true, as John Roughan declared on Saturday, that "state schooling is a nominally free, egalitarian service largely run by a fiercely unionised teaching profession for the protection of its members," which seeks only to maintain "its control of the system's methods and philosophy, not to mention its members' job security, pay scales and career paths" then school zoning would be the least of our problems.

Fortunately, the people who teach our children are not the monsters Roughan depicts. But more to the point, Roughan, like most of the people who hold forth on zoning, offers no evidence that he actually understands how school zoning works.

It's not hard to find out. There's a website with an FAQ about it.

Zoning does not prevent parents sending their children to schools outside their local area, or require them to enrol their children at the nearest school. What it does do is require some schools -- about one in three in Auckland and one in five in Wellington and Christchurch -- to devise an enrolment scheme that prevents overcrowding and, importantly, protects the right of children to attend their local school. If the scheme meets those goals, the school is free to accept out-of-zone applications.

It is a far more flexible arrangement than that in public education systems in many other developed countries. Does it produce some perverse effects? Can you say "Grammar Zone"? Of course it does.

But the open-slather system imposed by National in the 1990s produced more than its share of undesirable consequences too. For one, it placed a significant new load on Auckland's transport system during rush hours (anyone driving to work this week will be able to see only too well how many cars aren't on the roads during a school holiday).

Not that Roughan is about to go there:

Competition was developing like wildfire in Auckland in the 1990s after the previous National Government removed school zoning. Social mobility erupted right through the city as ambitious parents sent their children to the best schools that would take them.

The pace of change was such that, had it been allowed to continue, the pressure for all schools to emulate Auckland's grammar schools would have been irresistible.

You might find that an odd version of "choice". But there's good evidence to show that the school-choice fantasy was not proceeding in line with Roughan's fantasy:

The Smithfield Project, a longitudinal study of market values on education, traced the impact of school choice policies on schools, students and their families in two cities during the decade of the 1990s. The study found that the schools with the lowest socio-economic (SES) mix faced the greatest decline in rolls in year 9; for lower SES parents there was a significant gap between the school they would have preferred to have sent their children to and the one the children actually attended. In particular, Maori and Pacific Island children in lower SES groups were less likely to be admitted to higher decile schools even when their scholastic attainment levels were comparable. For lower SES parents class inequities prevented their children attending the school of their choice. Eighty per cent of Maori and Pacific Island children were found to be in decile 1-3 schools compared to 1.8 per cent of Pakeha. Education markets therefore, were seen to polarise intakes and create ‘spirals of decline’ which
were found to have more to do with the nature of intakes than with the quality of teaching. Students from lower SES backgrounds were more likely to go to their local school than to a preferred school of their choice outside their area
(Lauder et al, 1994; Lauder et al, 1995; Lauder et al, 1999).

Gorard and Fitz (1998) have questioned the Smithfield Project’s findings and suggest there is initially a ‘starting gun’ effect where alert parents take advantage of the removal of the restrictions on zoning. Gorard and Fitz argue that over time the less advantaged will also take the opportunity to attend better schools and ultimately choice, through market forces, will lead to less segregation. But Awatere-Huata (cited in Stirling, 2002: 22) reported, “that 30 per cent of Maori children who travelled out of zone to schools did so because the students could not get into their local school.” Awatere-Huata saw parent and student choice as being illusionary. For Awatere-Huata (cited in Stirling, 2002:22), the effect of balloting based on entry enrolment schemes had:

Locked Maori into ghettoisation. Few will be able to move out, because they will not be able to afford to move into upper-decile school zones. Balloting has removed the incentive to strive and teaches children that “life is a lottery”.

A decade after the education reforms were initiated and implemented studies continued to that show polarisation and segregation were still very evident in New Zealand.

So, rather than, as it proponents expected, freeing ambitious parents to seek a better educational future for their children, the abolition of zoning entrenched inequality.

This should hardly be a surprise. Although it's invariably presented in terms of parental choice, open-slather enrolment actually transfers the choice to the schools that already enjoy the advantages of a high-decile intake.

It would be nice to think that "top" schools would altruistically accept average poor brown kids from out of zone -- even if it were to bring down their competitive rankings -- but it's hardly realistic.

And, indeed, the prompt for Roughan's promotional broadcast on behalf of Auckland Grammar appears to have been the plea by Grammar and a couple of other schools to be able to override their enrolment schemes in order to accept out-of-zone students whose parents attended the same schools. In other words, the system should be re-aligned so as to perpetuate the old boys' networks that are one of the least attractive characteristics of Auckland.

Ah, Roughan testifies, it will all be different when there is a "mature" market in competitive schooling. He doesn't trouble himself with what might have to take place to facilitate such a market, but Man in a Hat (Titirangi) from the Herald's Your Views isn't as shy:

Get rid of zoning. Let competition reign. Good schools will be full, and bad schools will be empty and so die a natural death. It will be good for the country.

Not so good, of course, if it's your local school that "dies" while your children are attending it. But disaster capitalism always has it casualties, right?

Finally, what irks me, really about Roughan's blithe certainties, is that I know who would suffer most if schools regained the power to pick and choose students: my kids. Because what "good" school would risk its exam-results bottom line on resource-intensive and potentially troublesome special-needs children? Because, as Bill English used to remind us, decent parents have the right not to have their various ambitions dragged down by "disruptive" students.

Anyway, you'll have your own thoughts, which would doubtless be further informed by Philip Matthews excellent feature for The Press, Zones of Obsession.


And on a cheerier note, don't forget the PA Social today, 5.30pm, The Quadrant Hotel bar, 10 Waterloo Quadrant (that's next door to the Hyatt, y'all). All our readers and fellow bloggers and webby types are very welcome to come along and meet up.

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