16 Mar 2017

Insight: Poorer Schools - When the Middle Class Flee

From Insight, 8:12 am on 19 March 2017

Enrolments of Pākehā students at low-decile schools remain stubbornly low, and principals say it is not good for schools or for society.

A class at Huntly College

A class at Huntly College: About 250 of the school's 300 students are Māori. Photo: RNZ/John Gerritsen

Seated in his office, on a hot Waikato afternoon, Tim Foy is bracingly frank about the startling demographic change his school has experienced in the past 15 years.

The principal of Huntly College has seen his decile 1 school's roll drop from 428 students, nearly half of them Pākehā, to 300 students - only 50 of whom are not Māori. Essentially, the vast majority of Huntly's Pākehā families have abandoned the school.

"Our roll does not reflect the demographics of the town," Mr Foy said.

Principal Tim Foy, and students at Huntly College

Huntly College principal Tim Foy, pictured with two students, says the changes at the school have had several effects - some good and some bad. Photo: RNZ/John Gerritsen

This year the school got only about a third of the possible enrolments from its catchment area, as many families voted with their feet and chose to send their children to secondary schools further afield.

"I don't believe it's just the fact that we're a decile 1 school," Mr Foy said.

"I think there's a lot of things. It's around perception, it's around what they perceive in the community, it's the behaviour of students that they see attending Huntly College, it's around uniform, it's around academic performance, which of course is down, it's not where we want it to be. All of those things combined together will make parents decide, no, they can do better for their child," he said.

"I don't like it, but I've just got to accept what it is."

Huntly College is not alone.

Since 2000 the percentage of Pākehā students attending schools in deciles 1-5 has dropped from 40 percent to 24 percent last year, a figure fractionally lower than when RNZ revealed the trend in 2012.

In addition, the number of Pākehā students in deciles 1-5 has also fallen - from 159,312 to 97,955.

It is important to note the number of Pākehā students overall has fallen - by about 65,000, or 14 percent, since 2000 - but nearly all of that drop has been concentrated on schools in the lowest five deciles.

One possible contributor to the change is large lower-decile schools with a lot of Pākehā students getting higher decile numbers, while smaller schools with fewer Pākehā students might have dropped in decile.

But some schools found Pākehā families had moved out of their neighbourhoods or bypassed them for schools in other areas, where they believed they would get a better education.

Huntly College, Cosgrove School in Papakura, and Edgewater College in Pakuranga experienced exactly that change, with the proportion of Pākehā children on their rolls dropping from 40-50 percent to 9-14 percent .

The principals of all three schools told Insight the loss of a such a large number of Pākehā students had changed their schools - but not for the worse.

They said it encouraged them to focus more on Pasifika and Māori culture and better approaches to teaching children from those backgrounds.

Principal of Edgewater School, Allan Vester

Edgewater School principal Allan Vester, pictured with students: "It's actually improved the culture of the school." Photo: RNZ/John Gerritsen

Edgewater College principal Allan Vester said a high percentage of Pasifika students helped make his school a friendly environment.

"We would think it's actually improved the culture of the school. 'Edgewater, everybody cares' is the motto - in a school with a high Pasifika roll, that's easy to generate. In that respect I don't think it's affected the school negatively at all."

Students were similarly upbeat about their schools.

Briana is one of the 9 percent of students at Edgewater College who are Pākehā, and she said she felt right at home there.

"My primary school was majority Pākehā, and it wasn't until I got to intermediate that it became more [Pacific] Islander and personally I preferred it," she said.

"The culture's really different with Islanders, they're more caring and you get along with them a lot more and they're just really down-to-earth people."

Edgewater College mural

Edgewater College's other motto is "Everyone Cares". Photo: RNZ/John Gerritsen

At Huntly College, Year 13 student Emily also had positive things to say about being Pākehā in a predominantly Māori school.

"I love the culture and environment here," she said.

"I think it's important to recognise both [cultures] and I think we do that here, I feel welcome into both ethnicities."

Despite the positive comments, the principals of the three schools admitted there were downsides to the demographic change that had affected their schools.

Huntly's Tim Foy said the fact so many children avoided their local school affected the entire town.

"If I got, I believe 75, 80, even 90 percent of that cohort, I believe this town could be a lot more united," he said.

"Education, school secondary should be the hub, they should be proud of their town, proud of their school. Sad to say it's not the case."

At Edgewater College, Allan Vester also had concerns.

"Nationwide there's been a drift apart of the schools and lower decile schools are increasingly Māori and Pasifika and I think that's bad for society," he said.

"The society that kids go out into is very mixed and I think it's helpful to have students educated in that mix as well."

The principal of Cosgrove School in Papakura, Gus Klein, and deputy, Peter Rout

The principal of Cosgrove School in Papakura, Gus Klein, and deputy, Peter Rout Photo: RNZ/John Gerritsen

Cosgrove School principal Gus Klein admitted he was not comfortable with the broader national change that had resulted in such a small proportion of Pākehā students attending lower-decile schools.

"What would be more healthy would be a range of abilities within schools because the research says that streaming doesn't help children. In a sense we've got streaming happening here," he said.

"Even though we've got fantastic kids here, we're not getting that mix of abilities within a classroom so there isn't that modelling going on that a few able students can provide for other students and to me that's a shame."

Susan Warren, the chief executive of COMET Auckland - A trust that promotes better education in the city.

COMET Auckland CEO Susan Warren Photo: SUPPLIED

Other observers of the education system agreed the change of the past 15 years was important.

Susan Warren, the chief executive of COMET Auckland, a trust promoting better education in the city, felt it was not healthy.

"What we're ending up with is some schools that are almost entirely kids from low socio-economic backgrounds, much more likely to be Māori, Pacific or very new migrants, and other schools where all the Pākehā students congregate that are almost entirely higher socio-economic groups and that's just got implications for us as a society," she said.

Bernardine Vester previously worked as the head of the COMET trust, and she is married to Edgewater College principal Allan Vester.

Ms Vester wrote Southern Transformation, a book which detailed efforts to improve education in southern Auckland.

And she too said the outflow of students from low-decile schools mattered.

"It becomes more and more challenging of course because what you're doing is you're concentrating disadvantage in the lower decile schools - they're becoming more and more outliers to the normal mainstream schools," she said.

Ms Vester said the government already had part of the answer to the issue with its 'Communities of Learning' - the policy that got multiple schools to work together in groups on common issues, with some highly-skilled teachers and principals paid extra to share their expertise.

But she said it needed to go further and change the way schools were governed.

"If we're going to change anything about this high-decile low-decile stuff then we actually have to think of communities and schools as being part of networks. We actually have to think of the leadership of those schools as being corralled around the interests of the network rather than the interest of only their own school," she said.

The other change that could alter the trend of the past 15 years was the almost certain demise of the school decile.

School principals said the decile number certainly helped cause the problem, but they were not sure its abolition would make much difference to the current situation.

But even without changes in education policy, societal shifts could bring a new round of change, especially in Auckland.

Susan Warren from COMET believed Auckland's housing crisis was pushing many lower income families further south, and even right out of the city.

"That's adding to the trend in a way but changing it, so now we may well see some more mixing again," she said.

"Some places like Clendon that used to be very much purely low socio-economic, very high Māori and Pacific community, may end up with more diverse families again, more Pākehā families moving there. Not sure yet, but certainly the housing crisis is having an effect on that and we're seeing that in schools."

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