Toby & Toby... on the decile system and a schools funding shake-up

11:48 am on 18 May 2016

OPINION: Toby Manhire and Toby Morris

What shake-up would that be?

The Ministry of Education last week announced the appointment of an advisory group for a review of education funding systems. The 18-member group, which includes representatives from across the range of education unions, is tasked with considering how funding for schools and early childhood education "could be better targeted to support the educational achievement of all children and young people as they progress through each stage of their educational journey".

In a sense we're all on a journey, aren't we?

We really are.

Is the decile system likely to get the chop?

We prefer to say the decile system is approaching the end of its journey, but yeah. Education Minister Hekia Parata has long described it as "clumsy", "blunt" and ripe for change.

And what is the decile system, exactly?

Deciles are used to determine which state and state-integrated schools warrant greater funding. Based on census data, the deciles carve each school into one of 10 chunks, according to the extent it draws students from low socio-economic areas.

How are these areas assessed?

Based on five-yearly census data, they are calculated according to five indicators - the percentage of households with income in the lowest 20 percent nationally; employed parents in the lowest skill level occupational groups; household crowding; parents with no educational qualifications; and parents receiving income support benefits.

The 10 percent of schools drawing on meshblocks - areas containing roughly 50 households - with the highest proportion of those indicators are decile 1. The 10 percent with the lowest are decile 10.

Right. So the deciles 1 through 10 simply reflect the socio-economic composition of the school intake.

No. Deciles do not reflect averages, they reflect the proportion of students from the lowest socio-economic areas.

This is trickier than fourth form maths. Is that why it's out of favour?

What is fourth form?

This is trickier than Year 10 maths. Is that why it's out of favour?

Complexity is part of the problem. It feeds the misconception that it is a measure of wealth, or that the same decile schools have the same student intakes. While some schools seek to have their school reassigned to a lower decile so that they can gain greater resource, others, according to the PPTA, "have resorted to deliberately seeking to influence their intake so that their decile is raised and the school is seen as more 'successful'."

So deciles have become seen as a proxy for quality?

Sometimes, yes. They have also become increasingly defined, in Auckland particularly, along ethnic lines, and some have observed examples of so-called "white flight".

Simply put, in the words of one critic, "What I don't like about it is that it predetermines how the school will be looked at by the community - that is the antithesis of our philosophy, which is that anyone has an opportunity to achieve."

Who was that?

Sure that's right?

Sorry. It was this guy:

Safe to say higher decile schools do better with parent donations?

On the whole, way better.

What about the early childhood sector?

That is being considered by the review but not by this column.

Why not? Do Toby and Toby have something against early children?

More like something against overlong journeys.

What might a post-decile approach look like?

The government is keen on a funding model to "better support children at risk of educational under-achievement, drawing on the social investment work".

Social investment work?

The government's so-called "social investment approach" has identified four "key indicators" for children under 14 that are "associated with having poor outcomes later in life", and which are likely to be prioritised in future allocation of funding to schools.

What are those indicators?

Having been found to have suffered abuse or neglect; having been mostly supported by benefits; having a parent with a prison or community sentence; and having a mother with no formal qualifications.

How would funding be apportioned?

Hard to say, but the ministry has floated the possibility of making it individually targeted, so that a school would receive extra funding for each pupil that met one or more of the high-risk criteria.

What are the criticisms of the approach?

Labour has warned of privacy implications, the risk of stigmatising children at an early age, and the potential to exacerbate inequality "if it is poorly designed".

And what do teachers and principals say?

Plenty of things, but their central message seems to be: funding is one thing, what really matters is the number and quality of teachers.

What about the spectre of performance funding?

The terms of reference include an ambition to "better invest in education in a way that is focused on the learning progress and achievement of children and young people" - which could hint at a funding model predicated in part on students' academic achievements. Such a move would undoubtedly raise the hackles of teachers' unions, who fear it would contort the goals of the profession - and also argue that NCEA and National Standards would be a woefully inadequate means to gauge such progress.

What is Hekia Parata's position on the matter?

She's been on a journey.

Sum it up in 25 words.

The decile system, most everyone agrees, is crude and unsatisfactory and needs replacing. There will be much disagreement, however, about what to replace it with.

And in five words?

Of learning, earning and journeying.

Toby Toby stamp

* This column is part of a weekly series published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.