School groups are supporting calls to drop the decile ranking system after Radio New Zealand News today revealed the number of Pakeha children in low decile schools has halved in the past 12 years.
The groups say some families are avoiding schools with low decile numbers and the system needs to change.
Some lobbyists characterise such changes as "white flight".
Ministry of Education figures show 60,431 Pakeha children were in decile 1, 2 and 3 schools in 2000, while last year that number had dropped to 32,851.
Overall, there are slightly fewer Pakeha schoolchildren than there were a decade ago though principals say that is not the reason for the big drop in Pakeha children attending schools in poorer areas.
Schools in the richest neighbourhoods actually have more Pakeha students than they used to, while lowest decile schools have fewer than previously.
The ministry's figures show 50% of Pakeha students are now in decile 8, 9 and 10 schools compared to 42% in 2000, and just 8% are in decile 1, 2 and 3 schools, down from 13% in 2000.
They now account for 20% of the children in decile 1-3 schools, but used to make up 32% of those schools' roll.
Principals say many Pakeha families skip their local schools for higher decile schools because they do not understand that the decile system indicates the wealth of a school's neighbourhood, not the quality of its education.
Other changes behind the fall, says ministry
The Ministry of Education says the figures do not mean Pakeha are avoiding low decile schools.
It says population change, the creation of new schools and movements in schools' decile ratings as their communities' wealth changes could be behind the drop.
Secondary Principals' Association president Patrick Walsh doubts those are the main factors.
"The only credible reason would appear to be 'white flight' from low decile schools and that would indicate that, in the school sector at least, there is a growing division on ethnic and socio-economic lines, which I would suggest is not a good thing for New Zealand society."
Mr Walsh says the government needs to review the use of decile rankings, keeping the decile funding but getting rid of the labels.
PPTA Secondary Principals' Council chairman Allan Vester says it might be hard to find a good alternative to the decile system.
But he says it is sad that parents, particularly Pakeha and Asian parents, prefer higher decile over lower decile schools.
School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr says most parents understand the decile ratings and some schools might need to lift their game if families are bypassing them for other schools.
But a principal at a Wellington decile 2 school says the system labels a school regardless of the quality of education it provides.
Miramar South School principal Jeanette de la Mare, says despite her school having an Education Review Office report on par with many decile 10 schools, the perception is that teaching quality is poor in low decile schools.
Vicki Carpenter from the University of Auckland agrees that people mistakenly equate low decile with low quality, and says the word decile should be removed.
In all, Pakeha children accounted for 415,700 (55%) of the 762,683 children in New Zealand schools last year down from 468,002 (64%) of the 729,689 children enrolled in schools in 2000.