Cross-Examination: The Decile System – An Equitable Remedy Causing An Inequality Gap

Content Contributor, Isabel Ko

The decile system aims to level the playing field by providing extra funding for schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged students. This reflects the higher costs of educating them. The system should help to overcome any barriers to learning that students from lower socio-economic communities might face. The lower the school’s decile, the more funding the school receives. [1]

Theoretically, the decile system is a form of affirmative action, whereby the government implements an equitable remedy in order to bring all students up to the same playing field. At first glance, the system appears to be ideal, but the reality is often far from it.

Why is the decile system not working?

Even with additional funding, higher-decile schools continue to outperform lower-decile schools. For example, national standards show that students from low-decile schools are twice as more likely to leave primary education with lower literacy levels as opposed to high-decile students.[2] To combat this “decile war”, the government has invested more than $250 million into low-decile schools in order to lift achievement in literacy and numeracy. However, the results have been “dispiriting” [3] with 93,707 students unable to read at the expected level, 123,523 unable to meet writing requirements and 106,485 behind in maths. [4] The largest differences were between the rich and poor. For example, only half of the children at a decile 1 school had the required mathematics competency by their last year, compared to 80% at a decile 10 school.[5]

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Since a school’s decile number indicates its ranking in terms of the distribution of those students from the lowest socio-economic group of families, one of the main flaws in the decile system seems to arise from the common misperception of the quality or status of a school.[6] Parents and the media seem to view decile figure as a sign of the quality of teaching and leadership in the school.[7] Unfortunately, this misuse of the school decile system has created unnecessary racial and class stigma for lower decile schools, which parents are fleeing from due to a misconception that lower decile schools are providing an inferior education.[8]

Broadly speaking, the current decile system seeks to fund the student based on where they live, rather than their needs. And as a result, this has a huge impact on the the school’s ability to raise funds.[9] What this means is that the lower-decile schools will generally have very limited capacity to obtain additional funds from their community because a high proportion of their families would be from the low socio-economic groups. With the funding system failing to help these students reach their fullest potential, schools and parent communities are going to huge lengths to raise funds to meet the basic needs.[10] As a result, majority of teachers and support staff are digging into their own pockets to help students meet their needs, with some spending more than $500 a year.[11]

On the other hand, the higher-decile schools will have more success with additional resourcing because the majority of their families would be from the middle-to-high income groups. However, the downside of this is that the majority of the higher-decile schools are forced to rely on donations from parents. For example, two Auckland high schools took in more than $2m in donations a year, and principals claim that as a result of this, schools are being forced to think more like businesses to make up for the shortfalls.[12] Wellington College headmaster Roger Moses says that if sufficient donations figures are not met, the school has to “scrap its extracurricular activities.”[13] In other words, if parents don’t pay the ‘voluntary’ donations, their children miss out on further learning opportunities.

Meanwhile, mid-decile schools get hit at both ends. Not only do these schools attract less funding per student, but also, they miss out on subsidy programs aimed at low-decile schools such as access to social workers, Duffy books, and KidsCan foods.[14]

The dilemma is that rather than ‘leveling the playing field,’ the gap is widening, and causing an inequitable result where students are prevented from their guaranteed access to an equal education experience. The current decile system, ranking schools in terms of a single figure, seems to be a “blunt instrument” [15] and is no longer ensuring that every student has equal opportunities to achieve at the highest level in every school.

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A possible solution?

Recently, Education Minister Hekia Parata proposed an alternative scheme that would aim to pay schools more for individual students, hoping to shift allocation away from an area’s socio-economic standing, and towards children being labelled as ‘at risk.’ Students are deemed to be ‘at risk’ if they meet one of the four categories below: [16]

  1. If they come from a family that has relied on a benefit for an extended period of time;
  2. If they have a parent that has served a prison sentence;
  3. If they themselves have suffered child abuse, or have a sibling who has suffered child abuse;
  4. If they have a parent with no formal qualifications.

By reclassifying the assessment standard, the government is effectively trying to close up the inequality gap by targeting individual student’s needs rather than continuing to group all students in the same school as requiring the same level of support.

Although the new scheme will allocate resources to those who need it most, the possibility of further stigma is an inevitable consideration. The new scheme might either lead to schools being punished by lower funding for improving their academic results or by rewarding schools’ worsening results with increased funding. The adoption of a seemingly more equitable remedy for the education system may in fact result in an opposite reaction where students are forced to deal with increasing levels of unequal opportunities.

Additionally, these ‘at-risk’ factors seem to be very broad and very generalised. For example, some individuals receive prison sentences on more than one occasion, whereas others only have one sentence. Will any term of imprisonment be sufficient, or is the length and frequency of imprisonment taken into account when assessing ‘at-risk’ children? [17] The same goes to the abuse suffered: what kinds of abuse will be sufficient? Is the frequency and severity to be taken into account? [18] As Chris Hipkins puts it “the kids going home to toxic households […] is the worry. In such places, all the extra education in the world can be undone in a heartbeat.”[19]

How can we close the inequity gap without widening the inequality gap?

The plan itself to move to a more individual needs-based system by targeting ‘at-risk’ children has merit. It will in no doubt help schools close the equity-excellence gap and diminish the common perception that low decile schools provide lower standards of education, and high decile schools provide higher standards of education.[20] However, the alternative scheme proposed by the Minister of Education to execute this plan seems to have gaps where the varying levels of need that exist are not sufficiently addressed. Additionally, in planning the new scheme, the government must not abandon the needs of particular students – they must ensure that the needs of students who are not necessarily in the high-risk category are also catered for.

To improve our country’s education system, the objective is clear: it is time to review the current decile system in light of the considerable social and economic change in the 21st century. The most sensible approach for a more equitable education system would be to address income inequality and then to use this as a basis to better allocate resources accordingly to the true needs of students.

A possible way to address income inequality through students could be done in a similar manner to the current student loan/allowance structure, where individual students are given ‘allowances,’ depending on their needs, to help them push through any barriers. For example, schools could set up a system where the students are grouped according to their needs. They could be ranked from 1 to 10, where 1 implies a high need for the student and 10 implies a low need for the student. In order to determine the true need of individual students, before a parent enrolls their child/children to school, the parents would go through a questionnaire where they indicate factors such as: the amount of income they earn, the amount of benefits received, the number of dependent children, and any formal qualifications of parents. Then this could be compared against the academic performance of the student to assess the severity of the ‘need’ of the student. If a student comes from a low-income background and is suffering from unstable learning performance, then this student would be put into the ‘high-need’ group (and vice versa for high income backgrounds). If a student comes from a low income background, but is showing sufficient levels of performance, then this student would be in the ‘safe zone’ where he/she does not require immediate intervention, but any changes to his/her learning performance would trigger a review where the student’s performance will be reviewed from time to time to determine whether the change in his/her learning performance is permanent or temporary.

By adopting a wider application of the socioeconomic data for each student (in every school), it will provide a better socioeconomic profile, and will hopefully give a better indication of the real needs of each student. Hopefully, this will help every student have access to equal opportunities to achieve their fullest potential in every school, regardless of their geographical area.

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[1] Ministry of Education “School deciles” (23 March 2016) <www.education.govt.nz>

[2] Kirsty Johnston “The Primary Issue: Reading and writing gap between rich and poor kids widens” (5 May 2016) <www.nzherald.co.nz>

[3] “Editorial: Get cracking to to sort our schools” (6 May 2016) <www.nzherald.co.nz>

[4] Kirsty Johnston “The trouble with NZ’s primary schools” (2 May 2016) <www.nzherald.co.nz>

[5] Ibid

[6] New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association “New Zealand Schools: The decile system” (21 March 2013) <www.ppta.org.nz>

[7] Martine Udahemuka “What’s the best way to fund our schools?” (7 April 2016) <www.stuff.co.nz>

[8] John Hattie “It is time to be rid of deciles” (17 March 2016) <www.nzherald.co.nz>

[9] New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association at n 6

[10] Patrice Dougan (4 May 2016) “Teachers spending own money on students” <www.nzherald.co.nz>

[11] Ibid

[12] Amy Jackman “Schools rely on $1b donations during 15 years of ‘free’ education system” (20 January 2016) <www.stuff.co.nz>

[13] Ibid

[14] Elizabeth McLeod “Beyond the decile system” (February 2015) <www.educationreview.co.nz>

[[15]] Ibid

[16] Jo Moir “Education funding review: what will replace school decile?” (15 March 2016) <www.stuff.co.nz>

[17] Pukeko Research “The decile debate continues” (press release, 15 March 2016)

[18] Ibid

[19] Chris Hipkins “Families mustn’t be stigmatised by new system” (15 March 2016) <www.chrishipkins.org.nz>

[20] Elizabeth McLeod “Beyond the decile system” (February 2015) <www.educationreview.co.nz>