Schools are the hearts of their communities, playing a critical role through times like the Covid-19 downturn – but principals feel they’re being treated as pawns in a giant chess game. 

Yesterday: The use of zoning to manage and control roll growth► Plus: Dr Eric Crampton on what we can learn► TodayThe strains on schools, as the hearts of struggling communities► Next: What weight do we place on parent choice?

Karl Vasau doesn’t really understand the need for a zone. The school he heads has no problem with kids from across Auckland trying to break down its doors; rather, the opposite is true.

There’s no shortage of schools to serve this vast south Auckland community – there are 25 at last count, and talk of plans for another, a flash new school to serve an expensive new subdivision to the north that is, at present, nothing more than rumour.

Rowandale school and its neighbours in Manurewa are part of the Ministry’s grand plan to create and redraw enrolment zones for 135 Auckland schools, in order to prepare for 60,000 more children in Auckland over the next 10 years, part of a 100,000 increase nationwide.

But these Manurewa schools’ main problems are transience and, for those families who can afford to choose, a flight of pupils to primary schools, intermediates, secondary schools across town that are perceived to be better.

How would our communities and our national economy be affected if children attended their local schools? Click here to comment.

It’s not just the infamous “white flight”. It’s also “brown flight” – Māori and Pasifika professionals sending their children to private schools, or trying their luck in the ballot for the grammar schools. 

“When you talk to a Pacific Island person, you ask, where would you like your children to go? And they ‘brown flight’ you with their answer,” says Vasau. “Oh, Kings, Grammar, St Kentigern’s.”

“The applications to those schools from Pacific and Māori families is huge. So there’s white flight and brown flight but it’s always about parents thinking that this choice is the best for their child. Everyone will tell you that. And when you ask, but why, they say because my local high school’s rubbish.”

The thing is, they’re patently wrong about that. It’s a problem of “perception and misinformation,” in Vasau’s words.

“We’ve got so many schools in Manurewa, that Manurewa has 25 hearts. Every principal that I know in this area has their community at the centre of what they believe and what they’re trying to offer.”

Read the Education Review Office reports, and many of these Manurewa schools are performing at a higher level than equivalents in the leafy green suburbs to the north. The improvement in achievement from year 1 to year 6 is written down there in black and white. These low decile schools are better funded, too, though they don’t have the new facilities of the schools in the new subdivisions. 

“For the children that come here, we create a family-like context. And it’s important for us, to whoever chooses our school, to feel that way. That it’s a community hub, that you’re welcome, you’re valued, that we care about your kids and will offer them the best education possible.”

The local Samoan Christian Church meets in the school hall on Sunday. One of the staff members holds iwi meetings at the school; there are education groups and language groups. The Manurewa Marlins league club uses the hall sometimes, and when it rains Karl’s son’s under-6s team will train there.. The local softball team used the staffroom to present their uniforms.

“You know yourself, you’ve got lifelong friends from when you were at school. The parents meet in the carpark and now you call that lady ‘aunty’ and you’re not even related.

“All schools endeavour to create a family-like context, because if you feel like a family then more families will engages, more children and teachers will engage.”

The problem for these schools is not the quality of the teachers nor the enthusiasm of the children to learn. The problem is holding on to their families. Those who can afford to are trying to enrol their kids elsewhere. Those that can’t afford to are transient, chasing jobs and housing.

Planning for stable rolls

Rowandale school is one of the Ministry of Education’s problem children. In June this year, briefing Education Minister Chris Hipkins, officials described plans to stabilise its roll as “amber risk”.

The first attempt at zoning the school in 2017 was stillborn, when neighbouring zoned school resisted Ministry proposals for the zone to overlap with theirs. “They weren’t prepared to share,” says Vasau.

Now the Ministry has redrawn the draft boundaries – still with some overlaps – and is trying again. “The Ministry will emphasise to neighbouring schools that zone overlaps provide students with options and grand-parenting could be suggested,” Hipkins was told.

Running down the centre of Wiri and down into Manurewa are seven unzoned primary schools – Wiri Central, Homai, Rowandale, Manurewa West, Manurewa East, Leabank and Manurewa South.

They are ringed by zoned schools with aspirational names: Clendon Park, Finlayson Park, Clayton Park, Conifer Grove, Randwick Park and Hillpark, as well as Manurewa Central.

In all, there are about 25 schools, none with fewer than 500 kids, Vasau says. “If you want to win an election you come to Manurewa. It’s over-populated. It’s ginormous. Most of our schools are over 500 kids.”

There are plans for property development in the industrial area between Wiri and Manurewa high school, and community rumours of a new residential development and a new higher decile school – some in the community fear the zoning programme is intended more to fence in local children, than to keep out children from further away. They believe if is intended to prevent brown flight .

“It’s about property management. If the Government allows all the schools to grow to as big as they want, then we’ll be constantly knocking on their door, saying can I have my next three classrooms please?

“You ask how many brand new schools were built in low decile areas? The numbers are very low. But a lot of these new subdivisions that are being build are getting their brand new schools to go with them, even though the current stock is really bad.

“There’s so much money that needs to be spent on the current stock, so how do you manage that? You control it, you control the growth so you have time to prepare.”

How would our communities and our national economy be affected if children attended their local schools? Click here to comment.

Rowandale school’s property capacity is 650; it will start next year with about 560. So why does it need a zone?

It’s clearly not about capping out-of-control roll growth; more likely, it’s a ministry attempt to provide funding analysts with greater certainty; that if they know how many families are living in the area, they can see how many children will be attending each school.

“The worst thing about low decile schools is the transience of students,” Vasau says. “We don’t enrol them from start to finish; it depends on affordable housing, it depends on family circumstances, chasing the work. And so for us, it’s not so secure when someone enrols at our school.

“The anxiety we have is about what it’s going to look like in practice. Because we haven’t really opted for this, it’s been imposed. I think we’ll be able to cope, just as long as the students within our zone do actually come to us.”

Most of the new Manurewa school zones will come into force at the start of term one in 2021, but Rowandale’s has been delayed to term two at the earliest.  

“We should have the new zones in now. But we’re delaying it because we want to do it right. And the Covid situation took us away from real engagement in our communities,” Vasau says.

“It’s coming. And the more we fight it, the more it just defers the inevitable. So we’ve got past that hurdle; we’ve changed our mindset to accept we’ve got a zone.

“We don’t think it will make a difference to the sorts of children that will come to our schools. The children in this community will continue to come to this school, but it’s not about stopping others from outside of my zone from coming in – because that just doesn’t happen.”


North Auckland:
Wellsford School
Kaipara Flats School
Waitoki School
Kaipara College
Albany School
Target Road School
Marlborough School
Scott Point Primary School
Royal Road School

West Auckland:
Rutherford School
Birdwood School
Waitākere College
Henderson High School
Sunnyvale School
Pasadena Intermediate
May Road School
Marshall Laing School
Hay Park School

East Auckland:
Mellons Bay School
Royal Oak Primary School
Onehunga Primary School
Te Papapa Primary School
Oranga School
Ellerslie Primary School
One Tree Hill College
Selwyn College
Glendowie College
Tāmaki College
Tāmaki Primary School
Bucklands Beach Primary School
Macleans Primary School
Owairoa Primary School
Elm Park School
Pakuranga Heights School
Edgewater College

South Auckland:
Onehunga High School
Mangere College
Southern Cross campus
Bairds Mainfreight Primary School
Flat Bush School
Puhinui School
Wiri Central School
Homai School
Manurewa West School
Manurewa East School
Rowandale School
Manurewa South School
Leabank School
Papakura Intermediate
Rosehill Intermediate
Hingaia South (Park Estate new school relocation)
Drury West Primary (new school)
Paerata School
Pukekohe East Primary School
Pukekohe North School
Pukekohe Hill Primary School
Mauku School
Pukekohe West School
Mangatawhiri School

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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