Some parents have started petitions to send their kids to their school of choice; others threaten to ‘blow up’ the system to ensure children can go to the same college as their parents and siblings.

This weekend, an Auckland Grammar School old boy will join his grandson for a poignant Anzac Day moment at the school they both attended.

“On Sunday we’ll hold an Anzac service, remembering 662 lives lost in World War I and World War II,” says Tim O’Connor, the school’s headmaster. “There will be a wreath laid by a grandfather and his grandson. They are from five generations of Auckland Grammar School families.”

That’s a legacy that means a lot to O’Connor and his staff and pupils. But he suspects the education officials don’t much care – because this week, the Ministry of Education quietly published a consultation paper. It proposes to get rid of the rule that prioritises the enrolment of children who want to attend the schools to which their older siblings or parents went.

If this change proceeds, they would have to battle it out down the bottom of the ballot with every other out-of-zone child.

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O’Connor says the consultation paper shows education officials are prepared to put an end to that long legacy of sons and grandsons and great-grandsons – a legacy that spans five generations for families like those laying the wreath this weekend.

“The Ministry of Education, if they apply this rule change, will say that this particular boy would not be able to go to the school that his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather went to,” O’Connor says. “To me that doesn’t make much sense.”

O’Connor will be reconvening a group of some of the country’s biggest and most established colleges to fight the rule change that, as he sees it, denies children the right to attend the schools their older siblings or parents went to. “Any school with a degree of character and history will be very concerned that the ministry would put these changes on the table,” he says. “You are losing a sense of connectedness with families over generations.”

“There will be outrage … I’ll certainly be encouraging our school community and our old boy community to get involved with this consultation process, and just keep making submissions until the system blows up.”
– Tim O’Connor, Auckland Grammar School

School zones. Like nothing else, they go to the heart of the ideological debate between the individual right to choose, and the greater good of the community. Listen to either argument, and it sounds attractive. Of course parents should have the freedom to provide their children the best possible start in life, right? Of course we as a society should provide kids with a decent education at a decent school, wherever they are and regardless of which side of the tracks they come from, right?

Now, that debate has come to a head. First, the Ministry of Education has begun an ambitious programme to implement and amend zones at 135 schools in Auckland, ensuring that every child in every home in the city will be zoned to a state school; for most, their choice will be made for them.

At the same time, officials have changed the regulations governing enrolment schemes to take explicit responsibility for developing enrolment schemes, rather than leaving it to the school’s board of trustees to judge whether the school needs to constrain enrolments.

Then thirdly, this week, the Ministry posted its enrolment priorities consultation paper on its website, slipped out with a tranche of other consultations at the start of the school holidays.

As things stand, every school is obliged each year to first enrol all the local students from in the school zone. But after that, there is a strict hierarchy of pupils who can take turns putting their names in a ballot for any remaining places:

  1. students accepted into a special programme run by the school (like a formal rugby or netball academy);
  2. siblings of current students;
  3. siblings of former students;
  4. children of former students;
  5. children of board employees and board members;
  6. all other students.

It’s all laid out in a 49-page document that school boards have to get their heads around, entitled “Guidelines for the development and operation of enrolment schemes for State Schools”.

But this week’s proposal is that children of former students are no longer prioritised ahead of any other out-of-zone student. Siblings of former students might also lose their priority status. 

The implications of those three changes to school enrolments are significant. And, in broad terms, they give the Ministry greater power to ensure children attend their local school, unless their parents are willing and able to dip deep into their pockets to send them to a private school. This also means that the Ministry can more efficiently manage over-crowding and surplus classroom capacity across its network of school. Rather than two neighbouring schools competing for the same pupils, the Ministry can adjust the zone boundaries to direct more pupils to the school with capacity.

Beyond that, there’s no neat pattern around the school zone changes; no tidy narrative for an education journalist. Some of the changes will strengthen local schools; some will weaken them. Some will reinforce communities; some will tear apart families.

“There will be outrage,” says O’Connor. “Anyone who is looking at sending their son to Auckland Grammar School in the next 10 years, they’ll be outraged that that option is removed, unless they move into zone.

“I’ll certainly be encouraging our school community and our old boy community to get involved with this consultation process, and just keep making submissions until the system blows up.”

Juking the streets

Genevieve Ostring knows some families in her neighbourhood who moved down the road to be in the zone for Auckland Grammar School. She and her family have moved in the opposite direction.

Genevieve Ostring has been forced to move her family 1km up the road into a rented house, so her sons Andy (left) and Matt are in zone to attend their closest high school where all their friends and neighbours go. Photo: Supplied

This Auckland family found themselves living in an anomaly. The map calls it Towle Place, actually – but Ostring calls it an anomaly. It’s a lovely cul de sac bordering on Remuera Golf Course and the Waiatarua wetlands. This and all of their neighbourhood of St Johns Park, between Meadowbank and Stonefields, is zoned for Glendowie College. That’s strange, because Glendowie College is 7km away over the hill, even though their community is surrounded by other houses and streets zoned for nearby Selwyn College, just 4km away.

The reason for this Glendowie island floating in the middle of a sea of Selwyn is clouded somewhat in the mists of time. It is a graphic illustration of the fine balance between encouraging community cohesion with schools at the heart of the community, and principals’ determination to maintain or increase their rolls.

Back in the 1990s, when the St Johns Park neighbourhood was built around the outside of Remuera Golf Club and Waiatarua Reserve, the two schools were overseen by one board. And because Glendowie’s roll was low, they made the decision to zone the area to Glendowie – even though it was closer to Selwyn.

Ostring and her husband never thought about high schools when they bought a home in Towle Place 10 years ago, and moved in with their baby son – but then they discovered they were trapped in this country’s strange and inconsistent web of intermeshing school zone rules.

So late last year, they rented out their home by the park, where they’d brought up their sons Andy and Matt, and moved barely a kilometre up the hill to a rental on Bonnie Brae Rd. “I know,” she says. “It’s ridiculous.”

The St Johns Park neighbourhood around Remuera Golf Glub is zoned Glendowie, even though it’s separated from the rest of the Glendowie zone and is closer to Selwyn College.

Ostring’s two sons are among thousands of children across Auckland and throughout New Zealand who will find themselves dramatically affected by changes to school zoning. In Auckland, the Ministry of Education is imposing new or amended zones on 135 schools, meaning there will be younger siblings who are zoned out of the schools their big brothers or sisters go to – though the new Education and Training Act 2020 does provide transitional provisions for them.

This massive extension to school zoning is complicated enormously by the other great cleaver to the fabric of New Zealand society: the housing market. This divides us just as effectively as the ideological balancing act between individual choice and collective good. Basically, people will pay more for homes in what are perceived to be good school zones.

The ugly, unspoken truth is that they will pay more for homes in school zones where their neighbours, and their children’s classmates, will be affluent and white.

Parents unquestioningly have their children’s best interests at heart. But they are typically and fundamentally ignorant of what makes a good school, and of what it is that will develop their children into confident, well-rounded and high-achieving adults.

And so, the research shows, they judge and select schools by the most superficial metrics. Principals say they are asked by parents about the proportion of their school roll for whom English is a second language; that is a proxy for skin colour. And parents want to know the school’s socioeconomic decile; that is a poor measure of community affluence, and an even worse measure of school resourcing. In fact, the lowest decile schools are funded so they can sometimes have better facilities and learning resources. 

Torn families, riven communities

For this article, the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand has crunched the numbers for house prices in different secondary school zones. The median house price in the Epsom Girls’ Grammar zone last month was a jaw-dropping $2.4 million; its brother school Auckland Grammar has slightly different boundaries, and the median house price in that zone was $2.18m last month.

Right next door, the Auckland Girls’ Grammar School zone commanded a median house price of only $771,000 last month – that’s low by any measure in New Zealand’s housing boom. Some of those houses share a boundary fence; it’s just that one is zoned for the popular Epsom Girls, and the other side is not.

The fact is, house prices tell us even less about a school than deciles do. And Selwyn College is an example. Its zone encompasses state housing neighbourhoods in Orakei and, just nearby, the mansions of Paritai Drive. This tells us little about its roll, because a relatively high proportion of students in the area go to private schools. And over the course of recent years, it has changed from a school with a falling roll and reputation, to one that is in hot demand for its renowned creative arts programme and strong pastoral care ethos.

Selwyn hopes to expand its zone as part of this round of 135 new zones and boundary changes. It would extend its zone to take in the island that is St Johns Park – and creating an overlapping zone in which those young residents could choose to keep going to Glendowie, or could choose instead to go to their nearby local school Selwyn College.

Ostring’s family is caught in is a historical and geographical anomaly that might yet be smoothed out with all the zone changes. Indeed, Ostring started a petition at the weekend, which has already gathered 125 votes from neighbours who would like the zone changed to allow them the option of sending their children to their neighbourhood school – the very thing zoning is meant to achieve.

But the ministry’s proposal around “legacy enrolments” of siblings and children of old boys? That’s insurmountable. That reflects a deep-seated philosophical difference between those who believe a school should serve its local community, and those who believe the school creates the community. That the school is the community.

The battle for the heart of a community

Ostring and O’Connor are probably on opposite sides of the zoning debate – yet both find themselves at odds with a system that, they feel, fails to put the child at its centre.

Ostring’s son Andy, who is year 8, has built a close group of friends at his primary and intermediate schools – but the zone anachronism would have forced him to leave them and catch a bus across to Glendowie. So Ostring and her husband made the call to rent a house in nearby Selwyn College’s zone, so he could stay in his community.

“Community is really important to us, and he’s got such a lovely bunch of friends. He can walk to school with them, he can walk back.”

And unless the Ministry of Education agrees to a change in zone boundaries, there they will stay. Matt is two years younger, and they want him to attend the same school – so they will have to keep renting in the Selwyn College zone until after he’s enrolled too.

Auckland Grammar School Headmaster Tim O’Connor says he is encouraging the school community to support him en masse, opposing the change to the enrolment rules. Photo: Supplied

O’Connor, too, wants to keep children in their communities. It’s just that he sees the community as a cultural construct, built up over generations, not a geographical coincidence of neighbours thrown together by accident of the real estate market.

 “It’s a little bit frustrating that we have to fight the good cause, because what will be presented by the Ministry or by Government is that this is about elitism, about exclusivity. But there’s nothing elite or exclusive about this.

“This is actually about building community – allowing locally-governed schools to build their own communities and to serve that community in an outstanding fashion. We just need to be left alone to do our job.”

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

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