The Government is scrapping the decile funding system for schools, but principals and research raise concern it won’t address the issues that truly divide schools across deciles.

The move to the new equity index is a big makeover of a funding system that has proven controversial since its introduction in the mid 1990s, and recent surveys of students across the country have found the inequalities the funding distribution system was implemented to address are still very real.

Digital learning company LearnCoach’s April student survey put a range of questions to more than 1000 students and found there was work to be done to support students in lower decile schools.

“Students from lower decile schools tend to be juggling a lot more responsibilities, maybe in large families where parents work. It’s quite common that students work either part-time or even full-time, and this has been more prevalent over Covid in cases where parents lost jobs.”
– Adam Walmsley, LearnCoach

Predictably, just over a third in Decile 1 schools reported an average grade of Excellence across Term One, compared with 60 percent of students attending Decile 10 schools. 

But more unexpectedly, over two-thirds of Decile 1 students reported studying through their term break to meet deadlines, catch up and get ahead of their workloads as against 51 percent of Decile 10 students.

LearnCoach head of business development Adam Walmsley puts this down to the responsibilities that often land on the shoulders of students from lower socio-economic communities, as well as the difficulties schools can have in applying one-size-fits all funding to individual circumstances of their students.

“Students from lower decile schools tend to be juggling a lot more responsibilities, maybe in large families where parents work,” he says. “It’s quite common that students work either part-time or even full-time, and this has been more prevalent over Covid in cases where parents lost jobs.”

And then there are the barriers to education for these students, which might come in the form several kids having to share access to a single device – a problem exacerbated by the shift towards digital learning over the pandemic.

A lower-decile rating could mean an extra $800 funding per student, but this extra money doesn’t necessarily mean schools have the tools to erase access issues like this for all students.

“Resources in support aren’t actually getting to the students in an effective way and not really solving the students’ problems,” says Walmsley.

“There are barriers like a lack of internet in the home …  they might have access to a mobile phone but not necessarily a laptop, and if there is one it might be shared between five or six kids. There might not be space in the home to have a quiet space to learn.”

Walmsley hopes the equity funding index, which takes more individual indicators into account when categorising schools, will allow for a more flexible and finely-tuned approach.

“While the decile system painted everyone with a broad brush, the equity-based system is more individualised,” he says. “It takes into account the factors that have been proven to have the greatest influence on negative outcomes.”

It’s also hoped the new model will be more flexible, able to respond to new group compositions of students rather than relying on Census data from 2013, as under the current decile system.

LearnCoach head of business development Adam Walmsley said a wide range of tools need to be considered when addressing inequality of educational outcomes. Photo: Supplied

And, as a new generation reaches high school with a different set of needs and wants than those before them, the system may well need to change and adjust at a quicker rate than in the past.

Generation Alpha are largely the children of millennials, born over the past decade. They have grown up in a world of easily accessible social media and streaming services and the couple of years of pandemic have quickly grown in proportion to the rest of their lives.

Walmsley said educational systems needed to adjust to their needs – which means abandoning one-size-fits-all approaches.

“They are kids who were born with a device in their hand, used to a great degree of personalisation,” he said. “Technology allows you to experience most of your life in a personal way. We are finding education has been lagging behind in that.”

But some of the optimism around the change is more cautious. Karl Vasau, principal of Decile 1 Rowandale School in south Auckland welcomes the news that the decile system will be replaced with something more accurate and up-to-date, but warns that will not be enough to remove the stigma for schools in low-socio economic areas.

“Remuera parents are not going to come and enrol their kids in our school,” he tells Newsroom. “What I’m after is a system that fully supports schools to close the gap created by poverty and hardship. But this won’t stop parents making judgments on the quality of the school.”

He says schools work hard to make the funding they receive go a long way and in low socio-economic areas, principals use the decile funding to bridge the gaps created by poverty and hardship

“Whatever you call the new funding system, parents will still make assumptions or decisions on a school based on what they see and what community the school is in,” he says. “Regardless of whatever the new system is called it needs to be targeted at assisting schools to provide the best education for their students.”

Rowandale School principal Karl Vasau wants to see a system that fully supports schools to close the gap created by poverty and hardship. Photo: Supplied

The overhaul of the decile system is being paid for by $300 million from last week’s Budget 2022 and will mean that in place of the current decile levels, from January 2023 students will be measured on a range of indicators that measure social inequity, and schools given a score on the equity funding system.

It’s a change that Education Minister Chris Hipkins said would give every New Zealander the best chance to succeed.

“We are increasing the amount for schools that have students facing equity challenges and replacing the outdated school decile system, which is a government commitment I am proud to be delivering,” he says.

The package includes $75 million per year in additional equity funding – a 50 percent increase – for schools with higher levels of socio-economic need, with similar advances expected for early learning in the future.

Budget 2022 builds on and continues key shifts across the education system to deliver greater support to both education providers and learners, said Education Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Instead of targeting funding via the decile system, which indicates how many students in a school come from lower socio-economic communities, money will be divvied up according to the equity index.

Any given school’s equity index will be calculated by collating student data over the past 20 years and assessing characteristics that are indicators of NCEA performance, such as the immigration and socio-economic status of their parents, whether the student has experienced poverty or abuse, and how often they change schools.

Rather than a 10-point scale, schools will be given a point-score on a scale going all the way to 225, allowing a more nuanced approach to classification.

Meant as a number to distribute funds equitably, decile numbers in New Zealand have become a selling point for prospective parents looking at where to send their kids.

In research for the Ministry of Education in 2018, Edgewater College principal Allan Vester found the label had a major impact on how people viewed the school’s quality, and it was a hard judgment for schools to escape.

The 10-point system may be on the way out, but in its place will be 215 more levels of stratification upon which people can judge schools as inferior or superior.

One benefit of this is it will reduce the ‘funding cliffs’ the Education Ministry currently notes in the decile system, where a jump from one decile to another can see significant gains or reductions of funding. A more nuanced range of funding categories should allow for more stability.

Respondents to Vester’s research noted a low decile impacted a school’s ability to attract and retain students and staff, leading to low decile labels draining those schools of many of the best academic role models within their communities.

Vester wrote: “Just changing label won’t change much. The ultimate success of any new funding system is not how well it reduces stigma, but by how well it changes the life trajectories of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

“How the level of need is calibrated, how the resource is delivered, and how it is reported are all critical. Schools are only one element in what needs to be a multi-faceted approach alongside a range of connected social initiatives.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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