UPDATED: The country’s 2500 schools have been told details of equity index changes that will boost this year’s defunct decile funding budgets by up to 40 percent – but there are 269 schools grimly considering how they must tighten their belts

An extra $75 million equity funding has been divvied up among schools this morning. Twenty-four more schools will be funded for free school lunches for an extra 3,000 pupils. Still more (155 schools with 47,000 pupils between them) can opt-in for $9.3m additional funding in lieu of school donations.

It’s good news for 89 percent of New Zealand’s state and integrated schools and kura. 

But for 269 schools – many of them in south-west Auckland suburbs like Onehunga, Maungakiekie, Māngere, Ōtāhuhu and Papatoetoe – their funding entitlements will be cut. And the biggest fall in school rolls in a decade means the ministry will fund the salaries of 351 fewer fulltime equivalent teachers.

Principal Neil Robinson reckons the new equity funding budgets being announced to schools this morning are fairer than the old, flawed decile funding regime – but he says that’s not much consolation to those schools on the wrong side of the ledger. His school’s funding entitlement will be cut by $22,319 from 2024.

“What I do know is that the operational grant funding is woefully inadequate and I cannot imagine what will have to happen if we get less money from now on,” the Blockhouse Bay primary school leader says.

The adversely impacted school were mostly low decile, under the old measure. They are schools that were deemed to have been over-funded under the outdated decile system. They will be cushioned from the pain of the funding cuts for 12 months, but after that they will have to find cuts to their spending.

The reduction in their equity funding will be capped at 5 percent of their total operational grant, per annum from 2024. The Ministry will cover the rest.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says schools and kura in Te Tai Tokerau have the biggest average increase of around $223.11 per pupil, but in contrast, those in Auckland will receive an average increase of just $6.25 extra per pupil.

According to the minister, it’s ensuring the right support is going to the schools and students who need it.

Those schools that are entitled to less funding will be provided with transition support arrangements, according to a ministry bulletin to school leaders this week. “This will outline the fixed funding you will receive for each year of transition,” the bulletin says.

Robinson says: “Certainly the children will miss out and we are likely to have to lay off staff who are doing a great job of raising the children’s learning and emotional resilience after what has been an exceptionally challenging two-and-a-half years.”

According to John Brooker, group manager for education system policy at the Ministry of Education, the clunky manner in which the decile funding system counted things like crowding in homes, meant that the deprivation of some Auckland communities had been over-estimated. “It’s not always the case that these are families with socioeconomic barriers,” he says.

“In a city like Auckland sharing bedrooms is common. When this was overlaid with income data, we found that household crowding was sometimes seen in areas where a relatively small proportion of households have low incomes.”

In Auckland, there were also many families who chose to send their kids to schools across town, away from their local communities and local schools – so again, decile funding had sometimes painted an erroneous picture of the pupils who actually attended their local school.

“The Equity Index is based on the circumstances of the learners actually attending each school so more accurately captures the socioeconomic barriers they are facing.”

“I think communities will take some years to stop using outdated decile ratings. They’re easier for parents to (mis)understand. There will still be certain stigma or snobbery associated with some communities and therefore with their schools,”
– Andy England, Darfield High School

The ministry has also provided schools with their provisional 2023 rolls this morning, and their minimum guaranteed teacher numbers. These are forecasts, based on their existing rolls, known changes to their communities and zones, and population forecasts.

The numbers of children aged 0-14 years rose from 908,000 to 968,000 over the past decade – but Statistics NZ is projecting a fall-off this year and next, largely because of the aftermath of the pandemic, and families moving overseas, Stats projects the numbers of children will drop to 955,000 next year. It is start of a long, steady projected decline through to 2037.

The reduced rolls will begin impacting on the numbers of school teachers next year, though schools are still free to dip into their other budgets, like classroom resources, to pay for additional teachers.

There is broad agreement, though, that the new system is a step in the right direction. It measures pupils (not just their neighbourhoods) against 37 variables every year. It’s already been trialled with good effect in deciding which schools will be funded for free lunches.

At Silverstream School in Upper Hutt, principal Lorraine Taylor says the new equity index will manage funding changes more smoothly. Until now, a small change in a community’s circumstances could translate to a sudden dramatic drop in funding.

Darfield High School principal Andy England says the data the Equity Index is based on is more targeted, more accurate, and better researched so it’s linked to pupils’ actual needs.

“It makes sense that there will be winners and losers with a finite budget,” he says. “If the data shows more schools have more needs, then the pot does need to get bigger.

“I’m hoping that, for us, the changes will capture the wealthy families in our community who send kids to private schools, meaning the actual wealth in our school community is lower than the gross average – hopefully leading to an increase in bulk grant that we can target towards equity.”

“We strive to provide opportunities to our students that are provided to the children who live in so-called ‘wealthier’ areas …  Inequality breeds contempt for the vulnerable – it also breeds anger. Aotearoa New Zealand does not want that.”
– Pauline Cornwell, Papatoetoe Intermediate

At Newmarket School in Auckland, Dr Wendy Kofoed says the additional funding should help most schools reduce class sizes and provide more staff to meet the challenges they currently face.

Papatoetoe Intermediate principal Pauline Cornwell is similarly hopeful, that the equity index will better acknowledge a range of socio-economic groupings or families needing support and living within every community.

“We strive to provide opportunities to our students that are provided to the children who live in so-called ‘wealthier’ areas,” she says. “We do this because we all want to live in a society where all children have access to the best education and experiences so that we can all live in peaceful and equitable communities.

“Inequality breeds contempt for the vulnerable – it also breeds anger. Aotearoa New Zealand does not want that.”

And at Ross Intermediate School in Palmerston North, principal Wayne Jenkins says the equity index will more accurately represent the school’s real community. “I imagine we will be better off,” he says. “It will enable more detailed distribution of resources, however the inequalities in the system are still huge.

“If my school was a secondary school we would get $1.2m more a year in staffing to meet the needs of my kids. Why are 12-years-olds not as important as 14- to 18-year-olds?”

There are four fundamental problems with the 30-year-old decile rankings the Government and schools hope to address. First, they are determined by just five overlapping measures: the percentage of households with low incomes, benefits, low-skilled employment, no educational qualifications and crowding.

Second, the data is desperately out of date: the socio-economic ranking is derived from the 2013 Census, and the associated isolation index – extraordinarily – is drawn from the 2001 Census.

Third, the decile rankings measure the neighbourhoods from which a school’s roll is drawn, rather than the actual challenges of the children attending a school, so they fail to recognise the impact of more affluent kids being driven or bused to schools on the other side of town. 

This contributes to the fourth problem: decile stigma. Extensive research shows parents wrongly judge a school’s teaching and resources according to its decile ranking. A low decile school is wrongly considered by many to be poor quality, despite Education Review Office reports and achievement data showing they are more likely to lift children’s performance.

A big unanswered question is whether the new equity index will lessen that stigma. One superficial but positive change, for communicating to parents, is that the numbering is reversed – the schools receiving the most equity funding to address their pupils need will have the highest number, rather than being ranked Decile 1 as they were under the old system.

Still, teachers fear that it won’t be enough to address flight from good schools in low socio-economic communities. “I believe that it will make zero difference as people will soon learn the new numbering system and what it signifies and to think otherwise is very naive,” Robinson says.

Taylor agrees: “People will still work out the higher socio-economic school communities and choose a school they want their children to attend.”

England thinks communities will take some years to stop using outdated decile ratings. “They’re easier for parents to (mis)understand,” he says. “There will still be certain stigma or snobbery associated with some communities and therefore with their schools.”

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

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