Sunday, 15 February 2015

AGS Principal Asks to Set Fees

Somehow it's always Auckland Grammar, isn't it? The school that private schools want to be, wants to be a private school. But it's in the state system and it's never going to get out of there. Unless, of course, it can take on all the dressings of a private school... complete with fees (which, presumably, would be $1075/pupil and, therefore, no different to the voluntary donations)... because then the distinction is meaningless.

That's one way to understand Tim O'Connor's plea. There's another way.

Faced with a government that just doesn't care and which continues to use its most incompetent minister as the theoretical chief because the mainstream public doesn't care either, AGS has resorted to extreme measures. Tim O'Connor, the current principal, has this week tried to prompt a serious conversation about how we fund our schools by asking for state schools to be able to set fees instead of ask for "voluntary donations".

I'm not sure which of those is true. With the previous principal I'd probably lean towards the first paragraph's assessment of motives. Indeed, it was my first thought. However, when you think about the second paragraph it raises some serious points that do need considering.

Firstly, does National care much about education? Well, it does use Hekia Parata when pretty much anyone can see she's one of the least suitable ministers NZ's had for a long time (excluding the corrupt or dodgy ones). That doesn't suggest yes. On the other hand, National has had three biggish education policies. Introducing charter schools is allegedly one of ACT's but it's really National's and it shows consummate uncaring. The idea hasn't worked overseas and won't work here (and, in fact, already isn't). There's is a particular model that has worked wellish but that doesn't excuse the rest. It's pure ideology. National Standards is in a similar boat. That is, hasn't really worked elsewhere, is being used here because ideology. Prior to the last election, National also brought in this policy of "super teachers". That's one thing and it's arguably a way of getting something close enough to performance pay in. It's also reasonably well received but it's still only one sign of caring.

Secondly, let's look funding, yeah? And by funding, I mean deciles. Again, because I've already sort of done this.

The problems with deciles:

  • Many people think that high decile = good school and low decile = bad school. Metro tries to avoid increasing this impression in its league tables by trying to make comparisons mainly within, not between, deciles. Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby and other media tends to make this impression worse. What's the reality? The impression exists because the decile system doesn't achieve what it's meant to (i.e. close the resource gap/even it out) and, therefore, wealthy pupils (i.e. those that tend to go to higher decile schools) still get a leg up and end up attaining at a higher rate. This makes their schools look better.
  • Deciles try to give lower decile schools proportionately more resources than higher decile schools. What actually happens is that lower decile schools don't get enough (either per pupil or in overall terms, the latter because they tend to have smaller roles due to things like "white flight") and high decile schools are even further away from enough. As a consequence, the decile system doesn't correct for a wealthy family having more resources at all. It also forces higher decile schools to spend more time and effort in getting parents involved with the school. In an ideal world. they'd all get paid more and lower decile schools would get additional funding to help engage parents.
  • They're a blunt tool. Poorer families do live in the Grammar zone (and, indeed, the double Grammar zone... i.e. AGS and EGGS) or likewise with other high decile schools and do end up going to those schools. However, because of the way decile funding works the school will treat everyone as being, say, a Decile Ten family.* This makes life very difficult for such pupils because they face all the same, higher, costs as other families with far less ability to pay for them. This is particularly true for Bring Your Own Device schools (easily the most inequitable and least necessary idea in schools since ever) because you do need to have the devices, pay for internet access and you really should have insurance. That's a huge and, indeed, impossible ask. It's nuts that mid decile schools have BYOD for this reason.
What would I replace deciles with?

Well, frankly, make the funding follow the pupil. Take the per pupil amount that the very lowest decile school's get and tack that annual sum on to every pupil (maybe start issuing National Student Numbers with new entrants). Furthermore, keep the current decile system in place (so, now, some schools will receive twice as much). However, chucking money at the problem doesn't help, at all. To correct for this, really work on increasing support networks for lower decile schools and establish assistance funding.

This will add a lot to current costs. Therefore, remove all subsidies for private schools and put that money where it should be. That is, back in the state system. Likewise, either dismantle charter/partnership schools or make them state integrated. Eventually, work on un-partially privatising State Owned Enterprises and use that revenue (which should never have been lost) to help out. Also, encourage Public Private Partnerships. If this means more schools have buildings named in similar ways to Auckland Uni's Fisher and Paykell Auditorium, so be it. If a private entity wants to help out and improve its brand image, let it but don't let it control curricula or appoint teachers. Let it plaster its name all over the place (maybe even with a discrete place on the uniform) but that's as far as it should go.

If this was the USA, I'd suggest shifting funding from the military but that's not an option here. There's a good argument to make that our defence forces are somewhat underfunded. We have, in some ways, limited options. Taxes should be raised, yes, but I'd prefer that revenue were spent on infrastructure primarily. Shift funding first, seek alternative revenue streams second and raise taxes third. Borrow as a last resort, in this case (or, as part of the renationalisation process). It'd be cool if we had some entity designed to invest money here and overseas with the dividends coming back for use in education.

*Strictly speaking, decile ten means that there a very few students in poverty on the school's roll as a proportion... not that the area is extremely wealthy, so this doesn't, then, make sense (unless you're familiar with how deciles are used and understood more widely).

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