OPINION: Education Minister Hekia Parata has been making noises about dumping the school decile system for years. Now, on the eve of her exit from politics, she apparently wants to get the plan firmly set in motion.
The idea is reasonable. The current system allots extra funding to schools based on census information about areas of high socio-economic need. Instead, she supports a “big data” approach that uses other factors to predict which pupils will be toughest to educate.
The new system isn’t set to arrive until 2020, but in a sense the experiment has already begun – from this year, all schools have had their operational funding frozen, but many have received “targeted” boosts based on estimated numbers of students with “a long-term welfare-dependent background”.
As well as parents on benefits, the complete model looks likely to include a stress on children with CYF notifications and those whose parents have a history of criminal offending.
One key question is whether this mix is a better predictor of children’s achievement than the traditional poverty-based set of factors. Government modelling suggests it is, but some education academics disagree.
This needs care. The evidence behind the formula must be compelling – to meet the inevitable complaints that will come from schools that lose out, as well as to warrant another government trawl through data on vulnerable people.
Yet if it is much more accurate, there can be no objection to the change. Why shouldn’t schools with more challenging kids get more funding to meet the challenge? Schools are not in the business of solving poverty, per se – they are meant to help people learn.
Parata also says ditching deciles will remove the “stigma” attached to schools with a low decile figure. That’s optimistic – parents can always find a proxy for school quality – but it’s a welcome goal.
Still, if this technocratic overhaul is fine in principle, there are big questions about the details.
How to avoid a severe and arbitrary cut-off for the extra funding is one. (The decile system is at least a sliding scale). Exactly how far to take the data revolution is another. Parata has at times seemed keen on varying funding even by pupils’ year level – to reflect supposedly different burdens on teaching at different stages. But the evidence for this is thin, as the Treasury has pointed out.
Finally, there is the critical question of how much funding to keep universal – and how much to target on those who struggle. New Zealand’s “long tail” of under-achievement argues for serious resources to be spent on the latter. But funding cuts for middle-class schools, which seem anything but over-resourced, would be both a political headache and a blow to the powerful ideal of a decent public education for all.
Another option is to increase funding all round. In one Cabinet paper last year, Parata said that might be necessary. It would be a welcome surprise.
That will be up to her successor. Whoever it is should proceed cautiously with the big data approach. If handled well, it might really help those who lag far behind at school. But they shouldn’t let the data deluge swamp an equally pressing concern: how to make sure the school system is working for everyone.