Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 09/08/2017

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Death to deciles

The Government is about to drive school deciles out of town. Good riddance.

What will replace the much-maligned decile system? A data-driven “risk index model” that funds schools based on the circumstances of individual students rather than the socio-economic profile of their neighbourhood.

The yet-to-be-finalised list of indicators are based on predicting how likely it is that a child will not achieve NCEA Level 2. They will likely include things like beneficiary status, the age of the mother when the child was born, parental corrections history, and ethnicity.

If done well—and this is a big if—this new-fangled funding model could yield real improvements for disadvantaged kids, getting them the resources and support they need to progress and succeed against the odds.

The change is well overdue. Deciles are dumb: blunt instruments that only loosely align to both student need and school quality.

Despite what many think, deciles aren’t based on the needs of the students that attend the school but instead the make-up of the surrounding neighbourhood. In most cases they simply didn’t reflect reality.

Deciles also became the de-facto standard to assess school quality, and this relationship between deciles and school quality isn’t as tight as we tend to think. This created situations where students were labelled as hopeless, reinforcing the possibility of decile becoming destiny. In an interview a few years ago, Papatoetoe principal Peter Gall said “the overt labelling of schools by socioeconomic factor is the worst thing we do in our education system.”

Combine these two shortcomings and we have a system that not only doesn’t effectively support kids who need it but also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure for kids that go to lower-decile schools.

Real estate agents were the only real winners under this flawed system.

This change will hopefully, as the Prime Minister put it, “get more resource to the kids who need it.” Matching needs with resources relies on great data. The success of this will stand largely upon how robust the predictive models are. When it comes to stigma, the risk index is supposed to remain anonymous, reducing the risk of harmful (and mostly inaccurate) labelling. There is still a chance this system could introduce new forms of stigma, which will need to be guarded against.

Funding changes won’t make deciles disappear overnight; their effects will linger for years to come. Parents can and will still find out the decile rating of their local school. But maybe, over time, parents will, as Education Minister Nikki Kaye hopes, refer to more reliable sources like ERO reports, the school’s strategic plan and educational progress when making decisions about their children’s schooling. We can only hope.

Deciles may be done for, but it’s important we keep striving for better data on student need and student progress and achievement. The fact that this move has been met with broad support by principals and early childhood educators with only minor quibbles by unions and the opposition suggests that the death of deciles will be mourned by few.

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Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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