With prominent issues like student loans, allowances, and rising fees, most university students give little thought to the deteriorating state of New Zealand’s secondary schools. When the Labour party was elected in 1999 they implemented a policy of ‘zoning’ secondary schools, whereby schools were compelled to select applicants who applied to the school if they lived in a geographically determined zone. Furthermore applicants from outside the zone could not be selected on the basis of their compatibility with the ethos of the school, they were to be chosen at random by lottery.
The basis for this decision was that “students have the right to go to their local school”. However neither the compulsory acceptance of in-zone students nor the balloting of out-of-zone students serves the best interests of New Zealanders.
For a start, geographical location is a poor determinant of what is a suitable school for a child.
The government acknowledged that private schools have their own “special character[s]” in the Privates Schools Conditional Integration Act 1975, which gives private schools the right to receive funding from the government if they meet certain criteria, but retain their private (predominantly religious) character. However the government refuses to acknowledge the special characters of different state schools.
By zoning state schools, the government is treating them all as identical and denying the sometimes blatantly obvious differences between them. The government would argue that the only difference between state schools should be geography. The problem with that is that it is clearly not true. There are single sex schools, co-educational schools, academically focused schools, sport focused schools, liberal schools, traditional schools, schools of rock and schools with alternative teaching styles and a social focus. Every parent recognises this difference when they choose the most suitable school for their child. However by zoning state schools the government chooses schools for students by where they live, not by their needs or characteristics. The government would argue that this is fair because students might otherwise have to travel “across town” to get to school, as though this is some great travesty of the education system. As someone who did travel across town to go to school, I would suggest that it is a far greater travesty that where you live (or in many cases can afford to live) should determine where you can go to school.
The second, perhaps interlinked, flaw of the zoning regime is that schools can no longer accept students based on their suitability to the school. Instead they rely on the luck of a draw. The government’s rationale here is that it stops some ‘good’ schools picking all the ‘good’ students. What this fails to acknowledge is that any school can be ‘good’ depending on what the student or parents see as a beneficial type of education. It also denies the important role played by those traditionally and stereotypically ‘good’ schools in our education system. When the government talks about ‘good’ schools, they normally mean traditional single sex schools such as Auckland Grammar, Wellington College and the likes. They seem to ignore that the purpose of these schools was to be schools for the top academic and sporting students from the whole of that city. Hence why Auckland Grammar is not named ‘Epsom High School’ or Wellington College, ‘Mt Victoria College’.
If the government’s reason for prohibiting the selection of all the ‘good’ students is ‘egalitarianism’, I would suggest they have failed. Is it more egalitarian to allow the top academic students and sportspeople to choose the school that best suits them regardless of where they live, or to zone people into schools creating educational ghettos in poorer areas?
In particular, participation rates of Maori and Pacific Island students at these ‘good’ schools has dropped markedly since the start of this policy. For example there are 38% fewer Maori and 29% fewer Pacific Islanders attending Auckland Grammar than before zoning was implemented. If Labour is concerned about the lot of the Maori people then, rather than throwing money at treaty lawyers, they should allow people who live in poorer areas to get into ‘good’ state schools on their merit as academics and sportspeople rather than on their luck.
It would be unfortunate for New Zealand if our state schools were not allowed to be selective. Until now the top state schools have performed as well, if not better, than the top private schools in academic, sporting and cultural results. By zoning students, the government is creating a system where parents have three choices for their children’s education if they want to get a ‘good’ one: to go to a private school, to buy into a ‘good’ school’s zone, or to be lucky. For parents with two or three children it will be cheaper to pay the premium on a piece of zoning-inflated real estate than to pay $100,000 – $150,000 for the secondary education of their children. That may seem fine for people with high incomes. In fact it would probably be a good investment. The people who lose out are the people whose education would most benefit from a traditional academic education or participation in a winning sports team, but who cannot afford to pay for in-zone real estate or private school fees.
If ‘egalitarianism’ means denying middle and lower socio-economic groups access to ‘good’ schools, but for the luck of the draw, then Labour has achieved it.
Previously in New Zealand people of every social strata have gone to the ‘good’ state schools. If we are to have a competitive education system where state schools are allowed to have different, but equally relevant characters, then the government needs to stop zoning schools. Getting rid of zoning may not ever provide equal access to the ‘good’ schools, but at least it would be access on merit, rather than where your parents can afford to buy property.