Monday, 9 July 2018

Does our secondary system sustain class structures and inequity?

Our secondary school system sustains our class structure. There. I've said it. We have a hierarchy of schools that seems to be based on little more than the oft quoted and rather spurious 'decile system'. The decile system? That system created many years ago as a means of determining nothing more than school funding. Except that as is so often the case there have been unintended consequences, not the least of which is that the system is most often seen by the community as a reflection of school quality. And our secondary schools validate that view, well the higher decile ones anyway, although in fairness I'm not suggesting that they set out to do that by design.

However validate it they do, sustaining the view that they are some how better than their lower decile compatriots. And communities are very ready to go along with those views, applying their own 'confirmation bias' to the question. Indeed sitting alongside racial perceptions there may be no better illustration of confirmation bias than that which exists around our schools.

What is confirmation bias? That thing that happens when we form an opinion about something, and look only as far as the first piece of evidence that supports our opinion before we stop looking. There is no critical evaluation of a broad array of evidence. It might go like this:

"School X is bad. Oooo look, a student from school X smoking in the streets. There, I told you so, that school is bad." You get the idea.

I've even heard of parental comment that teachers at low decile schools can't be very good because they work at a low decile school. Yet from personal experience I can honestly say that the work I see going on in low decile schools is the equal of anything I have seen anywhere else. On a daily basis I see the caring, the professional gyrations and acrobatics, the consumption of emotional and mental energy from staff as, seized by the moral imperative to create equity in education, they do everything in their power to support every child committed to their care. That's not decile based.

Schools run a 'hot game' at this time of year as they vie with each other in the recruitment game. Watch the school brag boards over the next few months to see what I mean.

Across our own Uru Mānuka cluster the data is very clear: we accelerate achievement by using our Manaiakalani pedagogy (Learn Create Share) which we magnify with digital devices. This is NOT a function of decile rating, nor is it a function of social class.

There is both a moral and an economic imperative to stop this nonsense.

Perceptions become our reality. We are what we continually think. So if students and whānau continue to think that School X is a poor performer, then they behave accordingly and it risks becoming the reality. The consequence? Think of the huge human potential that is lost when we say that. Think of the amazing talent in young people and communities that we fail to activate. Who is the loser? The entire community. How many wonderful musicians, or computer coders, how many amazing science researchers or social workers, how many great electricians or engineers, do we miss out on because of those community perceptions of schools? Because these perceptions stand in the way of success for schools.

This has a consequence for adaptation and change in our schools' offerings too. The argument might go something like this: Those higher decile schools produce better results, and so what they do must be better. Right? They produce those results by sustaining those nineteenth and twentieth century industrial model schooling systems. 'Sit down, shut up, let me fill your head with knowledge'; a little extreme, but again you get the idea. This closes our minds to the exponential change that is occurring all around us. A more interesting question might be: in this day and age, what more could they do if they adapted the way they do things, in the same way that with Manaiakalani we are adapting the way we do things too?

Now that is NOT an argument for removing content and knowledge from schools. That's an absurdity. My colleague Steve Saville from Rolleston College has put this very well in his own recent blog post titled "The disturbing debate". Thanks Steve, couldn't have put it better myself. And before anyone jumps on the bandwagon, neither is it an argument for eliminating direct teaching. Direct teaching is highly effective. It's just no longer enough, in the same way that knowing stuff is necessary, but no longer enough.

And of course schools are acting in their own best interests. The more popular a school and the more students, the more successful a school must be, right? And who wouldn't want to work at or run a school that is seen as highly successful? It's great for the ego and the pay packet. The system incentivises competitive behaviour from schools, so why wouldn't they? Larger schools get more resources (not per head, just more resources in absolute terms.. more staffing, more operational funding, more property), oh and the Principal gets a higher salary.

My question is: has the competitive model raised overall educational and social outcomes, or merely reproduced the status quo? My answer is 'probably the latter'. It undermines the democratic nature of education, it diminishes our ability to provide equitable outcomes, by sustaining a class structure that says that those on higher incomes are somehow inherently better than those on lower incomes, that those on higher incomes are somehow more deserving of better educational outcomes than those on lower outcomes.

As much as our work with Manaiakalani accelerates achievement, it is just as much about equity and social justice. In fact it's about 'liberation' if I may borrow the terminology of Mr Pat Sneddon, Chair of the Manaiakalani Education Trust.

In the face of institutionalised discrimination against those less well off in society through no fault of their own, this is discrimination that has been an unintended consequence of our near 30 year flirtation with market forces in education.

So don't try and tell me that our secondary system always supports equity. Don't try and tell me that our secondary system always supports social justice and a better society.


  1. Right on, Robin! You have summed up the current situation very perceptively - and you have seen the system from both sides. The sad thing is that so many in our community (and other schools that should know better) buy into the decile = school & teacher quality equation. At long last Hornby HS has been given, through our new facilties, a weapon to fight back and change community perceptions. The saddest thing is when our students buy into the whole decile = quality issue too. Hopefully when they arrive back next term they will also see that we have faith in them and that they are worth it too. Great Blog!

  2. I absolutely agree Robin. We have to take a systems approach and work towards the good of the system aka the country. We spend time defending our enrolment schemes and perpetuating the competitive elements of schooling. We delude ourselves that schools with waiting lists and in high deciles must be better. That is not the case.