School choice interactive: Where do the kids in your neighbourhood go?

Thousands of kids are criss-crossing our big cities to get into the wealthier schools of their choice – and continuing a long trend of abandoning the lower-decile schools in their own neighbourhoods, a new NZ Herald interactive tool shows.

Drawn from Ministry of Education data from 2020 obtained under the Official Information Act, the Herald’s new tool lets you see where people in your neighbourhood go to school, or search for almost any school – primary, secondary, private or state-integrated – to see where its students live.

The two interactive maps below starkly illustrate what researchers call “decile drift” – that parents seek out higher decile schools than the ones in their own neighbourhood, especially at secondary level, leading to schools in poorer areas shrinking. In many schools, that’s led to increasing segregation along class and racial lines.

Where schools draw their students from

Add any New Zealand school’s name to the search box to see where its students come from. Deeper colours on the map mean more students come from that neighbourhood – check the key to see how many.

Yet the tool also shows that while some schools are not seen as desirable by people who live locally, kids from all over Auckland will still flock there from other less popular schools – almost always further down the decile ladder.

That’s despite extensive research showing school decile is not an indicator of quality – in fact lower decile schools frequently out-perform their higher-decile counterparts, once non-school factors are accounted for.

Where students in each suburb go to school

Click anywhere on the map to see where students in that neighbourhood go to school. Each school is represented by a circle. The bigger the circle, the more students it draws from that suburb. Zoom out to explore other areas of New Zealand or use the dropdown menu to find major cities.

So if parents aren’t gaining educational advantages for their children – why are they really avoiding those lower decile schools?

Do deciles matter?

The decile system was created to help fund equity, not as a label of achievement or teaching quality. It’s now considered an outdated tool which is at best a blunt indicator of poverty or disadvantage. But a report by former Edgewater College principal Allan Vester found deciles are still used as a “synonym for quality”, with high deciles used by real estate agents as a marketing tool for selling houses, and by schools as a drawcard to enrol more kids.

Vester also found a clear pattern that school size was related to decile – but it wasn’t the absolute decile that was most important. Instead, the key predictor of parent’s school choice was getting away from the lowest decile school in their area. What was considered a low decile in one area may be high in another.

Edgewater College in Pakuranga bears this out – while the decile 4 school consistently loses high numbers of students to higher decile schools nearby, like Howick College (decile 8) and Pakuranga College (decile 7), the Herald’s interactive tool also shows scores of students are coming to Edgewater from neighbourhoods near Tamaki College and Tangaroa College – both of which are decile 1.

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Ministry of Education roll return data for 2020 shows roughly twice as many kids now attend the highest decile schools as attend the lowest deciles. As low decile school rolls have fallen, roll-based funding has evaporated, leading to dilapidated classrooms and high staff turnover.

High decile schools can also draw on community resources to offer far more extracurricular activities, further stacking the deck against shrinking schools where the options on offer are limited. And as the Herald’s interactive shows, kids who live next door to each other scatter across the city as they get older, increasing transport congestion and weakening bonds with their own communities.

Tomorrow’s Schools and parent’s choice

Waikato University Professor of Education Martin Thrupp says there are complicated reasons behind why parents send their children to particular schools.

Thrupp has researched the trends ever since the 1990s, when the neoliberal policies of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms made school choice and competition the norm in New Zealand. As has been extensively documented the reforms led to “winner” and “loser” schools as middle-class parents pulled out all the stops to get their kids into the “right” school, often at the expense of their local one.

“There’s a strong body of opinion amongst educators and some parents that your own individual background determines how you’ll get on and you’ll do just as well in a low socioeconomic school,” Thrupp said.

But he believed middle class parents clustered their children together for a reason – there were advantages to attending middle-class schools.

Those advantages included peer effects – such as being surrounded by other students who expect to go to university – and classroom effects, where teachers might pitch their lesson at a particular academic level. The “old school tie” network effect also saw some wealthier schools overrepresented in elite fields like politics, law or medicine.

“But having said all that… I do believe that if the Government chose to advantage lower socioeconomic schools with more staff and more resources, that does to some extent counter the advantages of middle-class settings.”

One school of thought said there were positives to ethnic segregation, Thrupp said.
“For instance most Māori educators don’t see any problem with schools that are largely catering for Māori students, they see it as a positive, on thegrounds of being able to promote the growth of Māori language and culture.”

The concern was with the way socioeconomic inequalities also tend to follow ethnic segregation – through both where people lived, and where they send their children.Thrupp believed most parents didn’t think about the effect their school choice might have on the rest of the community.

“There’s a place, I think, for more public discussion about the costs of not attending your local school.”

‘You can’t separate racism from classism and elitism’

While all ethnic groups have moved away from low decile schools, Pākehā kids have moved the most – a 2012 report found the number of Pākehā kids in low decile schools had halved in a decade. At the time, the Ministry of Education denied white flight was to blame, instead pointing to demographic changes for the trend.

But AUT School of Education associate professor Georgina Stewart believed the increasing segregation in New Zealand schools was a reflection of “the long slow breaking down of social egalitarianism in this country”.

She had always chosen to teach in schools with a high Māori population, which “inevitably” meant they were low decile. In her time teaching at Tikipunga College in Whangārei, she saw the local kids passing by the decile 2 school’s gates to get to Whangārei Girls and Boys Highs, both decile 5. Those schools’ rolls were bursting at the seams, while hers had room to spare.

Stewart believed there was a “huge myth” in New Zealand that poorer people, and particularly poorer Māori, weren’t ambitious for their kids.”There’s a very strong myth that Māori parents don’t care about education. Not many people would openly say that Māori people are inherently dumb, so…nowadays it’s that they make bad lifestyle choices”.

“The majority of these families are living very small lives but they’re still doing the best they can for their kids,” she said.

She didn’t know why individual parents decided to avoid low decile schools – but “you can’t separate racism from classism and elitism”.

“It’s all part of the same structure…of symbolic violence. There’s violence in the idea that I will spend an hour trucking my kid across a city to get away from a school with so many brown kids in it.”

Every person spoken to for this article said parents were doing what they thought was best for their child. But the options for the wealthy were far greater, Stewart said.

“Regardless of the current policy about school zones, wealthy parents will always use the greater level of options, and I guess power in the market, to advantage themselves.”

Locals who go elsewhere “missing an enormous opportunity”

Auckland Girls Grammar School principal Ngaire Ashmore is uniquely placed to appreciate these trends. Her decile 3 school is in wealthy central Auckland, and the Herald’s data shows few local girls attend. But the school is seen as desirable to her mostly Māori and Pasifika students who travel for hours across Auckland, often making big sacrifices to get there.

In the 1960s and 70s, the neighbourhood had many Māori and Pasifika families who attended AGGS. But as they moved to the suburbs and the surrounding areas of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn gentrified, it became rare for local girls to go to AGGS.

Just 23 Pākehā students attended AGGS last year, out of a roll of 943, according to Ministry records. And the Herald’s data shows not a single girl from affluent Herne Bay was recorded as attending AGGS, despite being in zone. Instead those girls choosing single sex schools went to private or state-integrated schools like Diocesan and St Mary’s. Those choosing state co-ed mostly went to Western Springs, a decile 8 school whose zone overlaps with AGGS.

That couldn’t be because of the quality of education at AGGS, Ashmore said. NZQA data shows the school’s NCEA achievement levels are well above the average for all Auckland, not just for decile 3.

Possibly some Pākehā parents were thinking “My daughter’s going to be a minority in a sea of brown faces”, Ashmore said.

“I don’t think about white flight. I think people make choices, for a whole lot of reasons. Some around racism and race, and some around ‘Where are my daughters going to get the best connections’.”

But she didn’t believe her students felt hard done by if locals went elsewhere – instead, “those that live locally and are choosing elsewhere are missing out on an enormous opportunity,” she said.

Ashmore believed AGGS was a “microcosm” of greater Auckland. “Māori and Pacific young people are going to be the majority of our population in the future.”

“Imagine your daughters having friends that live all over Auckland and have experiences of life you don’t have…We talk about kindness, really understanding people who live in our wider communities but unless you’re really rubbing shoulders with them day to day you really are just on the outside looking in.”

The Herald’s interactive shows AGGS girls come from across Auckland, particularly the south. Ashmore said her school in turn could be seen as taking good students from elsewhere but pointed out there was no other single sex state school available in south Auckland.

She spent 10 years as principal of Tangaroa College in Ōtara, where many parents didn’t have the disposable income to choose a school that wasn’t local.

She remembered thinking that “if we had all the amazing students within that community come to Tangaroa College, this would be a better school, but…I’m not sure if I agree with that argument any more”.

“People in that school work so hard to make sure that those for whom local school is their only choice, they get the absolute best education.”

Support for change: Local school “best choice” for most kids

Education laws in New Zealand give students the right to attend a “reasonably convenient” school, and despite the decades of school competition, many principals now think students should be attending their local school.

Stephen Lethbridge, president of the Auckland Primary Principals Association, said APPA’s position was that local was the “best choice” for most kids.

“You go to school in that community, that’s your place in the world. You have your links, you have your ties there.” Long travel times were also “challenging” for children.

Lethbridge, who is principal of Pt Chevalier Primary, said there was anecdotal evidence that some decile drift happened at primary although it was more pronounced at high school.

There were always exceptions but on the whole “it’s really important that local schools are the option – making sure we’re not oversubscribing in some places and have ghost schools in other places.”

Secondary Principals’ Association president Vaughan Couillault said there was a broad church of views among principals due to the longstanding culture of school choice – with some schools without a zone taking students from “all over the place” and others who had a hard zone boundary.

Steve Hargreaves, president of the Auckland Secondary Schools’ Principals’ Association, said high school complicated the picture because of decisions around school type – like co-ed or single sex, and special character schools.

Given that, “ideally students would all be at a close school that meets their needs, not based on decile,” he said.

“Just about every [principal] agrees with that because that would mean we had a very strong education system.”

As Auckland’s student population booms, it may be that flight away from some schools is beginning to reverse. The opportunity to get into a “desirable” school from out of zone is shrinking, as the most popular schools have hit maximum capacity and started closing their ballots. Even schools with previously low rolls are finding their student numbers increasing thanks to infill housing.

Education minister Chris Hipkins believes the benefits of competition have run their course, and the Government’s position is that competition between schools “has made it harder to share good practice and exacerbated ethnic and socio-economic segregation”.

Following an independent review of Tomorrow’s Schools, changes are in the works to make our schooling system fairer. The Ministry of Education has taken over the power to create enrolment zones and is focused on efficiency – avoiding spending money on new classrooms at popular schools when there’s space at the school down the road. It plans to create zones at almost every school in Auckland by the end of next year.

Deciles were also due to be scrapped this year, replaced with an equity index which brings funding for each disadvantaged student, but that’s been delayed till 2023 by the pandemic.

Hipkins in the past has welcomed the effects of population growth which had forced schools in Auckland to adopt zones, limiting competition.

But he said it had taken 30 years for New Zealand to get here – and would take another 15-20 to rebalance.

“We are going to have to bring parents along for the journey.”

Note: The dataset used in the interactive comes from student’s addresses that schools provided to the Ministry of Education for March 2020 (the most recent available), so the MoE can’t vouch for its accuracy. Not all schools provide this data, particularly private schools. Boardinclosg schools could also skew the results as some schools may enter student’s addresses differently.

Choosing decile 1: 'The things Josh gets at James Cook, you can't buy'

When Manurewa’s Emma Diack enrolled at James Cook High School in 1992, people told her “don’t go there – you’ll get stabbed”, she says.

But she loved it, and when son Josh reached high school she hoped he would choose JC too. Benefits include less travel time, and friends living just down the road. “But I also think there’s something wonderful about appreciating our local community and being part of it,” Emma says.

The decile 1 school’s reputation has suffered for a long time in Manurewa. Most people living near the Diacks in the well-off enclave of Wattle Downs send their kids further away, to Rosehill or Howick College or private school.

But Emma teaches at local primaries so she knew the kids going to JC were “incredibly wonderful, beautiful kids”. The school had also got a new, experienced principal five years ago, and with strong Ministry of Education support it’s now out of statutory management.

That didn’t mean it was an easy decision. “I wanted to send him to James Cook but I didn’t want to sacrifice my child on the altar of my own ideology.”

But Josh is glad he chose JC. Emma says most of his teachers have been “amazing”.

“They’re always willing to talk about Joshua’s learning – you can tell they really care about him.”

There have been some challenges. “There are times that we have needed to contact the school and raise issues, but we have been listened to and well supported.”

The Diacks love JC’s diversity, and despite having different interests to many of his peers – like Dungeons and Dragons, LARPing and longboarding – Josh is accepted by the other kids for who he is.

“They’re kind, they’re compassionate. I think because some of our kids have been through a lot, they’ve had to look after each other and be grateful for the things they get, which helps to build their character.”

Education should be “about the whole person”, Emma says.

“Who is my son, who will he become? Will he be someone who has empathy, will he be kind? Will he have initiative?…The things that Joshua gets because he goes to JC, you can’t buy.”

She’s not judging parents who send their kids out of the area – they want to do the best by their own children. But she invited people not to rule out their local school.

“People don’t even consider James Cook High School. They go straight to the school on the other side of Auckland without even considering what might be awesome on their back doorstep.”

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