#charterschools and loser students

I don’t know what it is like to be a teacher in a low decile school. My two placement schools were a six and a nine while next year I’m teaching at a decile eight. But I know fair bit about being a student in a low decile school seeing as I used to be one and I remember how much it sucked.

It sucked having to walk by lines of students outside the gates of school every morning waiting for buses to go somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t my school. It sucked going to extramural competitions at other schools that had nicer buildings, better computers and didn’t need a school breakfast club to feed kids. But the thing that still sucks 15 years after leaving school is the familiar ‘oh’ when I reply to the ‘what school did you go to?’ question.

I know that oh.

It’s how people voice surprise that someone who is white and middle class would attend a multicultural school alongside poor students. It’s the oh which wonders why my parents sent me to a school like that when many students were bused out of the local area like my brother and sister were to find the right kind of education. And by the looks of things not much has changed for the students of my alma mater. They are still getting the ‘oh’ by people think less of us because we wear the uniform of a school perceived as being less prestigious than well, anywhere.

But you know what didn’t suck?

The friends I made during my time at school.

One of the bonuses to going to one of ‘those’ schools is that I get along well with everyone because any class could include refugees from Bosnia, second generation Samoans or students who could trace their whakapapa in New Zealand back generations.  I had opportunities to take part in extra curricula activities as well as some awesome and some not so awesome teachers. My experience probably isn’t all that different from most middle class students experiences of education.

How did we turn out?

Some girls I went to school with got pregnant as teenagers. One of the girls in my form class in year 10 served time in jail for fraud. But before you start judging two girls in my class in year 11 went onto get PhDs from overseas universities. One girl even managed to be both a teenage mum and graduate from Cambridge University. Would our futures have been improved if the best and brightest among us got shipped off to a shiny charter school?

I don’t know.

But I do know that if you have a system which not only tolerates  but encourages the idea of  winner and loser schools the natural corollary is that you must also tolerate loser students. For the kids who are told that they are somehow less worthy a person by virtue of which school they attend that really sucks. Believe me the kids in the so-called failing schools know when they’ve been given up on not just by their local community but society as a whole.

And when a society treats whole communities as dumping grounds for problems associated with poverty it is little wonder that schools and teachers serving them are often viewed as lesser quality. Quite frankly I don’t blame parents for wanting to do something, anything really, to get their kids out of dodge.

But what exactly are they running away from? Is it really a bad schooling or is it about ensuring their children have sufficient cultural capital to gain entrance into the middle class?

A few years back I remember serving on a university committee which was charged with determining admission for the then just to be implemented NCEA. While the committee was deliberating on how to ensure  equality of access to the university one of the academics dryly remarked that if our institution was to follow the University of California system that guarantees entry to the top 9% of graduating high school, there would be a dramatic reversal in Auckland’s busing patterns.

Likewise  the city of Raleigh, North Carolina stipulated that no school could have no more than 25 percent of who were a year or more below their expected level in reading or maths. The idea being that the kids who needed the most help aren’t all lumped together which would raise achievement levels across the city. And you know what? It worked.

The lesson here is that we need to start seeing failure in education not as a failure of individuals whether they be students, teachers or schools, but a failure to address a broader problem of poverty in New Zealand. Despite the rhetoric from our politicians that our education system failing many learners we know it’s not the case. New Zealand consistently ranks near the top on international studies. The problem is that we have is a tail of 20% of students who are under achieving and I’m willing to wager a steak and cheese pie that this tail is found largely in the schools serving our poorest communities.

But poverty isn’t destiny right?

When kids come to school hungry they won’t learn as effectively as the kids who don’t.

When kids are taking extra time off school because they are contracting preventable diseases they won’t learn as effectively as the kids who don’t.

When kids are in living in overcrowded and at times unpredictable living situations they won’t learn as effectively as kids who don’t.

The ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ (or ‘Demography Is Not Destiny’ if you like alliteration) crowd that will soon pop up will imply that these issues are not very relevant since they are out of the teacher’s control.  They will say that teachers who speak out against the regime about to be implemented are lazy and seek to shift blame away from their performance.  I’d say that they are worse since they deny the importance that poverty has on student performance.

More importantly why is New Zealand trashing the idea that our education system should guarantee a child, whether they are rich or poor, can rock up to any school in this country and get a great education taught by highly qualified teachers? A kid’s life chances shouldn’t come down to whether their parents happen to have capital, cultural or otherwise, to choose the ‘right’ school for their kids.

Because ultimately it isn’t the children in Epsom who are having unqualified teachers placed in the classrooms and charter schools which lead to a higher level in variability of student achievement foisted upon them.  The cynic in me thinks that this policy is designed to keep the problems of poverty out of sight, out of mind and undoubtedly out of the schools of the people who keep saying ‘oh’ when I tell them where I was educated.


32 thoughts on “#charterschools and loser students

Add yours

  1. I agree that sending children to “better” schools is usually more about socialization than it is about education. From my own experience my parents made a deliberate decision to send me to a private school to fast track our entry into the middle class. The racial component of this was quite evident. They knew from their own experiences that even though they were competent and successful their ethnicity always counted against them. If we were going to be accepted drastic and expensive measures were going to have to be taken. My mum recently told me that she might not have made the decision if we were white because then I might not have needed that extra bit of privilege to get me places. All of this makes me incredibly uncomfortable and uneasy. Interestingly our schooling wasn’t ever enough to gain us entry into the same class as the people we went to school with. Race, religion and family wealth will always count against us. They just wanted us to be able to hold our own and be respected in our interactions with white New Zealand.


  2. Great post! You do have to wonder whether the super rich Johns are in touch…When John Key cited Kings and Parnell College as two independent schools doing a good job and by extension being a model for charter schools in low decile communities where “educational underperformance has become the norm” (according to the NAtional/ACT agreement) it’s hard not to dislodge words like “arrogant” “ignorant” and “contemptuous” from your brain….


    1. Hi Stephanie
      I do wish that educational policy makers and our leaders would spend more time talking to the kids in the sector. The fact that one of the students is writing what I remember feeling all those years is both depressing and infuriating.



  3. Hi Stephanie
    Love your post! I must say the school that has taught me the most since I started relief teaching and the one I’m really looking forward to heading back to is a decile one school. The children and teachers there inspired me! Because of them I take my ukulele in to every classroom I go in to now and whenever possible I start the day with a song! I feel so lucky to have been asked to relief teach there.



    1. Hi Katrina,
      Indeed the thing that saddens me the most is some of the assumptions made about schools in poor areas. They do a bang-up job in tough circumstances and for that deserve respect rather than scorn.



  4. You describe schools I work in on nearly a daily basis. It is in these schools where you can find some amazing teachers, and some wonderful students. You just need to look past first impressions, and take a look underneath.

    These schools are made of up REAL teachers and REAL children. We should never look past that, and never look down upon them. Treat them with respect, and they will respect you for it in the years to come.


    1. Michael
      Thanks so much for your comment and you are absolutely right people need to stop thinking about first impressions and remember that there are actual people in real communities who deserve everyone’s respect.



  5. Great post yet again, Stef. Very provocative and gives us all plenty of food for thought. There are no easy solutions to any of the most difficult problems facing education the world over. We have no level playing field no matter what we dress up our schools in. There are differences and unique problems in all schools and it can never be a ‘one size fits all’ answer. Thanks, as always, for making us all squirm in our comfort zones and question what we thought we knew.


    1. Hi Kimberley,
      Thanks for your comment. I still don’t pretend to know anything about low decile schools as they are now as outside of a few fleeting visits I haven’t had much contact since I was a student. But I won’t forget that I was and am in no way ashamed of it.



  6. Stephanie, it seems that you are allowing other peoples attitudes affect your altitude. There are as many non-achievers at high decile schools as there are at low. My children attend decile 10 schools but being from farming communities, the decile rating bears no resemblance to wealth or income. Teach your children to set goals and dream big. Be happy with where you are at, develop friendships, relationships and focus on what you want. Don’t let your past hold you back!


    1. Hi Ricardo,
      Thanks for your comment. My post was more a lament that the people making these decisions seem to be so far removed from the kids whose lives will be effected by the policy.



  7. I love your post. I am reading as much as I can about Charter Schools as I am a Mum with a school age child and two more to follow her. We live in an area where the four closest school are Decile 10. Personally I think my kids education would be enhanced by being at a school that wasn’t so income and ethnically exclusive but I speak from a position of privilege. Our school does not lack for resources or good teachers. Mixing us all up instead of these pockets of wealthy and acres of struggling families would do us all the world of good.
    The primary school I attended certainly was a mixture of children from all income brackets and ethnicities. I adored it.


    1. Hi Rebecca,
      I think it’s up to you to make a decision that works for your family. I do encourage you to research decisions, go see the schools and talk to teachers, see students in action etc. and then go from there.



      1. Hi Stephanie,
        I agree that it is a parent’s responsibility to remain in touch with their children’s school. My family are involved at a basic level – as weekly parent help and on school trips. Our principal and school board are very communicative about fundraising and future developments at school. I also communicate regularly with my daughter’s teacher if I am concerned or very happy about how things are going.

        This year I have a) complained about the size of her class (30 children for year 3 students)
        b) discussed my daughter’s reading and writing skills – Rainbow reading required to keep her up to speed
        c) discussed concerns over interactions with another child in her class.
        d) contacted the Head of Middle School about her class placement for 2012 when I thought there was a possibility she could be placed in a class with children 2 years older than her.
        e) filled out all questionnaires and feedback forms that school have sent to parents

        I imagine next year will be pretty much the same. Our school has implemented National Standards which I was concerned about. However the implementation has been smooth and the range of subjects taught has not been reduced so my worries have not amounted to much.


  8. The big problem is making an assumption that there is somehow a tie-up between Decile rating, success and achievement. I taught at an extremely low decile Intermediate school – many of my students have gone on to great things. I work in schools that range from Decile 1 – 10. Some of the most successful schools I work in are Decile Ones. One of the worst is a Decile Ten – it looks good on paper, but dig below the surface and there are so many bad things going on it’s scary! The sooner we get rid of this ridiculous Decile system the better!


    1. Hi Freda
      The decile system is actually used as a way to determine government funding for schools and nothing else. Unfortunately too many people think that the number matches the ‘quality’ of the school.



  9. It is very difficult to generalise about decile rankings and the possibility of this relating to the effectiveness of the school. I agree with Suri, socialisation has a big effect on students in high decile schools but the quality of an ‘all-round’ education surely comes down to the teachers and their relationship with the students.


  10. Having grown up in Otahuhu and attended the local high school I too have gotten that same “oh” when I tell people what school I went to.
    Since I have stopped attending I have been in regular contact through the kapa haka group and have found that in spite of the fact it is an under resourced school it has improved markedly since my time there.
    More importantly though through talking with people who went to richer schools I have found they often experienced some similar problems, they just weren’t as obvious to the rest of New Zealand.
    Any idea for helping South Auckland proposed by John Banks, a man who holds my hometown, the rest of the Southside and it’s predominantly brown population, can’t possibly be good.


    1. Hi will
      Thanks for stopping by. I agree that when the wider political comment is taken into account I can’t help but think it’s another case of ‘sit down, shut up, and I’ll fix you.’



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