Complex identities and the replacement for decile funding

The replacement for decile funding could signal a subtle but significant shift in the way we talk about underachievement and disadvantage.

A few years ago one of the problems teachers had with the then Minister of Education was her insistence that teachers were using out of school factors as an excuse for letting some kids fail.

‘Decile isn’t destiny’ was one of Parata’s more catchy lines, and of course like all good aphorisms, it’s got a gut-feeling common-sense hokey honesty to it, but it denies a much more significant statistical truth.

The announcement yesterday from Kaye about the replacement for the decile system shows that position has lost, and the reality of out of school factors having a significant impact on how well students are likely to do at school is now accepted. That’s a good step.

Of course National has implicitly recognised this, by maintaining the decile system, through all its years in government. But setting up a funding system you’re pinning your colours to is different from continuing one that you may not be entirely fond of – this announcement means that it’s much harder for National MPs to tell teachers that it’s their low expectations of disadvantaged kids that’s causing the attainment gap. We can simply respond – why did you bother with the new funding for disadvantage system then?

It has been interesting seeing the arguments that the old measures of disadvantage (used to generate the targeted funding for educational achievement, TFEA or decile funding) are much better than the proposed new ones. The replacement of five measures based on census data with fifteen or more based on administrative data doesn’t seem like too big a deal to me, and simply recognises that the data available to government is better now than it was. They’re both just ways to use some publicly held information to work out which schools should receive extra funding to help them meet the extra challenges their students face. If you can get it, why not use information which tells you the schools and groups of students who are genuinely most likely not to do well at school.

This doesn’t in any way replace the importance of adequately funded universal provision (i.e. good public schools) for everyone. Maintaining this base of resourcing for schools is one of the critical reasons why defeating bulk funding last year was so important.

Something else that the administrative data sets that will be used to generate the new ‘equity top up’ reveal is how awry some of the other rhetoric about students has been. For years schools have been told that they needed to be doing more for ‘priority learners’, who were listed as Māori, Pasifika, students with special education needs and students from low socio-economic households.

The data shows that belonging to one of these groups is very far from the main factor that correlates with underachievement at school. Without other significant risk factors, such as having been on the benefit for many years, having a CYFS notification and so forth, being Māori or Pasifika, or even low income, in and of itself is not a risk factor at all. Why would we say “Māori students are at greater risk of underachieving”  when being Māori is a factor that is far less predictive of underachievement than dozens of other ones. We may as well say, “Students whose mother smokes are at greater risk of underachieving” or “Students from bigger families are at greater risk of underachieving”, and get schools to specially report on them.  When we ran an analysis of PISA data a few years ago, the most predictive factor for low or high achievement that showed up there: the number of books in a students' home.

Having said this, it's important not to assume that factors that correlate with underachievement are the cause of it. Working out what the causes are is something that teachers and schools need to do, and be supported with (especially if, as is likely, they're things that are out of schools' control). 

The lesson of this though is that it must be time to retire the ‘priority learners’ language for good.  Students’ identities are complex - using one part of their identity as short hand for, and as if it has explanatory power for, all of it is unhelpful. 


Read more here about PPTA's position on the funding review, including why the disadvantage component needs to be significantly increased. 

Photo credit: PhilBeeNZ

Last modified on Wednesday, 2 August 2017 08:47