Families shut out as school zones spread
To ensure kids go to their local school, or to give parents the choice? As a Govt review nears completion, Adele Redmond and Laine Moger reveal the number of schools with zoning has hit a record.
At Te Papapa School, the pupils are excited about the Cultural Festival the next day. The deviation in routine, coupled with the rain, has turned most of the children slightly crazy from excitement, principal Robyn Curry notes affectionately.
Teacher Lance Pope manages to tame a small group of pupils for a reading group. He sits crosslegged in front of his students, who call him ‘‘Matua’’.
This is a rare school in New Zealand’s bigger cities: it has more classroom space than it has students. Over several years, this neighbourhood between Onehunga and Penrose has gentrified. And the new families have chosen to enrol their children at schools wrongly perceived to be better when judged on decile ratings and English-asa-second-language rates.
It so angered Curry that, a few years ago, she pointed out to a local newspaper that all the white families were bypassing the school. All but one child on the roll was Ma¯ ori or Pasifika – and that one child was the son of a teacher.
Nearby schools are all overcrowded, or close to it. Te Papapa would have been the only local school without an enrolment zone, to manage its capacity. So, even though Te Papapa has room to spare, the Ministry of Education directed it to set up a zone.
It was a suggestion, Curry admits, that confused her. The law is clear: zones are first and foremost about ensuring there’s space for local students. Te Papapa has just over 270 pupils; effectively, two classrooms are empty. So why set up a zone?
Perhaps, she says, there is a mistaken perception among parents that if a school has a zone, it is because it’s better and in demand.
Enrolment zone boundaries are lines on a map, deciding who is in and who is out. They can divide communities and create distortions. A property in the Auckland Grammar School zone can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than another a few doors down the road.
Being inside a zone means automatic right of entry to your local school. Those living outside can enter a ballot for any leftover places on the roll.
Occasionally, families find themselves on the wrong side of the divide when a school changes its zone boundaries, or sets one up for the first time. It’s a possibility more families may face as New Zealand’s schools pursue zoning at a record rate.
The number of school zones has increased by about 1.2 percentage points each year since 2014. As of October, 39 per cent of state and stateintegrated schools were zoned, compared to 33 per cent, just four years ago. Last year 45 implemented them for the first time. And 68 schools are in the process of setting up zones.
So why create exclusionary communities? The answers are, in fact, multiple. A zone guarantees local kids access to their local school; it limits the potential for middle-class kids to head off to another school across town, thereby reducing the school’s diversity.
Zones dramatically reduce the numbers of families driving their kids from one side of the city to another, clogging the roads. And arguably, rather than dividing communities, they strengthen communities, centred around their local school.
Ministry deputy secretary Katrina Casey says zones help spread students out across a network of schools and ensure efficient use of capacity.
It’s necessary to plan for long-term population changes, sometimes 25 years into the future, so schools are sometimes asked to consider zoning even if new developments are years away.
Accommodating local children while also providing choice is a difficult balance. ‘‘Zoning is really the only way we have to do this but we would welcome other ideas.’’
Christchurch’s Linwood Avenue School illustrates why zones are needed. Two years ago, when principal Blair Dravitski first slipped his feet under the desk, there were 308 pupils. Now there are 422.
As one of the last primary schools in its area to start drawing up an enrolment scheme, it has been boxed in by other schools’ catchments. That has created a ‘‘default’’ zone.
Dravitski doesn’t see the creation of a zone as a drawback. ‘‘We want to make sure for children in the immediate area of the school, that the choice to come to Linwood Avenue is an easy one.’’
East Christchurch schools are facing huge roll growth as families resettle in the area post-quake, or move in for the rebuild. Six schools in the area started developing zones last year. As much as zoning is of concern to the community (Dravitski says it’s one of the first questions prospective families have) it’s also necessary.
He says zoning the school will help it manage its roll and provide more certainty around staffing.
And there’s no other way to stop overcrowding, without jeopardising the opportunity for local kids to attend their local school. Throw out zoning, and you have a free-for-all competition for the smartest, sportiest, wealthiest pupils.
‘‘I’ve been in those competitive environments and it’s exhausting,’’ Dravitski says. Sometimes Linwood Avenue is better suited to some children; sometimes nearby Bromley is better suited to others. ‘‘I think it just comes down to compromise.’’
In a city that is increasingly defined by an infrastructure that can’t keep up with the growing population, the discovery of two Auckland schools with half-empty classrooms is unexpected.
There’s decile two Te Papapa School, which can’t attract the local kids. And then there’s decile 10 Stanley Bay School, in wealthy Devonport, where young families simply can’t afford to buy a home.
Stanley Bay School has a zone – but it’s meaningless. There are so few children that it can take enrolments from anywhere.
Outside the school at 3pm, parents blame soaring house prices for the decline from 273 children in 2015 to 237 last year. But they all like the school’s ‘‘boutique’’ feel.
Harriet Riley, who lives just outside the zone, says it’s important to her that her children attend a local school so they have a sense of community.
Maggie van der Maas is opposed to school zoning: ‘‘All parents should have a fair chance of sending their children to the school they want and which is more appropriate for their child,’’ she says.
At Te Papapa, Robyn Curry says the role of a zone is a vexed question. ‘‘Te Papapa knows it’s a great school, but we don’t have a zone – so does that make us less of a school?’’
All parents should have a fair chance of sending their children to the school they want. Maggie van der Maas, parent
Te Papapa School pupil Koheleti Mafi, 11, during haka practice. The school has been directed to set up a zone despite its spare capacity.
Blair Dravitski, principal of Linwood Avenue School in Christchurch, where the roll has soared.