Ed­u­ca­tion’s goal eludes low decile stu­dents

Weekend Herald - - Viewpoints -

It is trou­bling to re­port to­day that so very few stu­dents in pro­fes­sional de­gree cour­ses at uni­ver­si­ties have come from our low­est decile schools. Ed­u­ca­tion has been de­signed to pro­vide an equal op­por­tu­nity to ev­ery­one in New Zealand, en­abling those born into low in­come house­holds to over­come that dis­ad­van­tage and ac­quire the means to make a bet­ter life for them­selves.

Kirsty John­son’s re­port to­day sug­gests it is not hap­pen­ing. Just one in a hun­dred stu­dents in elite cour­ses, she finds, came from the low­est in­come decile. Among the 16,000 stu­dents ac­cepted into pro­fes­sional law, medicine or engi­neer­ing cour­ses over the past five years, 60 per cent came from the high­est third of house­hold in­comes, and just 6 per cent from the low­est third. Th­ese are cour­ses with lim­ited en­try, stu­dents need to meet a com­pet­i­tive stan­dard.

Uni­ver­si­ties blame low decile schools for fail­ing to equip more of their pupils for higher ed­u­ca­tion, school prin­ci­pals say uni­ver­si­ties could be do­ing more to en­cour­age their pupils with schol­ar­ships and other as­sis­tance. But both sides prob­a­bly know they are bat­tling one of the old­est facts of life — that fam­ily ex­pec­ta­tions are the strong­est in­flu­ence on a child’s prospects.

Cen­turies ago it was firmly ex­pected that a son would grow up to do what his fa­ther did (girls’ prospects were even more lim­ited). Nei­ther par­ent nor child thought it nec­es­sary or even de­sir­able to learn any other trade. The in­her­ited oc­cu­pa­tion de­fined a per­son’s right­ful po­si­tion in so­ci­ety and rel­a­tive wealth.

That class sys­tem was left firmly be­hind by those who chose to mi­grate to places such as New Zealand in the 19th cen­tury. Pi­o­neer set­tlers wanted wider hori­zons for them­selves and their chil­dren and an un­de­vel­oped coun­try was a a place of bound­less op­por­tu­nity.

New Zealand has never lost that prin­ci­ple of equal op­por­tu­nity, though our re­port to­day sug­gests that it has be­come ob­served more in prin­ci­ple than in prac­tice.

Ed­u­ca­tion may not be the great equaliser we like to imag­ine. Ev­ery child is pro­vided with school­ing from age 5 to 15, at no cost if the par­ents can­not af­ford a usu­ally small fee. Preschool and ter­tiary educ­tion is also heav­ily sub­sidised, with loans pro­vided on gen­er­ous re­pay­ment terms.

Yet in many house­holds, ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion re­mains a for­eign con­cept. Par­ents who got a job as soon as they could, just as their par­ents did, do not en­cour­age their chil­dren to do any­thing dif­fer­ent. Not all, of course. Plenty of par­ents of mod­est means help their chil­dren as­pire to a higher educ­tion than they had. They may be the par­ents send­ing their child to a school in a higher decile area, which should also be taken into ac­count when mea­sur­ing ed­u­ca­tion’s equal­is­ing ef­fects.

But the more that low decile schools lose their more highly mo­ti­vated pupils, the lower the likely per­cent­age of those re­main­ing who go to univer­sity.

It is hard to see what can, or should, be done about that. If higher ed­u­ca­tional as­pi­ra­tion starts with a choice of se­condary, or even pri­mary, school, should it be dis­cour­aged? The so­lu­tion lies in mo­ti­vat­ing many more chil­dren to over­come their lot­tery of birth and mak­ing sure they have the op­por­tu­ni­ties ev­ery child de­serves.

But both sides prob­a­bly know they are bat­tling one of the old­est facts of life — that fam­ily ex­pec­ta­tions are the strong­est in­flu­ence on a child’s prospects.

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