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 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 cross-legged in front of his students and leads them in a series of questions about the whale in the story. The kids call him “Mātua”.
A pupil raises her hand to answer a question. “Ka pai,” Mātua Lance replies.
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, just around the corner from Mt Smart Stadium, has gentrified. And the new families have chosen to enrol their children at bigger schools, at schools in more prosperous communities, at schools wrongly perceived to be better when judged on spurious data like decile ratings and English-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 Māori or Pasifika – and that child was the son of a teacher. Not that they didn’t welcome the Maori and Pasifika cultural contributions, which has developed into a real strength for the school. Māori kids, in particular, come from some distance away for the teaching Te Papapa offers.
Nearby schools are all over-crowded, 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 the school to put a zone in place as well.
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 in place a zone, if there’s no constraints on local kids enrolling?
Perhaps, she says, there is a mistaken perception among parents that if a school has a zone, it is because it’s a better school, in hot demand.
HOW ZONE DIVIDE COMMUNITIES
A zone boundary is a line on a map, deciding who is in and who is out.
A school’s enrolment zone can cause consternation for families, divide communities, and carve judgements about its value into a city’s landscape for years to come. The Auckland Grammar School zone dictates that one house can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the one a few doors down the road; if that zone were to be changed, there would be riots in the leafy green streets of Epsom.
Buying property in high-decile schools’ zones can attract premiums as high as 90 per cent, while bussing a suburb over presents a financial barrier for others. Popular schools can quickly grow beyond their means to the detriment of their neighbours.
Being inside a zone means automatic right of entry to your local school and enables choice – a key tenet of New Zealand’s education system.
Residing outside of a school’s zone means uncertainty. Families can enter a ballot for any leftover places on that school’s roll, or enrol at the school that is designated as their local.
Occasionally, families find themselves on the wrong side of the divide when a school changes its zone boundaries, or puts one in place 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 in place has increased by about 1.2 per centage points each year since 2014. As of October, 39 per cent of state and state-integrated schools were zoned – a big increase on 33 per cent, just four years ago.
More schools are introducing zones than abandoning them. Last year just three schools scrapped theirs as 45 implemented them for the first time.
So why create exclusionary communities that have so much potential to anger nearby families? 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 polluting the atmosphere. 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 existing capacity in schools.
It’s necessary to plan for long-term population and demographic changes, sometimes 25 years into the future, so schools are sometimes asked to consider zoning even if new developments aren’t likely to eventuate for several years.
The ministry can temporarily provide extra property to over-crowded schools but “roll growth does not always lead to a new classroom,” Casey says.
“We work hard to balance both the need for schools to be able to accommodate the children in their local community alongside the, sometimes conflicting, desire from families for choice in their child’s education,” she explains. “Zoning is really the only way we have to do this but we would welcome other ideas.”
WHAT TOMORROW’S SCHOOLS WILL LOOK LIKE
Education Minister Chris Hipkins has commissioned a major review of Tomorrow’s Schools, including the school’s relationship with its community. Do boards of trustees made up of elected parent reps have the expertise to run big, complicated multimillion dollar institutions? Can they competently appoint principals? And should the school zones be more, or less, strictly applied?
That report is about to be presented to him; he’s not yet commenting on its likely recommendations, and whether the proliferation of zones is eroding parental choice. Of course, it is – but arguably, that’s a price worth paying.
According to the review’s terms of reference, one of its key themes is ensuring “the ability of schools to respond flexibly to their local communities and the need to balance this with every child’s right to a responsive education at their local school, regardless of where they live”.
Zoning has been a common theme in submissions to the review’s taskforce, the ministry advised.
In the meantime, the job of drawing zone boundaries and consulting communities about them falls to schools’ boards of trustees.
“The reality is the negotiation is usually done with the ministry,” New Zealand School Trustees’ Association president Lorraine Kerr says.
There’s “very little” flexibility for boards directed to draw a zone, and yet some appeared to be selective.
“What I have heard is that some schools are putting in zones, particularly where there is huge growth, to keep those new families enrolling,” Kerr says.
Rightly or wrongly, zoning is not a one-size-fits-all solution, she says. A country school close to capacity may draw a small zone to keep city kids out. “That wouldn’t work where the country primary school’s numbers are down”.
WHEN SCHOOLS BULGE AT THE SEAMS
Christchurch’s Linwood Avenue School shows 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, three of them at the ministry’s direction.
As much as zoning is of concern to the community (Dravitski says its one of the first questions prospective families have) it’s also necessary.
Dravitski says zoning the school, which is being rebuilt and redeveloped for 400 children, will help it manage its roll through attrition and provide more certainty around staffing.
And there’s no other way to stop over-crowding, without jeopardising the opportunity for local kids to attend their local school. Throw out zoning, and you have a free-for-all of schools competing for the smartest, sportiest, wealthiest pupils – while the rest are left out in the cold.
If schools are mindful of the effect their zones have on each other, the process need not be a difficult one: “I’ve been in those competitive environments and it’s exhausting,” Dravitski says. “Sometimes Linwood Avenue is better suited to some children; sometimes Bromley is better suited to some children.
“I think it just comes down to compromise.”
A TALE OF TWO SCHOOLS
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. It’s a suburb almost bereft of children.
Stanley Bay school has a zone – but it’s meaningless. There are so few children at the school that they can afford to take enrolments from anywhere.
Principal Lucy Naylor says it won’t really need its zone until it hits capacity.
Outside the school at 3pm, parents blame soaring house prices for the decline from 273 children in 2015 to 237 last year. Fewer young families are moving in, they say. But they all like the school’s “boutique” feel, and say its important to have choice in education.
Harriet Riley lives just outside the school zone and interviewed at several schools before settling on Stanley Bay. It’s important to her that her children attend a local school so they have a sense of community, she says.
Any potential for overcrowding shouldn’t determine where families can enrol. “If someone desperately wants to come here I wouldn’t deny them that.”
Maggie van der Maas is opposed to school zoning too: “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.
Stanley Bay is a great school for two of her children, she says, but the third needs the “cognitive challenge” provided by the private Kristin School further up the North Shore.
“I think it is important that the characteristics of a school match the child, and how that child is learning.”
At Te Papapa, Robyn Curry says the role of a zone is a vexed question. How do people perceive a school? “Te Papapa knows it’s a great school, but we don’t have a zone – so does that make us less of a school?”
– additional reporting Felicity Reid
OUT OF ZONE ENROLMENTS
Each year school boards of trustees determine the number of places likely to be available for out-of-zone students the following year. Students are then selected in the following order of priority:
1. Those selected for special programmes run by the school;
2. Siblings of current students at the school;
3. Siblings of former students;
4. Children of former students;
5. Children of school or school board employees;
6. All other applicants.
Selection is by ballot if there are more applicants than places available.
SCHOOLS CREATING NEW ZONES
Kaipara Flats School
Target Road School
Te Papapa School
Bay of Plenty/Waiariki
Pyes Pa Road School
Mercury Bay Area School
Silverdale Normal School
Te Awa School
Havelock North High School
Bellevue School (Newlands)
Rewa Rewa School
South End School
Fergusson Intermediate (Trentham)
South Wellington Intermediate
Kaikoura Primary School
Amuri Area School
Addington Te Kura Taumatua
Linwood Avenue School
Ashburton Borough School
Christchurch East School
Our Lady of the Assumption School
Pleasant Point Primary School
Geraldine High School
Rangiora West Primary School
North East Valley Normal School
Ascot Community School
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