Speaker by Various Artists


School donations: a small step towards a level playing field

by Gareth Shute

Among the provisions in yesterday's Budget was new funding for schools: $150 annually per student. The money is availabe only  to decile 1-7 schools  and it's specifically intended to reduce the need for those schools to ask for yearly donations from students' families. I'm arguing that it's long overdue. But there's a backstory worth knowing, one that explains why donations are being addressed this way.

The recent Tomorrow’s Schools Review suggested capping the "voluntary" yearly donation amount that schools could request. This was a recognition that when it comes to donations, schools are not on a level playing field. Stuff reported in January that of the $140 million donated in 2017, more than half went to just 10% of schools.

Wellington College received the most in donations – almost $5.7m – and two schools in Epsom were next in the list. Catholic school St Peter's College got $3m in donations and Auckland Grammar, which is part of the state system, had $2.2m. Unsurprisingly, when the Tomorrow’s Schools Review was released, the idea of capping voluntary donations was slammed by Auckland Grammar principal, Tim O’Connor, who believed it would result in "lower standards".

Instead, the Budget allows those high decile schools to continue seeking donations to whatever level they wish, but at least tries to bring the low-to-mid decile schools up to a similar level. Yet, one might ask: doesn’t the current decile system already balance out the funding levels?

This is true to a degree. The current decile system allows "targeted funding for educational achievement" (TFEA) which is supplied per student depending on the school’s decile rating. A decile 1A school receives an additional $818.78 per student, but the rate drops quickly so that a decile 3I school receives $199.39 and a decile 10Z school receives zero (all rates given are pre-GST). Higher decile schools are often able to make up this difference by asking for yearly donations.

Auckland Grammar has the largest suggested donation per student – this year it was $1275 per student – which far outweighs the additional funding a decile 1A school receives under the basic decile scheme. While Auckland Grammar is a certainly a special case, there are others with a sizeable yearly donation. For example, Epsom Girls Grammar asks for $905 and Westlake Boys High School  asks for $625 per student (both are decile 10Z).

This situation doesn’t just apply to secondary schools either. Take the case of Mt Eden Normal School, which asks for a yearly donation of $450 per student (what’s more, their recent Food & Fun Fair raised around $58,000, though 10% was donated to the victims of the Christchurch shooting).

Lower decile schools do also ask for a donation, though usually at a much lower level. For example, decile 3I school Henderson High seeks $120 per year. However, in a Herald article from 2009, the principal of Henderson at the time (Joy Eaton) said she hoped to receive donations from around 30-40% of parents. In the same article, the then-principal of Bay of Islands College (Auretta Perrin) said that they had ceased seeking the yearly donation because it was costing more staff time than it was worth.

When the decile system was first introduced in 1995, it was acknowledged that schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged students required more resourcing, so it was necessary to provide extra payments to schools according to the socioeconomic rating of their surrounding area, as measured by census data. This reasoning seems difficult to argue with, but the system of donations up until this week’s budget actually tipped the scale away from this outcome – high decile schools not only made up the difference in funding through donations, but exceeded it.

 Of course, donations are not the only advantage that high decile schools have. One important source of income can be the number of international students a school can attract, since they pay full fees. Here again, the differences can be stark – Auckland Grammar has 144 international students, while decile 1 schools Mangere College and Papakura High School have zero.

Being located in a prized area of the city can have other advantages, since schools are able to leverage this to partner with other organisations to provide resources to their students. Take for example, Rangitoto College which has a full-sized stadium, a 10-lane indoor swimming pool and an astroturfed hockey pitch within its grounds. The first two of these are owned by the AUT Millennium charitable trust and these facilities don’t help directly with the school’s day-to-day costs – but they add value for those who attend the school and help attract international students.

These are just a couple of examples to show the different ways in which high decile schools can seek comparative advantage. On the flipside, the difficulties faced by students at low decile schools are striking. RNZ visited Tamaki College this week and the principal told them about the issues the school was constantly dealing with: "in winter cold children; hungry children throughout the year."

Equally striking was the article in The Spinoff last year by Sam Oldham, a teacher at Manurewa High School, who wrote that "Students enter our school, on average, two years delayed in their reading age, an outcome of entrenched, intergenerational poverty."

The differences are stark. This announcement in the current budget at least means the staff at those schools no longer try to chase up families for donations and can hopefully focus on the many other challenges that they face in giving their students a decent education. Meanwhile, it seems clear that the 10% of schools who been receiving half of the donations up to this point will be unaffected by the change, so it’s good politics all around.

Yet somehow it still seems likely a backlash is around the corner, so it’s worth remembering how we got here and why this small change introduced the Budget should be heralded and supported against its detractors when they emerge from their overpriced villas in the leafy suburbs to cry foul. It is a small step, but certainly in the right direction.

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