Time to stop 'decile' being an over-used adjective

How many other countries have such a mis-used and pejorative term like 'low-decile school'? How many other countries have such a mis-used and illusionary term like 'high-decile school'?

New Zealand's state schools are all given a decile rating.

Decile 1 schools are the 10% of schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities. Decile 10 schools are the 10% of schools with the lowest proportion of these students. A school’s decile does not indicate the overall socio-economic mix of the school.
(Ministry of Education)

For the full explanation of calculation and application take a look at the Ministry of Education's page on the subject.

The basic and overlooked fact is that decile ratings have NOTHING to do with the performance or quality of a school and what goes on in the school has nothing to do with its decile rating

It is a system created with good intent and remains a pretty good way of addressing social inequity across the communities which the national school network serves. The problem is that as the years have gone by the decile rating of a school has changed from being a component in the calculation of its operational funding to being a way of describing the school itself, an overused and meaningless adjective.

There was a time when a certain perception was applied to many schools "that is a bit of a rough school" "that is a bit of a posh school." The arrival of the decile system has provided a pseudo-legitimised way of describing a school. What a shame this is. Only the most rampant socialist would attempt to ban parents from classifying and comparing schools, it is human nature to seek out the best for one's children, but the decile rating is not the adjective parents should use to describe a school.

Here are some of the common and totally unfounded generalisations about low decile schools:
- they have poor teachers
- behaviour is bad, bullying is high
- student achievement is low
- the school makes little difference to student achievement
- there are few extra-curricular opportunities for pupils
- buildings are in disrepair
- the community is not engaged with the school

Here are some of the common and totally unfounded generalisations about high decile schools:
- they attract and retain the great teachers
- behaviour is great, bullying is low
- student achievement is high
- the school makes a huge difference to student achievement
- there are lots of extra-curricular opportunities for pupils
- the buildings are wonderful
- the community is fully engaged with the school

If you are reading this from overseas you would say these are common assumptions made about schools in rich or poor areas in all countries. The problem is that in New Zealand we have a decile number to pin on each school. The notion of rough school/posh school is officially branded on all of them.

If you have an official brand put on a school it tends to get used. And used in the most awful ways. Here are a few examples of  very dodgy ways:

- A principal being interviewed on Radio New Zealand National on an entirely different subject was congratulated at the start of the interview on his school's recent rise from decile 7 to 8. This plonker responded by saying "thank you we are very proud of that, our staff worked hard for it". Well done staff, did you all go out and inflate local real estate prices?

- A reporter from the Southland Times reports that principal Kerry Hawkins is justified in his stance against National Standards because his school went from decile 3 to 5. Good on you Kerry, you must have dropped overcrowding in homes.

- A parent approached me at my last school to say how sorry he was our decile rating dropped after the last census but he felt sure we could work hard to lift it. Yes I am sure I can somehow improve the educational qualifications of our parents and get it up again.

- International student recruitment agencies have started to think that decile ratings reflect the quality of the school. My current school's drop from 10 to 9 at the last census has been viewed in Seoul, Korea as a drop in worth of the school as an international education option.

The media now consistently use decile as an adjective to describe any school being reported on. How sad that any achievement from low decile schools is usually reported as some rare wonder (as patronisingly as disabled people doing something great). This is a rare exception.

Expectations of failure very rarely fail. Sadly the new generation of under-graduate teachers have grown up with decile numbers (and false expectations of failure or success of pupils) being attached to schools. These teachers undergoing training sadly also verbalise the same old expectations of a school's culture because the school has a government number attached to it. They expect bad and dumb kids at low decile and good and clever kids at high decile.

From parents to newly qualified teachers the effect is getting worse and worse. What other country brands schools like this? there must be a better way to calculate operation funding without putting a brand on a school...

...and don't even get me started about how real estate agents use decile numbers. Maybe, one day, New Zealand will not have a system of describing schools in this way. We might get back to having rough schools and posh schools again. Nicely ambiguous and not able to be used to sell houses in a certain area.


  1. Good call Mike.

    Having been a teacher at low decile schools and on the BOT of a high decile school, I've seen great teachers and kids and not so great teachers and kids in both.

  2. Great comments Mike. So refreshing to read a discussion today about an issue other than National Standards. Misinformed attitudes around decile ratings are frustrating.

    Imagine if our teachers where given a performance 'rating', based on the achievement of their students for the previous year. "Ohhh look, that decile 9 school has three teachers with a 9 - let's get our kids over there right now!"

    Oops, did I just bring the discussion back to National Standards...

  3. a principal mate of mine was rung by his friend after the NCEA results were published in the newspaper. the guy said, "your school was at the bottom of the list for NCEA results" my friend the principal said the list is alphabetical and our school is W for Waitakere.

    seems people think decile 7 means 7 out of ten. I reckon you could tell the gullible ones that it is a ten point scale with 1 being good !

  4. I couldn't agree more! Well said

  5. Hey I know - we could give them a richter rating!! That would be interesting...