School zoning: Outcry from Macleans College and Auckland Grammar over proposal to change priority rankings for out-of-zone ballots

A proposal that would make it harder for parents to send their children to their old school if they don’t live in zone has generated a wave of protest.

The controversial move has been criticised by some highly sought-after schools and their alumni who fear important family links could be lost as demand for out-of-zone positions continues to grow.

Around 1500 submissions have now been made about the proposal by the Ministry of Education, which is concerned the current system may be giving an unfair advantage to students with family links to a school.

The proposals to change the current priority rankings have raised ire from schools such as Auckland Grammar and Macleans College, which have strong alumni networks and are now planning public meetings before consultation ends on June 16.

The current “Grammar clause”, as some call it, was introduced in 2010 to give children of former students preference over staff members’ kids and other out-of-zone applicants.

Under one of three proposals put forward by the ministry the chances of the children and siblings of former students being picked from the ballot are reduced to the same as a child with no links to the school.

An alternative proposal would see siblings of former students remain a priority but the children of former students having the same chance as those with no links.

In theory, the changes would slightly increase the chance of a student from a lower socio-economic area, with no family link, getting into a more sought-after school.

The third option would see the priority rankings remain as they are now.

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Vaughan Couillault, president of the Secondary Principals’ Association of NZ, said he knew of principals who were both for and against the proposals.

As principal of decile 3 Papatoetoe High School he’d be “very comfortable” removing preference for children of alumni, while retaining priority for siblings of former students.

Both options would see children of teachers and other staff gain in preference, which Couillault said was widely supported because all principals wanted to serve their current community’s needs.

He was less concerned at the potential removal of alumni preference as almost nobody applied to Papatoetoe through that clause, but said he understood why schools with strong alumni networks would oppose the change.

Those schools include Auckland Grammar School and East Auckland’s Macleans College – both decile 9, high-achieving schools where demand from out-of-zone is far higher than spaces available. Both say the changes would destroy community and hurt students’ wellbeing.

Writing to Old Boys and current parents at Auckland Grammar, headmaster Tim O’Connor argued the school’s community was defined not by geography, but by “the relationships forged with generations of families who consider Grammar their school”.

There were 85 sons of Old Boys among this year’s 554 Year 9 domestic students, including 33 from out of zone. Those 33 would not be able to continue their families’ connection to the school without priority status, O’Connor told the Herald.

“In our experience many whānau – particularly Māori and Pasifika families – with strong multi-generational connections to central Auckland schools have been forced to move out of the enrolment zones to more affordable areas. These families rely on the familial priority categories to send their children to their family’s school. Removing the ‘children of alumni’ category will disadvantage those children and also result in a less diverse student population.”

Macleans College principal Steven Hargreaves said ending historic family links would “limit the school in terms of building community, sense of belonging and smoothing transitions for young people into school”.

His school’s zone is very tight, and some former students who live just 600m away are out of zone. Hargreaves believed those parents should have preference as they already were part of the school’s community.

Others come from as far as Clevedon but are highly invested in the school – putting on van transport and ensuring their kids stay for extracurricular activities, he said.

“They’re making those arrangements with people they themselves went to school with. There’s a really good community and support network in place for it – that’s probably not going to exist if they’re coming from all around Auckland because for some reason they think that our school is something special.”

Of this year’s 550 Year 9s, 25 got in as children-of-alumni, and a further 23 because a sibling had attended in the past.

Hargreaves, who is president of the Auckland Secondary Principals’ Association, believed few schools would want family legacy clauses removed, but he did favour increasing priority for staff and board members.

“You’re talking really small numbers – most schools that would be five, at most – so you’re not going to lock out many people but you’re going to really look after the welfare of your staff.”

Down the road at decile 8 Howick College, about 150 of out of 450 Year 9s came from out of zone this year. Of those, just eight used the sibling-of-former-student clause, and six the child-of-alumni clause. Principal Iva Ropati said abolishing those categories would be “crazy” and go against ministry values of community and whanaungatanga.

The changes would hurt a small number of children who felt strongly about attending their family’s school – without making a “scrap of difference” to overall equity, Ropati said.

“They underestimate just how important it can be when you’re talking to kids and parents and their eyes light up when they say, ‘My dad went here or my mum went here’.”

The Ministry of Education does not have a preferred option, deputy secretary Dr Andrea Schollmann said.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins had commissioned advice on whether the existing balloting criteria were equitable, fair and transparent, Schollmann said.

“We are consulting publicly so that we can be better informed before providing this advice.”

In response to a parliamentary question in May from the National Party’s Paul Goldsmith, Hipkins said the Government felt students should not be given preference because their parents attended a school.

“If they want to enter the ballot for an out-of-zone place, they can do so, but they should not be bumped up the priority list on the basis that their parents might have attended there 20 or 30 years ago.”

But in response to written questions from the Herald, Hipkins said: “We have no formal position on the matter”.

Feedback on the proposals can be submitted via the Ministry of Education’s website.

‘I think having a link or tie to the school bodes well for the school’

Rochelle Fleming went to Macleans College, three nephews are current pupils and, in the next couple of years, she hopes her daughters will also walk through the gates of the East Auckland school.

Although the family live about 100 metres out-of-zone, Fleming always felt confident 11-year-old Kate and Brooke, 13, would make it in on the ballot system, which currently favours children of alumni.

They may well still be okay – Fleming’s elder daughter will likely make it into the school before any potential changes kick in next year at the earliest, and her younger daughter would then remain high on the out-of-zone ballot pecking order as the sibling of a current student.

But Fleming is among parents concerned by Ministry of Education proposals which could make it harder for out-of-zone kids of former pupils to win enrolment through the ballot system.

“I don’t really like the ballot system anyway. I like how it was before, when you were chosen based on merit.”

That’s how she got into Macleans as an out-of-zone pupil in 1990, one of 12 chosen after a selection process which included an interview.

“[And] I think having a link or tie to the school bodes well for the school … they like to have families who already know how the school works.

“They’ve got their own little community going there.”

She loved her years at Macleans, liked their whānau house system – pupils stick with the same class each year – and thought the school was known as a “good academic school” with good discipline.

The ministry move comes amid concerns the existing system may be giving unfair advantage to those with family links to a school, and Fleming said she understood that.

Immigrant friends and those from other parts of the country had told her they didn’t agree with families such as hers who wanted to send their kids to out-of-zone schools.

“I understand there’s a need for a sense of equality but I don’t see how that can be when they’ve decided to bump up board members’ kids.”

THE PROPOSED CHANGES

The current enrolment priorities:
1) students accepted into a special programme (such as language immersion) run by the school
2) siblings of current students
3) siblings of former students
4) children of former students
5) children of board employees (eg teachers) and board members
6) all other students.

The three proposals:
1. Option one – status quo.

2. Option two priorities:
1) students accepted into a special programme
2) siblings of current students
3) children of board employees and board members
4) siblings of former students
5) all other students.

3. Option three priorities:
1) students accepted into a special programme
2) siblings of current students
3) children of board employees and board members
4) all other students.

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