Big increase in enrolment zones for Auckland schools

By John Gerritsen of RNZ

A plan to introduce or amend 135 school enrolment zones in Auckland looks set to have a huge impact on where tens of thousands of children go to school.

Documents obtained under the Official Information Act show the Ministry of Education (MOE) has completed the first phase of the three-year plan, which was aimed at helping the city cope with huge growth in student numbers.

The documents said the plan could save tens of millions of dollars by avoiding or deferring construction of new classrooms, which cost about $650,000 each.

But one principal involved in the first phase of the scheme told RNZ the process was so difficult it risked putting all of Auckland up in arms, and another said it would all but eliminate school choice in the city.

The documents said Auckland’s rapid growth was putting pressure on classrooms across the city and the MOE wanted more enrolment zones so it could manage the numbers.

It would be easier for the MOE and parents to see where children in a particular area were likely to go to school and over time less popular schools with spare capacity would fill up.

“Due to large-scale growth in Auckland we need a co-ordinated and accelerated approach to optimising the Auckland school network,” the documents said.

“Without the implementation or amendment of enrolment schemes in line with the Auckland growth plan, the demand and need for additional classrooms in Auckland would increase significantly; and the overall cost in additional property provision could run into the tens of millions of dollars.

“Enrolment schemes and amendments save or defer the cost of additional classrooms; but are just as important to support a balanced, accessible and effective schooling network.”

The documents said it normally took 12 months to implement an enrolment scheme and the MOE’s Auckland office normally completed 10-12 per year.

The MOE would significantly accelerate the process by contracting consultants KPMG this year to work on schemes for 60 high-priority schools. The project would involve a further 40 schools in 2021 and 35 the year after.

The MOE said the pandemic disrupted this year’s work and 45 of the 60 enrolment schemes had been completed in time for next year’s enrolments.

The remaining 15 schemes would join the second-phase group of 40 schools.

A rush job?

Pakuranga Heights School principal Fintan Kelly said the MOE was rushing the process and introducing enrolment schemes at schools that did not need them.

His school was in the first phase of the project this year but would not complete it until next year because of delays caused by the pandemic, he said.

The changes would affect families’ ability to choose their child’s school, he added.

“We do have some children from outside our area because they’re choosing to make that effort to bring their children to our school, because they’re not happy with their local schools – well, that choice will pretty much go if every school is zoned.”

Kelly was worried about the impact on children with special needs who currently came to his school from other areas because they found it more inclusive than their local schools.

The pupils who will be affected

Briefing papers to the government show 300 of Auckland’s 500 schools had enrolment schemes at the start of this year and by the end of the project, nearly all of them will have one.

That will not affect children already attending school, but it will affect new enrolments.

The MOE could not provide latest estimates but had previously told RNZ about 40,000 Auckland children attended schools they were not zoned for and a further 60,000 were at schools that did not have zones.

Manurewa’s Rowandale School principal, Karl Vasau, said the decile one school was totally full with 650 children and the MOE said it needed an enrolment scheme.

Vasau said the school’s board wanted to get the scheme approved in time for the start of next year, but he was worried how it would work because 40 per cent of the school’s pupils were from outside the proposed zone.

Those students could continue attending the school, but new enrolments from outside the zone would have to go into a ballot, or, if the school was full, be refused altogether.

On the other side of the ledger, about 40 per cent of the children who lived within the planned zone bypassed Rowandale for schools in other areas and it was not clear if that would change.

“We’re a little bit anxious because at the moment we don’t have a zone,” Vasau said.

“Our only concern is that once we’ve implemented the zone, will the children who aren’t in the zone come and start enrolling at Rowandale?”

He said the zone had been pretty much forced on his school, but he could understand why the MOE was doing it.

“It’s all about managing our property, managing our staffing, managing our students and the growth that’s right across Auckland so that we can use our stock and the ministry can put money where it’s supposed to be.

“But you know for the first few years of the zone I think we’re going to be pretty worried.”

Albany Primary School principal Maree Bathurst said growth at her 860-student school was “totally unsustainable” and it had needed to change its enrolment scheme in order to ensure the roll did not exceed 1000.

She said the school was included in the first phase of the MOE’s enrolment scheme project this year.

Though the MOE’s staff were good to work with, the school’s board found consultation with the community over the proposed changes very difficult, and ultimately the consultation changed very little.

“You can imagine the heart-felt emotion from the families,” Bathurst said.

“It was a very difficult situation for myself and the board to have to consult when in actual fact, the ministry knew this [the zone change] had to occur.”

She said the MOE could make minor adjustments to enrolment scheme plans, but the term “consultation” made communities think, wrongly, that they could make major changes.

Bathurst said the change cut a suburb out of the school’s enrolment scheme, and parents in that area had lobbied hard against it.

“It made perfect sense, but you can imagine the angst for families.”

A big job, but needed

Bathurst said the MOE’s plan to introduce or amend 135 schemes was “huge”.

“I think it’ll be huge and I feel for my principal colleagues and their boards as they manage that process. So I would like to think it will be handled very differently to the way it’s been handled in terms of our situation because we’ll have all of Auckland up in arms.”

Bathurst said the MOE needed to act because too few new classrooms and new schools had been built in recent years.

“There’s no question that this is overdue,” she said.

Auckland Secondary Principals’ Association principal Steve Hargreaves said he agreed the MOE needed to deal with the city’s growth, but the plan for 135 schemes in three years had gone “under the radar” for most principals.

Some schools would not welcome changes to their enrolment schemes, he said.

“Families move into communities expecting their children to go to a certain school that probably aligns with their personal philosophy or their belief or maybe they’ve got a long-standing personal connection to that school and then if zones change that throws family plans out the window and of course that gets people upset so school have that in mind and therefore they are not always willing to move their zones,” he said.

Hargreaves said the MOE would have to balance its desire to save taxpayer money, with the expectations of families and schools.

Hargreaves, who is also Macleans College principal, told Morning Report: “The problem I see that will happen in a school like ours is that if a family has purchased a house in our zone thinking they are going to come to our school and then the school is rezoned they’re going to be really upset; they will have invested a couple of million dollars to get into our zone, and all of sudden if they’re zoned for a neighbouring school there’s some spare capacity there’s going to be some grumbling.”

He said some of the boundaries were torn between two high decile schools or a cluster of high decile schools.

It was important that the ministry communicated the changes to parents, or it could lead to legal action, Hargreaves said.

“There’ll be some schools that have really powerful lobby groups and groups of old students that will work hard against that in the zone. So, the ministry has to be very careful about the consultation and the communication plan otherwise it could go all wrong for them.”

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