Grammar v Kings is the wrong debate

Trying to choose a high school in Auckland for your kids?

Last month the Herald asked: should you buy a house in the Grammar zone or live somewhere else and send your kids to private schools?

That story was mostly a comparison of private school fees and property prices.

But in my view “Grammar or Kings?” is the last thing anyone should be thinking about when it comes to choosing a school.

I used to write about schools a lot.

I’ve interviewed many principals, teachers and researchers, read the research and sat in classrooms watching teachers work. I know a bit about it.

And here are five questions I think are important.

The standout in all this is McAuley High School, a Catholic school for girls in Ōtāhuhu.

The standout

in all this is McAuley High School,

a Catholic school for girls in Ōtāhuhu.

Despite having,

by the old reckoning,

a decile one catchment,

its academic record

has for many years

been as good

as a typical decile seven school.

What about all the other “top schools”?

A former principal of Macleans College, spectacularly located on the coast in east Auckland, told me once his aim was to beat the academic performance of Auckland Grammar.

And from time to time, Macleans has done exactly that.

At other schools with high socio-economic catchments, they’ve done much the same.

Westlake Girls and Boys, Western Springs, Carmel, Baradene, Rangitoto and Takapuna Grammar are all justifiably proud of their academic records.

And like Macleans, St Peters College, right next door to Auckland Grammar, has been outranking its more famous neighbour on some measures.

The Grammar zone and private schools don’t have a monopoly on achievement.

There are many schools in Auckland – single sex and co-ed, church and secular, state and private, city fringe and suburban – that are good at the core business of academic success.

What about all the other good schools?

Digging deeper, a high socio-economic catchment doesn’t make a school good. The reality is that – in the language of economics – input determines output.

Children from wealthy backgrounds are likely to do better in school than children from poor backgrounds.

Partly, this is because wealthy people are likely to have been well educated themselves: they know the value of it and they instil it in their children.

And partly it’s because wealth makes raising children easier, not least because there is money for books and computers, ballet and sport and holidays. And for a warm, dry home you won’t be evicted from.

But here’s the thing.

If your children are loved, if they are talked to and read to, exposed to stimulating experiences, feel safe and secure,

If they do not spend their time hungry or cold or sick, if they learn the skills to make friends,

If they come to believe they have a worthwhile place in the world, as individuals and as part of a culture,

And if they are encouraged to imagine, to dream,

If they are helped to learn how to take risks … if they are helped to live well,

They are likely to do well at school.

Provided, that is, they go to a decent school. And there are lots of them, at all socio-economic levels.

As the Herald’s own analysis shows, many schools perform much better than you might expect from their “inputs”.

Avondale, Mt Albert Grammar, Mt Roskill Grammar, St Mary’s, Marist, Selwyn, Auckland Girls Grammar and Onehunga are all mid-decile schools with strong academic records. There are others.

That’s a key thing to look for: a school whose students do better than those at other schools with similar backgrounds.

A school where output exceeds input.

It doesn’t mean an old or traditional school, either.

In Albany and Ormiston, the relatively new junior and senior high schools are doing well and play a vital role in building their local communities.

Schools like One Tree Hill College, formerly with a poor reputation, have worked hard and successfully to turn themselves around.

Shining examples: integrated, church schools and kura kaupapa

Integrated or church schools, whatever their socio-economic position, tend to do extremely well.

So do kura kaupapa, where the students are immersed in te reo Māori and te ao Māori. They consistently outperform most other schools with similar socio-economic backgrounds, by some margin.

In 2022, Te Kura Māori o Ngā Tapuwae had the highest NCEA pass rate of any state school in the country and every school leaver attained University Entrance or better.

It’s a Māngere school in the mid-range of socio-economic factors.

The standout in all this is McAuley High School, a Catholic school for girls in Ōtāhuhu.

Despite having, by the old reckoning, a decile one catchment, its academic record has for many years been as good as a typical decile seven school.

I know former students of McAuley and the light shines out of them.

The principal there, now retired, once told me it was because of their faith, and you’re welcome to believe it.

Me, I think she was a great leader (and I assume her replacement is too), they have many fine teachers and they have become experts at integrating home, school and student in a three-way commitment to great schooling.

Looking for a school to give your child the best start in life?

Look for those things.

Good leadership, good teachers and what Education Hub founder Nina Hood calls “the strong culture, the strong sense of belonging, the creation of an environment that has a clear set of values associated with it”.

Church schools, kura, and private schools have a ready framework for this, but state schools can achieve it, too.

In my view, the Ministry of Education should work out what McAuley does and bottle it. The rest of the system has much to learn from that school. Read more

  • Simon Wilson is a senior writer for the New Zealand Herald.
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