The right to choose: the New Zealand independent school sector

| November 13, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Deborah James

Independent schools protect the parents’ right to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children.

Society is richer for having choice in schooling, and the efficiency of the education sector is enhanced where consumers of education services are able to exercise their choice across a wide range of providers. New Zealand is in the somewhat enviable position of boasting, for the most part, a healthy and robust state schools sector as well as a strong independent schools sector. Independent schools in this country produce outstanding academic results from topperforming schools. They make a significant contribution to boosting the nation’s global rankings in educational outcomes. They also act as a competitive stimulus by setting benchmarks in innovation, diversity and curriculum delivery.

Choice and competition

Choice and competition have a salutary effect on almost every other aspect of New Zealand life, including its tertiary education system and its business sector. Choice and competition between schools have a similar impact. The presence of a strong independent school sector has both direct effects (on the academic achievement of those attending independent schools) and instrumental effects (through the competitive effect on state schools), which both work to improve outcomes for all children. A recent report from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER), titled ‘Funding Arrangements for Independent Schools in New Zealand’, concluded that:

Allowing education providers to respond to the increasing diversity of tastes and preferences in education is efficiency enhancing. An education system characterised by rigidity and uniformity is unlikely to produce the same beneficial outcomes as one with a larger independent school sector that is responsive to the needs of its ‘consumers’.1

Currently, there are 86 fully registered private schools in New Zealand and two provisionally registered private schools. Collectively, they educate 3.4% of the school-age population. The number of children being educated in independent schools in New Zealand now sits below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 3.6% of the school-age population.

The effect of the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act

All Catholic schools in New Zealand (bar two small, provincial schools) integrated into the state schools sector with the enactment of the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act (PSCIA) of 1975. The act was introduced to make provision for the conditional and voluntary integration of private schools into the state system of education in New Zealand, on a basis that it would preserve and safeguard the special character of the education provided by them. Special character is most often, but not always, the religious affiliation to a church or religious denomination. The introduction of PSCIA resulted in a muchdiminished independent schools sector and, over the past 30 years, a number of financially strapped, independent schools have had to resort to state integration to remain viable.

On the funding front

State integrated schools are almost fully funded for the cost of educating each of their students. There are now 331 state integrated schools in New Zealand and 2 116 state schools. Independent schools receive some government funding, which equates to approximately 20% of the cost of educating a student in the state school sector. This funding is provided at a set rate per student. The per-student rate is set by taking the fixed government appropriation – currently set at approximately NZ$41.5 million – and dividing it by the likely demand. The likely demand is the mid-point between actual enrolment and schools’ predictions of their enrolment for the following year.

The per-student rates are set at four levels to recognise the cost of curriculum delivery at each year level. Unlike independent schools in some parts of the world, there is no socio-economic rating applied to the funding of independent schools here. However, a decile ranking is applied to state school funding in New Zealand. The New Zealand government is a net fiscal beneficiary of the presence of an independent school sector. It saves over NZ$200 million per annum by not having to meet the full cost of educating those students attending independent schools. The government receives more back in Goods and Services Taxes (GST) paid on tuition and boarding fees than it gives out in funding.

Governmental expectations

Independent schools in New Zealand are not required to comply with the National Education Guidelines or National Administration Guidelines, nor do they have to use the National Standards as an assessment framework, or report assessment/ achievement results of their students to the Ministry of Education. Independent schools are not required to offer the national curriculum, although most do. Some offer an alternative qualification framework e.g. the International Baccalaureate (IB) and/or Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). This freedom to choose and design a curriculum, to develop their own assessment tools and reporting practices, is fiercely protected by independent schools.

The Education Review Office reviews all independent schools in New Zealand. The reviews are significantly different in process and more limited in scope and reporting than those for state and conversations The right to choose: the New Zealand independent school sector BY DEBORAH JAMES Deborah James state-integrated schools, focusing as they do on the criteria for registration set out in the Education Act.

Successive governments have often cited the relative lack of mandatory requirement of independent schools to comply with National Education and Administration Guidelines as a reason not to increase support for independent schools. Additional support from governments would probably come tagged with additional compliance requirements. We continue to argue that additional compliance is not necessary, as independent schools are among the most accountable in New Zealand – they will go out of business if they don’t deliver to their fee-paying clients.

There is an element of vulnerability around the government support of independent schools in that there is not a bipartisan approach to funding them. Political ideology is often referred to as a reason for not supporting independent schools and, potentially, a newly elected government could strip them of any government funding. This is a concern, particularly in these economically straitened times, where some of our schools are reliant on government funding to keep the fiscal operation of the school viable.

The global financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn of the last four years has resulted in a decrease in student numbers at independent schools in some rural areas of New Zealand. The impact of the Christchurch earthquakes2 has also contributed to the decrease of student numbers attending independent schools, and to a downturn in the number of international students attending schools in New Zealand.

Ways to cut costs

Independent schools in New Zealand have a proven academic track record, they boast superb facilities and resources with innovative and cutting-edge curriculum delivery and they have spare capacity. The current cash-strapped National-led government, which is totally focused on cost-cutting measures in all sectors, has an opportunity to improve the overall performance of schools and reduce its own expenditure on education by raising the subsidy rate to independent schools above its present level. In its report, NZIER found it is possible that an increase in the rate of subsidy from the present level could increase the demand for independent schooling sufficiently to reduce the total cost of schooling to the government.

However, an obstacle to this suggestion is a political landscape in New Zealand that is particularly voter-sensitive. The independent school sector is a minority sector, and one that is not supported by the voting majority. A media that actively works to perpetuate the myth that independent schools are the sole domain of the wealthy and privileged, fuels this lack of support. The sector is challenged with educating the wider public of the diverse demographic of its schools.

Parents from a wide range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds send their children to independent schools. The one commonality of independent school parents is their commitment to the education of their children at the school of their choice. The education system in New Zealand is extremely fragmented, and with the recently proposed introduction of charter schools (as part of the Confidence and Supply Agreement with the ACT Party) it is at risk of becoming even more so.

Independent Schools of New Zealand (ISNZ) has provided a compelling economic rationale for increasing support for independent schools, which would still give the government a net fiscal return. To date, this has fallen on deaf ears across the political spectrum.

Promoting equity and efficiency

We remain convinced that a well-designed interface between the public and private systems can improve both equity and efficiency in education. ISNZ continues to advocate for the presence of a strong independent sector having both direct effects (on the academic achievement of those attending independent schools) and instrumental effects (through the competitive effect on state schools) that both work to improve education outcomes for all children.

ISNZ continues to promote choice in education in a country that should aspire to a system of education that is open to all. All parents – irrespective of financial means – should have the ability and opportunity to choose where to send their children to school.

That is social justice at its simplest.


1. See

2. On 4 September 2012, Christchurch residents marked the second anniversary of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that sparked the seismic sequence that changed the city irreparably. The previously unknown Greendale Fault beneath the Canterbury Plains unleashed its pent-up power to rock and shock sleeping Cantabrians at 04:35 two years ago. As the days and months went by, the region kept on shaking, and culminated with the shallower 6.3 magnitude quake of 22 February last year that claimed 185 lives. (Source: earthquake-commission/news/article.cfm?o_id=354&objectid=10831697.)

Category: Summer 2012

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