Socio-economic conditions determine educational under-achievement

This post is a joint contribution by Keith and Annette Woodford. Annette is a specialist teacher in Reading Recovery.

The big message from the recently released results of national education standards is that low socio-economic conditions and educational under-achievement go hand in hand. 

In the case of reading, the chance of a primary school child achieving ‘well below’ the standard is more than six times higher in a decile 1 school (15.4%) than a decile 10 school (2.4%).  When the two categories of ‘below’ and ‘well below’ are added together, then the likelihood of under-achievement of a child is 42% in a decile 1 school but only 13% in a decile 10 school.

To do that analysis, we first obtained the decile listing of every primary school in New Zealand (available from Of the 1897 schools listed, national standards data published this last weekend were available for 835 of them. When aggregated by decile rating, it is readily apparent that under-achievement in reading increases with each step down the decile rating from 10 to 1 (See accompanying graph).

Although the data for any individual school may be unreliable, when aggregated in this way with very large numbers of schools the ‘unders’ and ‘overs’ of individual schools get averaged out. The results are so stark that we can be very confident that the message therein is reliable.  

Some educators will say that we have always known that socio-economic conditions are a predictor of education success. But what these national standards results do is shift the message from being anecdotal to being strongly evidence based.  If we want to address educational under-achievement then we have to face up to the socio economic realities of New Zealand life, and do something about it.

The decile rating of a school is determined by the socio economic conditions of the school catchment area. It is based on five factors. These are the proportion of people on low incomes, the proportion of people in low skilled jobs, the education level of parents, the number of people per bedroom, and the number of people on benefits. Despite the apparent complexity of the decile calculation, it remains a crude measure. This makes even more remarkable the strength of the relationship between decile rating and school performance.    

Another important message within the data relates to Maori under-achievement. But this message is not the simplistic message that we have so far seen in the headlines that Maori do worse than Pakeha.  The important message is that within each decile level, Maori children achieve at similar levels as Pakeha children.  For example, Maori children in decile 10 schools have a 13% chance of not achieving the standard (either ‘below or ‘well below’), which is exactly the same as for all students at those schools. Similarly, in the decile 1 schools Maori children have a 41% chance of not achieving the standard while the overall probability for all ethnicities in those schools, including Pakeha, is 42%.   The problem, however, is that Maori are heavily over-represented in low decile schools.  This strongly suggests that if we deal with the socio-economic issues then we will also in the process deal with Maori under-achievement.

There is another intriguing issue embedded in the data. By definition, there should be the same number of schools within each decile. However, the published data shows 336 schools from deciles 8, 9 and 10 with usable data, compared to only 175 schools from deciles 1, 2 and 3.   And this level of reporting drops consistently throughout the decile rating scale.  This strongly suggests it is the lower decile schools that are particularly defensive about reporting their results in a meaningful way that can be published. The reason would seem obvious. The teachers and principals in these lower decile schools are not receiving sufficient recognition of the very difficult task they face when teaching in these schools.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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11 Responses to Socio-economic conditions determine educational under-achievement

  1. maureenpp26 says:

    The way you’ve set this out shows very clearly where the issues are and where help is needed to improve the achievement levels of our children. Unfortunately I suspect a new game of blame the teacher will be initiated. Of course it’s not as easy as providing more resources for the schools, not that I think that’s likely to happen. The parents have to be on board, and the socioeconomic issues have to be addressed as well. So many interconnecting problems to solve. But if we don’t start somewhere, and why not with the schools, we will have a much bigger problem in the future.
    all the best Maureen

  2. Dianne says:

    Reblogged this on Save Our Schools NZ and commented:
    decile ratings and National Standards – the link is more than clear, so why won’t Government acknowledge it?

  3. Pingback: Socio-economic conditions determine educational under-achievement | Education NZ |

  4. Sharon says:

    If on average each child spends no more than 8 hours a day at school, 8 hours a day sleeping, then the other 8 hours either being influenced by parents, or whatever other things that they expose themselves to, then as parents we should take at least as much responsibility as the schools, if not more.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      I agree. But what should we do for all of those children who for one reason or another do not get the support from their parents? In some cases it is the parents at fault, but in other cases parents find themselves under enormous stress from no fault of their own. Either way, we have to do the most we can to ensure every child gets a chance. And we have to ask what is it that we are doing wrong that is leading to so much economic and social poverty in our society.

      • Sharon says:

        That is indeed a very difficult question to answer. Like any other social problems, it is most likely caused by many factors. Personally, I think our social welfare system partially contributes to such an outcome. Although we boast to be one of the countries in the world that have better social welfare systems, the down side of such a system is that it encourages certain people to be lazy. Coming from a country that does not have as adequate social welfare system as New Zealand, I saw most of the parents pay much more attention in their children’s education. I see some teenage girls in our society (in New Zealand) try to get pregnant, so that they can stay at home and live on the dole, while those do try hard to stand on their own feet (and teach their children good values of hard working and independence) are struggling to make ends meet. One cannot help to wonder what kind of values are we trying to pass on to our next generation? I don’t think the inadequate social welfare system of my (first) home country is worth replicating, as it also has many serious problems of its own. But perhaps we should have a system that would better reward those who try hard to improve their livelihood, who do care about creating better opportunities for their children.

  5. Jill Morris says:

    Jill Says: Does the data presented show that classroom teachers working in low decile schools are under performing?
    As a teacher in low decile school I know this is not true, in our case. My colleagues and I are devoted, dedicated educators who work tirelessly to improve the literacy standards of our students. We are well trained specialists who know how to engage students from a variety of troubled social and ethnic backgrounds.
    We have never used our decile rating as a way of expecting less from our students.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      I think the data show very clearly that low decile schools do perform much worse than high level schools. But that is not the fault of the teachers who teach in these schools. Nor is it the fault of the children. In part we can blame the parents, but blaming the parents isn’t going to change anything. Therefore we also have to take responsibility as a society to do more to help these children.

  6. Pingback: National Standards « The Long Run

  7. Sue Godinet says:

    I understand that there are certain low decile schools that do not fit the statistics i.e. there are low decile schools who are performing as good as higher level schools. Is there evidence of these schools? If so, I would be interested in an analysis of these schools to see what can be learnt and applied elsewhere.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Sue, I have not done a systematic analysis to see how many outliers there are. But when Annette and I were preparing the above article, I was calling out the name of the school from the national standards spreadsheet, for Annette to tell me the school decile (which came from a separate document), which I would then enter in the spreadsheet. To keep my mind from going to sleep, I would guess to myself what the decile would be (from the data in front of me). I saw very few obvious outliers. My guesses were consistently accurate within about 1 decile, and therefore I would be surprised if any decile 1’s are performing at a typical decile 10 level. I am currently several hundred km from the computer where I have the spreadsheet stored, but I will have a closer look in a few days when I meet up again with that computer. Even if there are a few outliers, we need to remember that there is no between-school moderation.
      If we are to make judgements about individual schools then we not only need between-school moderation. We also need to see the improvement that a school is making in achievement levels as children progress from year 1 to year 8. This data is not currently available.

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