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  • Tue, 22, Jan, 2019 - 5:00:AM

Is education really free in New Zealand?

Free education for everyone between the ages of five and nineteen. That’s the promise that the Ministry of Education makes to New Zealanders. But if there were an ad for that free educational system, a long list of terms and conditions would follow:

Compulsory school uniform not included; exam results not included; transport to school not included; quality of education not assured; staff shortages may impact your child’s education; failure to pay voluntary donation may result in loss of privileges such as attendance at social events…

If you can afford to pay those costs, congrats! You have money! The system will work for you. But for poor New Zealand families, those costs are prohibitive. The promise of equality of education, and equality of educational opportunity, doesn’t hold up unless you’re financially stable.

Yes, everyone can sit NCEA exams. But students don’t get their results back unless they pay a fee. Scholarship exams, which show high academic achievement, require another payment per exam. Without NCEA results, and the payment required to view them, University Entrance is not available. Money is a key factor in the assessment of academic ability.

Even if poor students can pay the price to view their results, the disadvantage they’ve faced throughout their education is likely to have had an impact on their achievement. Students at decile one or two schools are almost three times less likely to attain University Entrance than students at decile nine or ten schools.

And, unsurprisingly, that disadvantage continues at a tertiary level. The poor students who do make it to university are less likely to be accepted into professional courses such as law, engineering, or medicine. Just 6% of students in those courses came from the poorest third of homes.

Let’s be clear: this disadvantage does not exist because poor students are less capable. It exists because our education system benefits students who can pay for the extras (extra-curricular activities, tutoring, school trips) that allow them to enjoy their education and stay involved in school. Wealth means access to better opportunities and better schools. Essentially, wealth means access to educational success.

With money from parents and various benefactors (often alumni) floating around in the community, higher decile schools can fundraise effectively. They can host art auctions, run school fairs, and ask for higher donations from parents. Money from those fundraisers adds to government funding and allows them to provide more for students. Lower decile schools don’t have that same advantage. Their communities give less support, not because they don’t value education, but because they don’t have the spare money to give to schools.

I received the benefits of that system and I’m thankful to have been born in a country that allowed me every opportunity. But I was able to take up those opportunities because of money provided by my parents. That shouldn’t need to be the case. Opportunities in education should be available to all students, regardless of their parents’ income. If money continues to dictate student performance and opportunity, we will continue a cycle of inequality that denies poor students the same education as those with money.

The basic purpose of our education system should be to educate every student in New Zealand. Rather than reinforcing the cycle of inequality, education should provide an escape from that cycle. Our current system holds back poor students and widens the gap between rich and poor. The solution isn’t complicated: a free education should be free.


  • Education /
  • funding /
  • Government /
  • New Zealand /
  • Inequality /
  • Poverty /
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