In the zone: making education fairer

The government hopes the introduction of school zoning policies will help to reduce educational inequality. Photo by M Agung Rajasa for Antara.

 

The new school year brought new hope for a family I know, when one of their children, Dian, was accepted into a nearby government school. The parents don’t need to pay school fees, as all government schools in Jakarta are tuition-free, and the school is so close that Dian’s parents don’t need to worry about covering transportation costs.

 

Dian was the first of her family to have this opportunity. Her older brother and sister were not accepted into public school and instead went to a much poorer quality private school far from home – they could not afford the expensive private schools located nearby.

 

Dian’s path to government school was made possible by Ministry of Education and Culture Regulation No. 14 of 2018. Without the policy, her grades would have meant she would have ended up at the same private school as her brother and sister.

 

According to the regulation, admission to public junior and high schools is now mainly based on location. Article 16 of the regulation states that at least 90 per cent of students in government schools must be drawn from the local school zone. Schools are free to fill the remaining 10 per cent based on merit (academic or otherwise).

 

Catchment areas or zones for student selection are widely used across the world. The government hopes the policy will decrease educational inequality and, eventually, tackle the problem of certain favoured schools attracting all the high achieving students. Now a school must accept any children who live in its zone or catchment area. Schools will no longer be able to screen only based on past grades or exams, which tend to result in smart children being pooled in certain schools.

 

Analysis of 2015 PISA data by the Centre for Education and Policy Studies (PSPK) has revealed stark levels of education inequality in Indonesia, in terms of both quality and access. PSPK recommended the government act urgently to prevent the problem from deteriorating further.

 

Although scholars acknowledge that an academic merit-based approach to student selection can drive competition among schools and therefore promote improved school quality, it tends to disadvantage poorer students.

 

The relationship between school selection and inequality can also be explained by observing the role of parents in choosing schools. Notably, it tends to be parents from middle and upper-class groups who are most concerned about school selection.

 

In addition to having more financial resources, richer parents have more social and cultural capital compared to their counterparts from lower social classes. These privileges mean rich parents are typically more aware of school selection procedures and have a wider range of options of good schools for their children. For poorer parents, economic considerations tend to be dominant.

 

Scholars such as Diane Reay have long argued that the school selection process can be misused to transform social class differences into education. Rich parents tend to choose schools that they know will help them to secure the privilege they already have.

 

Parents of lower economic status, meanwhile, often have limited past experiences of education and constrained financial resources. Their primary concern is to be able to send their children to school, any school, and keep them there until graduation.

 

Overall, minimising the role of parents in school selection should lead to improvements in education equality. Under the new regulation, students from any social background, regardless of learning abilities, will be able to access good quality schools in their area.

 

Problem solved? Not so fast. Like many other well intended policies, implementation has been far from perfect. For example, some students from Bandung were reportedly unable to secure a spot in the local public school because demand far outweighed supply.

 

The implementation of the policy has also encountered technical and administration glitches. As schools select students based on their postal codes, some parents have got a little “creative” and faked family or identity cards to make sure their children secure a place.

 

The policy needs to be supplemented by other measures to ensure it can meet its intended goal. First, as the policy mainly tackles demand-side factors, efforts should be made to address supply as well, including human resources and school facilities. Without any real initiatives on the supply side, the policy will only benefit students who study in (and live nearby) well resourced schools. There must be improved efforts to ensure greater consistency in school quality across regions.

 

Despite the fact that this policy is about education, the government also needs to support its implementation with other macro policies. One example is housing policy.

 

Opponents of zoning-based selection policies argue that they can perpetuate inequality as people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds tend to live in the same areas. Although this is certainly not true across the board, schools in wealthier neighbourhoods do tend to be better resourced and often get better results. Under a zoning policy, there are few opportunities for students from poorer neighbourhoods to study in these schools.

 

There is also the issue of social inclusion to consider. Under a zoning policy, students from working or lower class regions of a city may only end up being educated with students from a similar socioeconomic background.

 

Indonesia has made great strides over recent years in expanding access to education. But now the focus needs to be on quality. It is no longer a matter of “education for all”, it is time for “quality education for all”.