Gillard student numbers don't add up

On Wednesday, Education Minister Julia Gillard revealed that school-age children across Australia will soon be provided a 'unique student identifier'. This will track their performance over time, regardless of where they study. The Australian Education Union (AEU) was caught by surprise, with president Angelo Gavrielatos excoriating the lack of 'meaningful consultation with the profession'.

Civil liberty groups have also expressed concern, fearing that the program poses privacy risks for young people. The fact that ID numbers will be tracked through the My School website has only added a layer of controversy over the Federal Government's drive for 'transparency'.

It is tempting to reject the new initiative outright, especially when we recall that My School was launched despite sustained resistance from the education sector. As a result of this recent skirmish, the hopes for reform that came with the installation of the Rudd administration have now turned to cynicism over its real agenda.

On the surface, however, the Education Minister's intentions seem reasonable. She has consistently argued that parents deserve access to data. This was her argument for devising an online tool for comparing schools. She has now presented it justify a permanent ID number for students. It is hard to disagree that parents who are involved in their child's schooling will find these programs valuable. Informed decision-making isn't a bad thing.

But other aspects of Gillard's sales pitch are more dubious. For instance, when she says that number-tracking students leads to 'better measures of how schools are going in developing student performance', she inadvertently implies that the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) isn't already an effective tool for driving school improvement.

In fact, schools have used data from the nationwide tests to identify gaps in teaching even before the figures were published online on My School.

NAPLAN commenced in 2008, barely two years ago. Because students are tested biennially at years 3, 5, 7 and 9, the first cohort of year 3 students who undertook the tests will take the tests for only the second time in May this year. So it is too early to conclude that 'better measures' need to be in place if the agenda is systematically to monitor progress over time.

In fact the Federal Government has articulated two distinct agendas as if they were interchangeable — improving school outcomes and providing information.

Educators accept that good pedagogy has to be grounded to some extent on student data. Until this year, NAPLAN was enforced in good faith. But parents may use the same data for a different, consumer-based reason — to select a school for their children — if they have this luxury of choice. So when teachers argue that NAPLAN figures are meant to be diagnostic in nature, and not to be a lever for market-based competition, they will be perceived as secretive and defensive.

Perhaps this is how Rudd and Gillard want them to be seen. It is certainly consistent with the way they pitch their initiatives to parents. But it is difficult to determine which parents they are targeting, especially when they commend the student ID proposal. According to Gillard, 'Being able to seamlessly track a child throughout education when they get to a new school is vitally important.'

The argument about easing transition between schools is superficial at best. How many children are really affected, given that the vast majority of students change schools only once, as they shift from primary to secondary level? Has the percentage of children who move schools often risen so much that the only way to keep track of their progress is to assign every child in the country a fixed number?

According to Labor backbencher Sharon Bird, the new system is required so that parents don't have to have a shoe box where they keep school reports.

Before resources are again poured into a program that meets resistance from key stakeholders, the Federal Government needs to engage with the public intelligently about a national identification program for school-age children.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a state school teacher in Victoria. 

Topic tags: fatima measham, myschool, julia gillard, student id, naplan, league tables



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Existing comments

The Federal Government is obviously power hungry.

We must avoid centralised control of what is fed into our chilren's minds.Some degree of diversity must be allowed to remain. There have been many examples in history of despots influencing the young to gain control .[Hitler's youth for one]
The internet is a powerful tool to get a centralised message across and could at some stage be misused by unscrupulous persons.

These latest moves to identify and catalogue firstly schools and now individual students are the thin end of the wedge. Be careful Ausrtalia resist this intrusion on our privacy.
If ever there was any doubt about this socialist government's intentions it has in my opinion been dispelled by talk of similar measures being suggested for hospitals.

Mike Elliott | 26 February 2010  

The fifth paragraph above is a matter for some concern. Fatima claims that Julia Gillard did something inadvertently. How does Fatima know this? Has she spoken to Julia Gillard to confirm this assertion? And she proceeds with a claim that to say something can be improved is to discount it. Her logic here is not good. .

Gerry Costigan | 27 February 2010  

STATING THE OBVIOUS. Let me guess, private schools will rank at the high end and schools in areas where household income is low will rank at the low end. Surprise surprise! You don't need to give access to the world to identify which schools are doing poorly! You need to help them!

AL | 01 March 2010  

Given teachers’ unions are almost unknown for welcoming any new initiative, why would the Minister want to spend years persuading them (and Tony Abbott) of the obvious need for a unique identifier to track results in different schools back to a common student. Where does Fatima Measham (and Tony Abbott) stand on the Healthcare Identifiers Bill currently before Parliament for example? Or your Medicare number? Or your Tax File Number?

As it happens the NSW Department of Education has been issuing unique student identifiers to its students for years. Julia Gillard wants a system which takes that number interstate if the student moves, something which happens more often than Fatima is prepared to acknowledge. If student IDs are ever to be published on the MySchool website (and I can’t see how they would add any value), wouldn’t that preserve rather than endanger privacy?

As to the numbers of students changing schools, the government has said 80,000 students a year change, many of these the students in defence families. Does Fatima Measham doubt these figures?

Richard Ure | 02 March 2010  

Thanks all for the comments, especially the ones that challenge -- and therefore refine -- my own thinking. In writing this piece, I was dealing with my own skepticism over claims that recent moves in education will improve student outcomes.

Gerry, I do not mean that to say something can be improved is to discount it. I meant that when one says something can be improved, one usually needs to properly qualify where the flaws or gaps lie, to avoid enforcing solutions that are in the end incompatible or damaging in some way. I used NAPLAN to illustrate because it is now being used as a measure of comparison between schools, even though the value added by schools surely cannot be reliably demonstrated when the tests (taken biennially by each cohort) have only been running for two years.

Richard, I cannot confidently comment on the Healthcare Identifier. As for Medicare and Tax File Numbers, they are not (as yet) known to be used to measure and publicise performance between similar institutions, for the purpose of providing information to consumers.

Also, figures released by the ABS in 2007 puts the total full-time student population in Australia at 3.4 million. This means that the 80,000 students that you quote only constitute 2.3 per cent. I know that sounds dismissive, but if Federal funds are to be channelled to a new national system of identification, a better argument seems to be required.

Fatima Measham | 08 March 2010  


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