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MySchool: helping rich schools get richer

The opening of the My School website last Thursday is a bracing reality check. Things that for many years were intuitively felt, and discussed anecdotally among parents and educators, have been quantified beyond doubt.

My School did not publish 'league tables' ranking schools' average NAPLAN (National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy) scores. But newspapers in many states quickly filled the gap. In my city, the Canberra Times published 20 graded lists of NAPLAN results across the ACT's 91 primary and 32 high schools.

Canberra is small enough for readers to recognise and compare the schools which are public, Catholic parochial (mostly administered by the CEO, the Catholic Education Office), and non-Catholic independent schools (NCIS).

Canberra does not have any elite high-fee-paying Catholic schools. The Catholic low-fee parochial system essentially serves most of the Catholic school population.

The public system used to be similarly universal, but over the past 25-odd years there has been rapid growth in the NCIS sector, from two Anglican grammar schools to 11 NCIS primary and nine NCIS secondary schools, including an Islamic school and a few secular community schools.

It is clear from My School data that in the ACT the educational peer-group streaming effects of this bifurcation of the formerly almost universal public secular education system have been statistically significant.

I imagine other states' league tables will show similar general trends, though qualified by two ameliorating factors: a robust tradition of selective public high schools in major state capitals, and a small Catholic high fee-paying elite school sector. Because we have neither of these in Canberra, the differences are clear.

As a parent of children attending Catholic primary and high schools, I have no particular axes to grind, apart from believing in a plural society, in free choice in education, and an interest in the quality and social justice of the education on offer to all Australian schoolchildren.

I cherish the Catholic parochial system, yet feel saddened to see the alternative public system eroding into disparate congeries of religiously affiliated and other NCIS, that seem on the face of it to be taking the academic cream of students, leaving an educationally disadvantaged school population in the public schools sector. For this is what My School-derived league tables suggest, to judge by the Canberra example.

A close look at ACT tables ranking numeracy at year 5 and year 9 reveals that the spread of school average scores in the Catholic system was similar to those in the public system. Most Catholic schools were bunched around the middle scores. In the year 9 numeracy test, the top scoring Catholic high school got 623 and the lowest-scoring got 582, compared with a national average of 589.

However, between Canberra's public and NCIS schools, there are large differences in NAPLAN average scores. In the year 5 numeracy test, NCIS came in first, second, fourth and sixth places; six of the 11 NCIS scored in the top 20 of the 91 schools. And by the year 9 results, of the 32 schools tested, NCIS occupied the top seven places; the other two NCIS ranked 11th and 14th. Scores ranged between 674 and 608, all well above the national average, and well above Catholic high schools' range of average scores.

In Canberra, parents and children face a three-way choice. A city that 50 years ago had a flourishing state sector, an under-resourced but striving Catholic sector, and almost no NCIS, now presents a paradox: a well-resourced Catholic system that works well in educational equity and social justice terms, but a troubled picture elsewhere of a burgeoning NCIS sector and a state sector whose professionals are worried about its future.

The Catholic system is highly equitable both between schools and between areas of the city. A child attending any Catholic school in the ACT will be part of a class peer group with NAPLAN scores which are reassuringly close to other Catholic schools, and almost all above the national average.

Non-Catholic system parents have a more difficult choice to make. If they regard NAPLAN class average scores as an important indicator of the peer group within which their children go through school, they will be pushed towards NCIS which have so many apparently brighter kids. They will face the choice of high fees and social narrowing in the highest-fee-paying schools, or perhaps constraining fundamentalist ideologies in lower-cost NCIS.

If they stay with the state system, where there are lots of very bright kids and good teachers, they will wonder whether their kids are getting a fair share of national educational resources. For at least in Canberra, the richer NCIS are doing hugely well out of the present national and state-level educational funding systems. In the non-Catholic system, the lesson seems to be: to him that hath, more shall be given.

While Labor education ministers around the nation say that the NAPLAN school scores will lead to more political pressure on governments from parents and voters to direct more resources to 'under-performing' schools, this seems disingenuous. Most federal funding has high automaticity, on a per capita basis. Except on the staffing side, there are limits to what state or territory governments can do to level the playing field.

Meanwhile, parents vote with their feet, moving their children across to the expanding NCIS sector. This trend can only be accelerated by the publication of NAPLAN tables.

Citizens and voters who are concerned not just for their own children's educational welfare, but about education as an instrument of social justice, should be prompted to ask: What is being done about the fact that the richest NCIS are getting richer, in part at taxpayer expense? What is being done to help improve the NAPLAN performance of below-average schools, and to help narrow the statistical differences?

And how do we use this data to protect our children from a situation where parents, voting with their feet, may themselves foster the outcomes they fear most — underprivileged, low-morale schools in poorer suburbs breeding a generation of alienated, under-achieving kids? We are not yet there, but the danger signs are evident, in parts of the NT, and in some deprived schools in inner-city or outer suburban ghettoes in major cities.

Finally, what do the kids themselves prefer? Many of the kids I know — even kids attending Catholic and NCIS schools — admire the social diversity and ideological flexibility of open public education. They look forward to moving into broader more plural social milieux at the junior college or tertiary level.

I suspect they won't be thrilled at the proliferation of NCIS schools sucking bright kids and life out of the state system. They would want us to come up with better answers.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is author of Crunch Time: using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era (Scribe 2009).

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, myschool, public schools, league tables



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Existing comments

Tony, you are right about the immediate consequences of the My School website, but I would suggest that there is a new funding model in the wings - the next step for the website is for schools to have to outline their sources of funding and how the money is used - we already have staff and admin ratios available on the site so we will be able to determine something of the way some of the money is spent.

This is the groundwork for a justification for reform stronger than anything we have seen yet - inequities will become clear as will inefficiencies, and it will be impossible for the rich to argue against increased and targeted funding for the schools clearly in greatest need. I think that this is the laudable intention of the government, and that they are going about it in a very measured and thoughtful way.
I have my children attending a well performing NCIS school - but I would send them to government schools if these had been better funded and maintained, to avoid the narrowing you have mentioned. The improvement of the public and low fee paying schools with government money, at the expense of the elite schools is what we need and must support.

Jennifer Osborne | 03 February 2010  

I have been saddened by some of the debate over MySchools. Yes,the tables can be and are being misused. So can motorcars, chainsaws, and the surf, with fatal effects. Is not the answer in all cases to educate people in the proper use of these generally positive items ? And are the differences in scores between a public school performing well and a top NCIS school really worth the five-figure fees?

Richard Johnson | 03 February 2010  

Has the Gov't the determination to properly reward the teachers who are capable of improving this situation-It will mean facing up to unions who insist that one grade suits all

brian | 03 February 2010  

I really appreciate Tony Kevin and Eureka Street being willing to discuss the terrible inequality existing between private and state schools. Sadly, I believe what Tony fears has in fact already been happening for too many years - underprivileged state schools in poorer suburbs breeding a generation of alienated, under-achieving kids.

Private(including Catholic) schools with a Christian ethos, along with Australian Churches, need to speak up for the urgent funding needs of disadvantaged state schools.

Robert Van Zetten | 03 February 2010  

Look at Bellfield Primary - very low performing about 10 years ago, 5 years ago high performing. When will the government recognize that it is teachers that make the difference - gifted teachers. I can clearly recall my gifted teachers, my reasonable teachers and the boring ones and I am a grandmother and not a young one. I was a well-behaved, bright but definitely not single-minded student.
Like the top performers in any industry the top teachers should be treated accordingly and enabled to keep teaching and not eventually directed towards administration in order to increase their remuneration. I was NOT an effective teacher in the short period that I was pressured against my better judgment to teach. I believe I am good with small groups but not with classes. The school had a Principal who had won Victorian top teacher awards but to put it bluntly he was not a good, or even an effective headmaster.

Pretty classrooms are nice but good leadership and good teaching are what matter.

Mary | 05 February 2010  

The pain My School website may cause will be greatly outweighed by the long overdue redistribution of taxpayer funds from the elite schools to those in genuine need. Jennifer Osborne's comments are highly pertinent.

John Reedman | 05 February 2010  

I am so pleased to read Jennifer Osborne's comments echoing my own prognosis of the tables. Even in their simple form the tables show that expensive private schools do not produce better results and that other schools are equally and more capable, while yet more schools and students could produce good results with equitable funding. The voting public at large will realise this and hopefully support reforms of school funding.

I say this as one who sent my children to private schools after deciding to spend my discretionary money in this way, and to invest in my children's future (as I saw it). I did not seek welfare for my spending any more than I seek welfare subsidies when I decide to buy an expensive car. And I do not begrudge one cent of mine spent on my children's education. I do begrudge my money in taxes spent on subsidies that are not needed while depriving others where there is need.
Our country will benefit from equitable funding for education.

John Garrett | 05 February 2010  

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