Education | Australia

15 March 2018

‘My School’ shows that disparities between schools, areas and sectors are increasing, entrenching disadvantage, Chris Bonnor writes.

In 2010 the Rudd Government, in full school reform mode, launched the ‘My School’ website. It was claimed to be a one-stop shop for anyone wanting to know more about their local school and any others. We were promised a new era of transparency, informed school choice, improved accountability – and as a consequence, a lift in school achievement.

Almost none of this has happened, but the website did unleash an avalanche of data about schools – data that would reveal deep-seated problems which governments have rarely addressed, let alone solved.

We’ve long had general data about schools, but My School tells much more. For any school, any group of schools, in any location, we now know the family background of students, the school income and its source, attendance rates, and much more. We even know something, but certainly not everything, about student achievement.

We can now analyse connections. What is the link between the socio-educational background of students and their school achievement? How is it changing? Are we spending more on schools and getting less? If so, where is this apparently unproductive money going?

More on this: Charting a course for Australian curriculum

Together with my colleague Bernie Shepherd, I have analysed the data over many years. We road-tested our findings with academic colleagues and also brought to the process a local school perspective – something derived from our experience as school principals. In recent years our research has been released by the Centre for Policy Development. (With Mr Shepherd’s passing last year, this work has continued with Dr Christina Ho from the University of Technology Sydney and former teacher and consultant Garry Richards.)

Collectively, our key findings illustrate why the first Gonski Review produced the recommendations it did. They also illustrate the price we are paying for not doing as Gonski recommended – especially when it comes to the recommendations around equity and the effectiveness of our schools’ framework.

My School shows each school’s socio-educational advantage (SEA), created by its enrolment. It reveals the strong impact of family and personal backgrounds on school achievement and shows that this impact has increased. Equity is in continuing decline. The Gonski panel highlighted the problems created by concentrated disadvantage and the way this inhibits overall improvement. My School shows that school choice, Australian style, has shifted those students who can choose out of disadvantaged schools and into advantaged ones.

As a consequence, our higher-SEA schools are growing. Our lower-SEA schools are shrinking – and in the process disadvantage in these schools is concentrating. Scores from the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) show that levels of student achievement are drifting up in the advantaged schools and down in the disadvantaged ones. Governments wring their hands over levels of student achievement and routinely report the school achievement differences between the states and territories. But the less-reported gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools just keeps steadily widening.

My School also reveals an increasing social hierarchy of schools – in part inevitable when we have ‘free’ schools which must be available to all, alongside fee-charging schools available to some. But in recent years the trend has become visible within, as well as between the public, Catholic and Independent school sectors. This seems linked to increased enrolment selectivity – including within the public sector – in part a result of more decisions being devolved to the school level and increased numbers of academically selective schools and classes in New South Wales.

More on this: The ABC of educational achievement

Other findings touch on familiar themes. The idea that we should fund schools according to need has become very widely accepted. However, My School tells us that we haven’t increased funding to the more needy schools at greater rates than others, as recommended by the Gonski Review.

Up to this year, the coordination between the Commonwealth and States that Gonski insisted on has not happened – and it still might not happen. As one consequence, combined funding from both levels of government has seen increasing numbers of non-government schools funded by governments – ahead of government schools enrolling similar students. Concerns currently being expressed about the so-called Gonski 2.0 funding suggest that not much will change.

The fact that government and non-government schools enrolling similar students get similar results raises additional questions – it is certainly not costing the same in each sector to produce these results. Even though there is a two-year time lag, the school-by-school funding data on My School provides many answers and raises even more questions about why the results coming out of Australia’s schools apparently don’t reflect the money going in.

Meanwhile, the My School website is a gift that keeps on giving for other reasons too. Our current work is focusing on the way in which Australian schooling seems to create separate and sometimes lesser opportunities for Indigenous students, for more recent arrivals to Australia, for the less advantaged and the less academic. The first of these reports, on Indigenous students, has just been released and will be covered in another article.

So where to from here? Australians are used to the findings and recommendations of reports being cherry-picked – but as time goes by Gonski’s first review makes more and more sense. As we recommended in our Losing the game report, the solution relies on policymakers to go back and re-read Gonski’s Review of funding for schooling – and just do it!

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