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Education standards: stupid is, is what stupid does

By Chris Bonnor - posted Tuesday, 13 April 2010

I guess being the co-author of a book entitled The Stupid Country I’ve already declared my hand on the extent to which Australia, at least in education, might be clever. To cut a long story short, our kids and schools are reasonably clever by most accounts but our organisation of schools, especially the way they are increasingly socially and academically separated, is demonstrably stupid. It has not and cannot deliver improvements in overall student achievement and may be instead delivering a lengthening tail of low achievement. In the words of Forrest Gump, stupid is, is what stupid does.

There is ample literature and commentary about the standard of achievement of Australian children. Using the results of international testing programs they variously conclude that the achievement levels of our students are up with the OECD best in reading and usually around tenth or so in mathematics and science. But what they also say is that the gap between our highest and lowest achieving students is far higher than it should be. In other words, our schooling comes across as high in quality but low in equity.

What has been increasingly evident is that this has filtered into the consciousness of politicians (including Julia Gillard) and is often the subject of public discourse. This is a welcome change from the standards crisis which seemed to dominate public debate about schools for most of the 1990s and the earlier part of this decade. It doesn’t mean that standards are safe - but at least we are better focusing our concerns rather than just recycling the language of crisis.


There is no doubt that the underachievement of our tail is a serious issue but it is worth restating exactly why. Even people without a social justice gene in their bodies need to start adding up the downstream economic cost of under-resourcing the education of low achievers. Alternatively they should hunt around for examples of countries and education jurisdictions that can sustain a high average achievement without trying to lift up those at the bottom. There aren’t any.

The social and economic impacts of inequality are well-known. Last year a significant study, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, added to this picture. The authors find that, in places where there is a big gap between rich and poor the incidence of a variety of social ills, including educational performance, is much worse.

The role of education in reducing inequality, and hence the social and economic costs of resulting social problems, is also well-known. But the potential for schools to make such a contribution is considerably reduced when the very arrangement of schools and the opportunities they provide are also unequal. That is the direction in which this country is heading.

For the most recent evidence we only have to look at the more reliable data on the My School website. There isn’t much, but what is there shows considerable gaps between schools in who they serve, the resources they access and the achievement levels of their children. For the moment let’s forget about the public/private divide and consider the gaps between and among groups of private secondary schools. In an analysis to be shortly published I’ve found that high-fee private schools are 40 per cent better staffed than Christian schools. Catholic schools have one support staff for every 44 students, Anglicans have one for every 22.

Such differences are hardly surprising in a country where schools have varying access to money. Government schools are the unluckiest here because they overwhelmingly rely on the governments with the most limited and least robust revenue sources. The revenue available to non-government schools varies considerably and that is part of the problem; Australia is almost alone in funding non-government schools while allowing them to raise private funding (usually through fees) in wildly varying and unregulated ways. It’s a wonderful prescription for allowing social divisions to play at will among our schools.

And there are marked differences in which students and families our schools choose to serve. The reality about non-government schools in Australia is that they are all selective schools in that they actively or passively have access to various enrolment discriminators, even if it is only the charging of fees at various levels. In fact, if you add government selective and high-demand schools (which are often able to pick and choose enrolments) probably half our secondary schools are selective in some way. No prizes for guessing the fate of the other half.


So how does this selectivity show among and between our schools? There is ample Australia-wide data which shows the social divisions (PDF 127KB) showing up in the enrolment of government and non-government schools. Along with others I elaborate on this in readily available articles and presentations. The “league table” of socio-educational scores (very loosely showing SES advantage) on the My School website has high-fee schools at the top, followed by Anglican, then Catholic, then Christian, then government schools. If anything the index used on this website understates the difference because it is a proxy, rather than direct, measure of the enrolment profile of each school.

My School is at least specific about the enrolment of one group of students, Indigenous students. Because they usually can’t exclude anyone, government schools enrol the lion’s share of these students. Christian schools come a distant second, followed by Catholic schools. As far as the others are concerned you might be better off (with apologies to Matthew 19:24) trying to push a camel through the eye of a needle than to enrol an Indigenous student in an Anglican or high-fee school.

One inevitable result of what amounts to the flipside of “school choice” is that we are cruising towards an academic, as well as social, apartheid in our schooling. My School certainly shows this - and we are increasingly leaving our low achievers in schools with other low achievers. This has made, and will continue to make, the task of lifting up our low achievers - so essential to student success, community-building and even productivity and economic growth - much harder to achieve. Increasingly there is no one at school for the strugglers to look to in order to see how it is done. Our tail will inevitably continue to lengthen.

The policy response to this is to continue to beat up the schools consigned to the bottom of the ladder. My School has helped turn this practice into an art form. Test, compare and then rouse - “rouse” being the strategy that Julia Gillard recommends that parents do to “underperforming” school principals and teachers. And then if the rousing doesn’t work then just choose some other school - further bloating the size of schools in middle class areas and stripping the schools in disadvantaged communities. No matter that none of this works here or anywhere else, it is feel-good politics, with the losers in our poorest schools and communities becoming the collateral damage.

Amidst all this there is a haunting refrain from the critics of similar failed policies overseas: Diane Ravitch, in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, points to the regressive trail of school reform in the United States. After scanning the impact of a decade of failed Blair government efforts to lift standards four eminent British educationalists summed it up: “We have come independently to the same conclusion, namely that government policy is no longer the solution to the difficulties we face but our greatest problem” (PDF 2.87MB).

In some ways it is comforting to know we aren’t the only stupid country.

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About the Author

Chris Bonnor is a former principal and is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. His next book with Jane Caro, What makes a good school, will be published in July. He also manages a media monitoring website on education issues

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