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Tabling truth on schools

By Brendan Nelson - posted Monday, 13 July 2009

Opponents of the publication of school performance, league tables and comparisons other than on similar socioeconomic profiling, should ask of themselves whose interests they serve.

This debate has its political origins when as education minister, I observed parents bypassing frequently good public schools to spend thousands of dollars on non-government alternatives. Among those reasons was ignorance of school performance.

Signs displayed outside factories boasted of productivity rates, unit costs of production, absenteeism and year-on-year performance indicators. In contrast, the best I could get from many public schools was sporting success and politically correct motherhood statements about "state averages".


Yet at the Braitling School in Alice Springs, drawing kids from town camps to the sons and daughters of small business owners, the first thing I found in the foyer were performance charts for each year. Pointing to an obvious decline in year four's reading, the principal disclosed that its investigation revealed a teacher with a serious health problem.

What I wanted published was real information: literacy and numeracy; career leaver destinations; student attendance rates; teacher qualifications; teacher participation rates for professional development; teacher retention rates (high turnover is a bad sign) and teacher attendance rates. One state minister demanded, "what has a teacher attending school got to do with the education of students?" Enough said.

A week after announcing publication of this and other information would be a condition of commonwealth funding for schools, I arrived at a Victorian primary school.

The exchange with the principal is instructive.

"Doctor Nelson, you will not be welcomed here by many of our staff. As you can see, this is a very poor community. If they had any idea how badly the school is performing, we'd be shut down within a year."

As an afterthought she added, "our job is to offer hope".


Stunned, I replied, "If the school is performing so poorly and were it to be known, wouldn't people be demanding of government why and that it be fixed? Don't children, irrespective of their circumstances, have the right to go from primary to high school armed not only with hope but the ability to read, write and count?"

Those opposed to publishing "simplistic" league tables and insisting on comparisons with "like" communities, carry a deep, false belief that kids from poorer backgrounds will never do as well as those from more affluent electorates like mine. Nonsense.

What kids bring to school with them determines where they start. What happens at school determines how far they will get. For too many it is their only chance. The key is teaching.

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First published in The Australian  on July 10. 2009.

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson is a former federal Minister for Education, Science and Training and is the Liberal Member for Bradfield (NSW).

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