Media Release 23 June 2008 – Government Divided on School Site Sell-Off

Monday June 23, 2008

Save Our Schools called on the Government to clarify its position on the sell-off of closed school sites. SOS spokesman, Trevor Cobbold, said that statements by Government Ministers show that they are divided about the future of the sites.

“The Deputy-Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, said in today’s Canberra Times that the Government had not decided what to do with the school sites. She said that “we haven’t made up our minds on any site apart from Mt. Neighbour and Rivett” and that “everything was on the table” for the other six sites. She further stated on ABC radio that the “ACT Government has no plans to sell-off the green space”.

“These statements are clearly at odds with other statements made by the Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope and the Planning Minister, Andrew Barr.

“The Chief Minister told the Canberra Times in mid-2006 that closed school sites would be sold off for housing. Andrew Barr confirmed at the Estimates Committee hearing last month that it was government policy to sell off school sites.

“Mr. Barr, as Planning Minister, has prepared the way for land sales by amending the Territory Plan to remove the 4E overlay which protected the green space around all but two of the closed school sites from being sold off.

“Clearly, the Chief Minister and the Planning Minister do not believe that everything is ‘on the table’ in the current round of community consultations on the sites.”

Mr. Cobbold said that the Deputy-Chief Minister should clarify just what is ‘on the table’ in the current consultation.

“Is the Government ruling out any options for future use of the sites? Will the Government accept the preference of communities to retain the green space on closed school sites or is it intent on selling the land whatever the community says?

“We also well remember that it was Ms. Gallagher’s spokesman who told the Canberra Times before the last election that the Government had no plans to close schools. Yet, within two months of the election, the Government was planning the closure of Ginninderra HS and 18 months later announced plans to close 39 schools.”

Contact: Trevor Cobbold 0410 121 640 (m)

Previous Next

Market Dogma Won’t Do

Friday December 7, 2007

A recent article by Henry Ergas, head of the Asia-Pacific Division of CRA International, an international consultancy firm, vigorously defends the Howard Government’s record on education and other issues (Australian Financial Review, 30 November 2007).

Ergas supports the increasing privatisation of school education under the Howard Government and says that the Government transformed education by providing greater choice for consumers.

The article responds to criticism of the Howard Government that the growth in Commonwealth funding for private schools has supported them to skim off affluent, easy to educate students and reduce diversity in public schools. It makes the following points:

  • government schools continue to receive far greater public funding than private schools;
  • students are socially segregated in government schools because of residential zoning;
  • private schools also serve children from less affluent families; and
  • competition from private schools increases the quality of public schools.Each of these defences is flawed.

    The school expenditure defence essentially misses the point about the impact of increased subsidies for private schools and is misleading in its comparison of government and private school expenditure.

    The argument that there is significant social segregation in government schools because of residential segregation ignores the point that the shift of more and more middle and higher income families to private schools has exacerbated social segregation in government schools.

    While private schools do have students from low income families, the fact is that these students comprise a much higher proportion of government school enrolments than in either Catholic or Independent schools. Further, students from low income families are a declining proportion of private school enrolments and an increasing proportion of government school enrolments.

    The fourth defence is based on selective citation of evidence. The weight of international research evidence is that competition from private schools has little to no effect on student achievement in government schools. The evidence on the impact of charter schools in the United States on student achievement in other government schools is mixed.

    Contrary to the assertions of Ergas, the international research evidence tends to give greater support to the critics of the Howard Government’s policies. Research studies show that markets and privatisation in education generally:

  • fail to increase innovation and diversity in curriculum and pedagogy;
  • reduce collaboration between schools;
  • increase effective choice largely only for the middle class;
  • contribute to socio-economic and racial segregation in schooling;
  • increase disparities in performance between schools; and
  • exacerbate social inequalities in student achievement.School funding and expenditure

    Ergas cites comparative levels of government expenditure on government and private schools to suggest that government schools are much better off than private schools despite the massive increase in Federal funding for private schools. He fails to acknowledge the extent of the increase in Federal Government funding for private schools, ignores the equity implications of the increase and uses misleading figures of comparative expenditure in government and private schools.

    Massive increase in Federal funding for private schools

    It is the increase in government funding for private schools, not comparative levels of funding between school sectors, which has driven their increasing enrolments. Increased subsidies for private consumption usually generate higher demand. It seems that Ergas has forgotten the fundamentals of market economics, namely, marginal analysis.

    Figures published by the Productivity Commission show that total government funding (Commonwealth and state/territory) per student in private schools, adjusted for inflation, increased by about three times the increase in government school funding in recent years. Between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, it increased by over 30 per cent compared to an increase of about 10 per cent for government schools.

    This disparity is largely due to the massive increase in Federal funding for private schools. Between 1999-2000 and 2004-2005, it increased by $1584 (current $) for each private school student compared to $261 per government school student.

    Funding increases benefited higher income families

    Higher income families were the main beneficiaries of the Federal Government’s largesse. A range of research studies published by the Australian Council for Educational Research, the University of Melbourne and the ANU have demonstrated that it is mainly middle and higher income families who have shifted to private schools and thereby received the benefits of increased Federal Government subsidies.

    Fee increases in private schools were not capped as a condition of Federal funding. Private school fees have risen by two to three times the rate of inflation over the past decade or more. As a result, they remain a large barrier to most low income families.

    Ergas notes that the Howard Government introduced new funding arrangements for private schools based on income levels of the communities they serve – the so-called SES funding model. However, special funding guarantees mean that about 50 per cent of private schools are not actually subject to the model and would have their Federal funding cut if the model was strictly applied.

    The SES funding model has served to increase funding for the most privileged sections of the community. The Independent private school sector is the best-resourced sector and has the largest proportion of students from high income families of any school sector.

    Yet, it has received the largest increases in Federal funding under the SES model. Federal funding for Independent schools increased by $1658 per student between 2000 and 2005 compared to $1427 per Catholic school student. T

    his reversed the pattern of increase under the previous funding arrangements whereby Catholic schools received the highest funding increases. In percentage terms, Federal funding for Independent schools increased by nearly double that for the Catholic sector.

    Some of the wealthiest schools in Australia receive high levels of Federal funding. Some 40 per cent of all Independent private schools are funded beyond their entitlement under the SES model and this proportion has increased since the introduction of the new arrangements.

    Thus, Federal funding increases for private schools under the Howard Government should be seen for what they are – a way of consolidating privilege in education for the most well off sections of the community.

    Misleading comparison of government and private school expenditure

    Ergas’ point that total government expenditure on private schools is less than expenditure on government schools implies that government schools are therefore more advantaged than private schools. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Ergas’ comparison omits a significant source of private school expenditure, that is, fees and donations. Official figures show that average total expenditure per student in public and private schools is similar. According to the National Report on Schooling in Australia, average expenditure per student in government schools across Australia in 2004-5 was $10 715 while average expenditure in private schools was $10 473 per student. Expenditure in Independent schools in 2005 was $13 049 per student compared to $8 817 per Catholic school student.

    However, these official figures are not designed to provide an accurate comparison of levels of expenditure in government and private schools. Government school expenditure is measured on an accruals basis while private school expenditure is measured by a hybrid of cash and accruals accounting and therefore is not strictly comparable to estimates of government school expenditure. For example, private school expenditure includes all capital expenditure within each year the government school measure accounts for capital expenses by depreciation of the total asset base.

    The official figures on government and private school expenditure provide a highly misleading comparison for several other reasons as well. Many significant expenditure items that are included in expenditure on government schools are excluded from the measure of private school expenditure.

    The government school expenditure measure includes an estimate of the user cost of capital which is the estimated cost to government funds tied up in capital such as land and buildings to provide services rather than investing elsewhere or retiring debt. However, there is no estimate of the user cost of capital included in private school expenditure for government land grants and capital expenditure grants to private schools. Historically, many governments have granted land to some private schools directly, or indirectly, through land grants to churches. Governments could have otherwise sold the land given to private schools and used capital expenditure grants to invest elsewhere or to retire debt.

    In addition, payroll tax is included in the government school estimate while private schools are exempt from payroll tax.

    If the user cost of capital and payroll tax were excluded from the government school expenditure measure, total expenditure per student would be at similar levels in government and Catholic schools. Expenditure in Independent schools would be nearly 50 per cent higher than in the other two sectors. In 2004-05, the user cost of capital in government schools was $1454 per student and payroll tax was about $400 per student.

    Another problem with using official measures of school expenditure to compare levels of government and private school expenditure is that the private school measure does not include several forms of government assistance and expenditure on private schools. For example, they do not include the cost of tax deductible donations for capital expenditure and government expenditure on the administration of private school regulation and funding.

    Tax deductions represent a loss of government income tax revenue and therefore should be recorded as a form of government expenditure on private schools. An inquiry into school funding in the ACT in 2001 was informed that donations contribute about 7 per cent of total private school funding and about a third of these are funded by tax deductions.

    Another form of government assistance to non-government schools is access to professional resources such as resource centres and curriculum development resources free of charge. Non-government schools also have access to assessment services, such as Year 12 examinations and provision of UAI scores, funded by governments. These are not included in estimates of government expenditure on private schools; indeed, most of these are included in estimates of expenditure on government schools.

    The whole system of administration for government funding of private schools and ensuring public accountability for the quality of schooling is borne by the taxpayer. It involves considerable staff and other expenditure by the Commonwealth and State/Territory governments. However, these costs are not included in estimates of government expenditure on private schools. In contrast, the costs of administering the government school system are included in the government school expenditure measure.

    These exclusions from the measure of government expenditure on private schools mean that private school expenditure is under-estimated by comparison with government school expenditure.

    There are also other exclusions from both measures such as in-kind donations. These are much more significant in private schools than government schools. For example, in-kind donations such as buildings and equipment are a significant component of private school expenditure, especially in the Independent sector.

    For all these reasons, the official figures under-estimate private school expenditure. If official figures on government expenditure on private schools included these and other omitted items, average expenditure per student in private schools would be significantly higher than expenditure on government schools.

    Comparisons between government and private school expenditure are also misleading because they are not adjusted for the different social obligations of the sectors. Government schools enrol higher proportions of students with complex learning needs that incur higher costs. Students from low SES families, Indigenous students and students with disabilities comprise a much higher proportion of government school enrolments than in the case of private schools. Government schools must meet other public obligations such as maintaining a system of local schools.

    As a result, government schools face higher costs than private in meeting student needs and these higher costs should be taken into account in comparing levels of funding between school sectors. Adjustment for these differences in costs would extend the expenditure advantage of private schools.

    Social segregation in school systems

    Ergas’ argument that government schools are socially segregated because of residential segregation misses the point about the impact of increasing privatisation in education. Privatisation has exacerbated social segregation in Australia’s schools because choice of a private school is exercised mainly by high and middle income families.

    There is little likelihood, and certainly no evidence, that the shift of high SES families to private schools has come solely from high SES government schools. The more common phenomenon has been a hollowing out of higher SES families from government schools with a broad social composition. As a result, social segregation between government and private schools has increased. Government schools are increasingly becoming schools for lower and middle SES families and private schools have increased their enrolments of students from middle and high SES families.

    School composition

    As a result, Ergas’ third point also misses the mark. Private schools do have students from less affluent backgrounds, but these students comprise a much smaller proportion of private school enrolments than in government schools. The proportion of students from low income families in private schools is decreasing relative to those from high income families.

    According to the most recent ABS Household Expenditure Survey, 26 per cent of students at government schools in 2003-04 were from low-income households, compared to 17 per cent of students in Catholic schools and 16 per cent of students in Independent schools. In contrast, 26 per cent of students in Independent schools were from high income households, compared to 16 per cent at Catholic schools and only 8 per cent of students at government schools.

    Using different definitions of income levels and using Census data, the education researcher Barbara Preston has found that over 40 per cent of government school students in 2006 were from low-income families compared to 25 per cent of Catholic school students and 22 per cent of Independent school students. In contrast, only 27 per cent of government school students were from high-income families compared to 43 per cent of Catholic school students and 53 per cent of Independent school students. About 80 per cent of all students from low income families attend government schools.

    Preston also demonstrates that there has been an increase in the proportion of students from low income families relative to those from high income families in government schools since the election of the Howard Government in 1996. The ratio for primary schools increased from 1.21 in 1996 to 1.35 in 2006 while that for secondary schools increased from 1.34 to 1.62. The opposite trend occurred in private schools. In private primary schools it decreased from 0.59 to 0.52 and from 0.54 to 0.48 in secondary schools.

    Competition from private schools

    Ergas’ final point of rebuttal to the critics of the Howard Government is an unsubstantiated assertion. Very few studies have been conducted on the impact of private school competition on the performance of public schools. An influential study in the mid-1990s by a Caroline Hoxby, a US academic, found that private school competition increases student achievement in public schools. However, other more recent US studies conclude that private school competition has little to no effect on student achievement in public schools. Studies of the voucher program for private schools in Chile have concluded that it did not increase aggregate student outcomes.

    Other research studies have been conducted on the impact of charter schools (independently operated schools within the public school system) in the United States, but very few have analysed the impact on student achievement in other public schools. The evidence from the available studies is mixed. Some conclude that there has been a positive effect from charter school competition. Others conclude that there has been no significant effect on student achievement in public schools.

    More generally, the weight of evidence from the best designed and most comprehensive overseas research studies is that competition between schools does not improve student achievement once student and family background characteristics are taken into account.


    Ergas continues the tradition of supporters of markets in education in Australia who make unsubstantiated assertions about the benefits of markets and competition in education, selectively cite evidence in their favour and ignore research evidence that contradicts their beliefs and assertions. Market dogma has no place in education.

    The reality has been that the education policies of the Howard Government were mainly directed at consolidating and extending privilege in education.

    Trevor Cobbold


Media Release 24 August 2007 – Hargreaves Cuts Consultation on Closed School Sites

Friday August 24, 2007

Save Our Schools today condemned the ACT Government for cutting short the public consultation on the future of closed school sites. SOS spokesman, Trevor Cobbold, called on the Minister for Territory and Municipal Services to fulfil his original promise of a 5-month consultation.

“The public consultation process on the closed school sites is now a charade because the Minister has reduced the 2-stage consultation period from 5 months to less than 3 months.

“Last May, Mr. Hargreaves stated that the consultaton period would run from July to the end of November. However, the consultant was only appointed this week, effectively cutting the consultation to about 3 months.

“The Minister is treating the public with contempt. He refuses to apologise for the delay to the start of the consultation, he refuses to extend the timeframe and he resorts to obfuscation under questioning. Yesterday, he blustered is way through questions on the matter in the Legislative Assembly from Deb Foskey, Greens MLA.

“The community has been short-changed by bureaucratic ineptness.”

Mr. Cobbold stated that the tender documents for the closed school site evaluations clearly state that Stage One (the regional consultations) of the process was due to run for 8 weeks from July to September and that Stage Two (the site specific consultations) would run for another 8 weeks from September to November. The consultant is due to provide a final report on 1 December.

“The delay in appointing the consultant and the Minister’s refusal to extend the timeframe means that the whole process is now at risk. Not only is the community consultation cut short but it also calls into question the quality of the analysis to be carried out.

“The evaluation of the future use of closed school sites is a complex process. Not only does it require extensive community consultation but the Surplus Property Policy of the ACT Government also requires a cost-benefit analysis to be prepared for each site identified as surplus and this requirement is reflected in the tender documents.

“For example, the evaluation must assess the economic and social impact in each local area of options for the future use each closed site. This has to be done for each of 21 school sites. It is a very demanding task if it is to be done properly.

“Save Our Schools calls on Mr. Hargreaves to extend the consultation period to full 5 months as he originally promised so as to ensure sufficient time for effective community consultation and a full analysis of the options for each site.”

Contact: Trevor Cobbold 0410 121 640 (m)

Previous Next

Flynn and friends raise $50,000 and survive ‘strike out’

Friday August 17, 2007

The Flynn Primary School Parents and Citizens Association has lodged the $50,000 required to continue its legal challenge to school closures and survived an application to ‘strike out’ the action in the ACT Supreme Court today.

The ACT Government’s application to ‘strike out’ Flynn’s action and charge Flynn P&C for all legal costs to date was dismissed in the ACT Supreme Court following Flynn’s lodging of the $50,000 security earlier this week.

Flynn Primary P&C Association President Roger Nicoll said, “Raising the $50,000 is a major breakthrough for Flynn and the Canberra community and it demonstrates just how strongly people feel about protecting our schools and communities and ensuring that governments are accountable for their decisions.”

“With the posting of yet another increase to the budget surplus there seems to be a growing momentum across Canberra, not just to question some of the recent decisions, but to also restore many of the schools closed under Towards 2020.”

“Canberrans have every right to ask why their rates have gone up as much as 50% in the past year, while schools have been shut down and the government runs up a large surplus. In Flynn for example, ratepayers paid $337 or 39% extra rates in 2006–07, while losing its school and only community facility. The added fuel and transport costs for families from closed schools is approximately $1000 to $5000 per year.”

Flynn’s legal action under the Administrative Decisions Judicial Review Act aims to challenge the closure decision and, ideally, restore a school and community centre at Flynn.

Mr Nicoll said. “We understand that the Flynn case may also have wide public interest and appeal as it stands to scrutinise government process.”

“Flynn would like to thank all those groups and individuals across Canberra that have helped us to achieve this significant milestone, and we welcome ongoing support through the Friend of Flynn campaign.”

Further information about the Flynn challenge and how to support it can be found at the Save Flynn School website

Previous Next

Minister Jumps the Gun on Super-School

Tuesday August 14, 2007

The Minister for Education, Andrew Barr, jumped the gun last week by announcing the start of construction of the new super-school in West Belconnen. The ACT Government has not yet received official approval for the project.

The ACT Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA) confirmed yesterday that it has not yet approved the development application for the school. Objections to the application were lodged by some local residents and ACTPLA is yet to rule on these objections (as at the time of writing).

The Minister conducted a formal ‘turning the sod’ ceremony at the site of the new super-school last week. It appears that he was more concerned about getting a photo opportunity in the local media than adhering to the planning legislation for which he is also responsible as Planning Minister.

The ‘turning the sod’ ceremony traditionally represents the formal start of a building project. Indeed, the Canberra Times report (8 August) stated that the ceremony marked the beginning of work on the super-school. If the Minister wasn’t announcing the start of construction, one wonders what the event was all about.

The Minister has acted unlawfully and subverted ACT planning processes by his actions. Objections have been lodged against the project in good faith and according to the due statutory process. Whatever the merits or otherwise of these objections, the Minister has effectively prejudiced the case against them by announcing that construction will start before there has been a formal decision on the objections.

This is a failure of due process. It could also be seen as a blatant attempt to coerce ACTPLA to give the go-ahead for the super-school.

The super-school project has been characterised by a failure of due process right from the start. The ACT Government adopted a ‘take or leave it’ approach by telling parents that the old Ginninderra high school would close in any case if they did not accept the super-school proposal.

The Government failed to establish a genuine consultation process around the proposal and refused to supply adequate information on the proposal or to examine the educational, financial and social impact of closing schools in the area.

The ACT Government has consistently ridden roughshod over parent concerns about the loss of access to neighbourhood schools associated with the building of the super-school and its potential to lead to further school closures in the region. It is now apparent that the Government is prepared to ignore its own planning laws in order to get its way.

Trevor Cobbold
14 August 2007

Previous Next

Schools Cheating to Raise League Table Ratings

Monday July 30, 2007

A BBC News investigation has exposed widespread cheating by teachers in exams in England in order to raise school ratings on league tables. The revelations follow a stream of cheating incidents across US schools this year.

These revelations are a harbinger of what can be expected in Australia with both the Government and the Labor Opposition committed to forcing schools to publish their results for national literacy and numeracy tests. Publishing school results inevitably leads to league tables and immense pressure to improve school rankings.

Cheating is an easy way to deliver better school results. The BBC report says that teachers blame constant testing and the importance placed on league tables for the pressure to improve results for the cheating.

One unnamed teacher from Leeds said ready-made answers were kept in a filing cabinet.
These were used by teachers to fill in missing gaps in pupils’ coursework without the students’ knowledge. Another teacher told the BBC how he pointed over pupils’ shoulders when they made mistakes in an exam.

A teacher from Dorset told the BBC the pressure came directly from senior teaching staff.

“I was told they had to get a C grade no matter what, which I did, which was cheating.”

He said he told his pupils exactly what to write, but to change a few words to make it look like their own work.

A survey by the Teacher Support Network, a teachers’ welfare charity, found the majority of respondents thought cheating was commonplace. About two-thirds of teachers in a small survey said they personally help students “more than is appropriate” in order to improve exam results.

The former head of the Office for Education Standards (Ofsted), Chris Woodward, told the BBC that cheating by teachers is so extensive that the league tables used by parents to differentiate between schools have become unreliable.

“It makes a mockery of the league tables if one school is behaving professionally and another school is offering the kind of support where the teacher actually does the work for the child.”

The full BBC News report is available at:

Previous Next

Cheating to Improve School Results is Rampant

Monday July 16, 2007

By Trevor Cobbold

Publishing school results does not necessarily lead to real improvements in school performance, whatever the Howard Government and the Labor Opposition may argue. The desire to achieve a high ranking and enhance a school’s reputation often leads to cheating and other ways of manipulating school results.

The last few months has seen several examples of rampant cheating on standardised tests in California and Texas by schools and teachers in response to accountability measures to improve school performance. These incidents come on top of many other cheating incidents in many states of the US in recent years.

The revelations show that ranking schools by test results and monetary rewards for schools that most improve their test results are an incentive for schools to cheat. It is an easy way to get a quick improvement in school results.

In early July, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that current and former teachers at the University Preparatory Charter High School in Oaklands claimed that a culture of cheating exists at the school. In a 27-page report, the teachers stated that students’ grades are frequently falsified and that low-scoring students are barred from taking state-required exams as a way of avoiding lowering the school’s test scores.

Students were also given easier tests than required by state regulations as a way of boosting results. Other schools in the region have reported that the grades of students transferring to the school rose dramatically and that the results of those who returned to their previous school had plummeted.

In the past four years, the charter school’s state-wide test scores have been invalidated three times. In 2004, they were nullified because too few students took the required tests. In 2006 and 2007, the state Department of Education discovered cheating. In 2006, the Department found hundreds of ninth-grade English and maths test answers had been changed.

In early June, the Dallas Morning News reported an in-depth analysis that found that tens of thousands of students cheat on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) every year. The analysis found cases where 30, 50 or even 90 percent of students had suspicious answer patterns that researchers said indicate collusion, either between students or with school staff.

The News analysis of TAKS data from 2005 and 2006, which was done with help from Professor George Wesolowsky, from McMaster University in Canada, found that by far the most extreme cases of cheating were in the state’s lightly regulated and privately run charter schools. The study found that 37 of the 50 worst cases of cheating occurred in charter schools. Yet, charter schools make up only 2 percent of the state’s schools.

The extent of cheating in one charter school was on a scale that astounded researchers of educational fraud. A Canadian cheating expert, Professor David Harpp from McGill University, who examined the school’s scores said that cheating in the school was “total corruption”.

The News study found that cheating in charter schools was almost four times the rate of traditional public schools. Cheating was also more common at under-achieving schools, where the pressure to boost scores is the highest.

Some of the Texas schools involved in cheating had been given awards and cash bonuses for improving performance.

These cheating incidents come on top of many other instances over many years across many US states following the introduction of reporting school results on standardized tests. For example:
teachers at a Chicago elementary school erased wrong answers on students’ test booklets and filled in the correct answers, and filled in answers to questions that students had not attempted;

  • 21 teachers and principals in New York state were recently discovered to have reviewed state tests in advance with students, tailored instruction to match specific questions for an upcoming test, improperly scored state tests, distributed answers for test questions, and directed students to change their responses to items during a test administration;
  • 400 Texas schools showed improbable test score gains on the TAKS between 2003 and 2004;
  • a report from the state of Nevada indicated that reported incidents of student and teacher cheating on that state’s test had increased by over 50 percent from the 2002-2003 to the 2003-04 school year; and
  • an investigation of student responses on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests suggested that students’ written answers to questions on social science, science, and writing tests at 71 Michigan elementary and secondary schools were so similar that they may have been attributable to inappropriate actions on the part of educators.
  • a 2002 study of results for Chicago Public Schools on the reading and mathematics sections of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for all students in 3rd through 7th grades from 1993-2000 found over 1,000 separate instances of classroom cheating, representing 4-5 per cent of all classrooms.

Standardised tests many US states have high stakes attached to them. School results are published and therefore determine a school’s reputation and ability to attract students. School ratings are a mark of public pride or shame. Some teachers’ salaries are now tied to their students’ performance on test day. Decisions like whether a teen graduates or a third-grader gets promoted now hinge on test scores.

Researchers concur that the higher the stakes, the more likely are schools and teachers to cheat. Education departments across the US are spending millions of dollars in trying to monitor and deter cheating that has become epidemic in some places.

Even with the wide availability of security measures, some researchers are pessimistic that cheating can ever be completely eliminated as long as someone has something to gain from a high score. They say that schools and teachers, rightly or wrongly, feel that they are being judged on the basis of these instruments and some of them cave in and do things they shouldn’t.

The founder of one of the most widely used standardised tests in the United States says that there is only one way to effectively stop widespread cheating and that is to reduce the high stakes attached to tests.

It is a recommendation that the Howard Government and the Labor Opposition would do well to heed. It means not publishing school results.

16 July 2007

Previous Next

Labor Backs School League Tables

Tuesday July 10, 2007

Whatever Government is in power next year, we can expect to be treated to an annual public hunt for the worst schools in Australia.

The Federal ALP has joined forces with the Howard Government’s plan for a ‘crime and punishment’ approach to school improvement. The Shadow Minister for Education, Stephen Smith, says that a Federal Labor Government will ensure that state governments publish school literacy and numeracy results.

Reporting of school results inevitably leads to the publication of school league tables as it has in England and the US. Poor performing schools will be subject to a public ‘tar and feathering’ to make an example of them in the hope it will force them to do better.

This is a short step from taking away funding or closing schools if they don’t improve as now happens in England and many states in the US. Once it was found that reporting school results was not sufficient to improve results, governments resorted to punishing schools and students for not improving performance.

Public shaming, humiliation and punishment for poor performance have never worked as a teaching strategy in schools. They offer even less as public policy.

Overseas research shows that reporting school results has minimal impact on student achievement. The main effect is that schools adopt various strategies to artificially boost their performance.

The easiest way to do this is to replace low achieving students with those who generate better test results. Schools do this by ‘creaming off’ high achieving students from other schools and getting rid of their low achieving students. They also use covert selection methods to avoid enrolling low achieving and intellectually impaired students.

Outright cheating is another way. In the last year alone, cheating incidents have occurred in a number of school districts in Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. They involve teachers helping students answer test questions, changing answers and grades and giving bogus grades to absent students.

One spectacular case involved a school district superintendent instructing a school principal on how to cheat. Others involved principals directing teachers to increase the test scores of students.

Another method of inflating school results is ‘gaming the system’. This includes suspending low achievers on test day, encouraging them to be absent on test day, increasing exemptions from tests and retaining students at a non-tested Year level. For example, several studies found that exemption rates increased in the US with the introduction of reporting school results, especially in high poverty schools.

The overseas experience of league table rankings is that they also bring substantial negative consequences for school systems, schools and many students.

A major effect is to increase disparities between schools and entrench social segregation between schools. As the more successful schools siphon off better students, better teachers and associated funding from other schools, the unpopular schools become the dumping ground for disadvantaged pupils and demoralised teachers. It often involves racial segregation as well.

Once a school develops a ‘bad’ reputation because of a low ranking it finds it increasingly difficult to attract the staff needed to improve results as good teachers move to where life seems easier. Teachers who are demoralised have low expectations of students with poor results.

The result is a two-tier school system – one group of schools for the well-off and the best teachers and another for the least well-off and the least qualified and experienced teachers.

League tables also distort curriculum and teaching. The allocation of resources within schools becomes biased towards the Year levels and curriculum areas that are subject to testing. For example, the arts and cultural activities are often down-graded. Student support and the social objectives of schooling also receive lower priority.

Teaching practice changes under the pressure of improving league table rankings. Teachers tend to adopt more lecturing and rote learning approaches and neglect learning experiences that develop deeper understanding and critical thinking.

Test preparation becomes a high priority, even often reducing student free time. For example, a growing concern in the US is the number of schools that have reduced or eliminated recesses in order to devote more time to test preparation.

League tables create incentives for schools to ignore the low-achieving students. Several English and US studies have found that schools concentrate on students who are on the border of accepted benchmarks and neglect the lowest achievers. Focusing on borderline students gives schools a better chance to improve their ranking.

Competition between schools for public rankings reduces collaboration and sharing of best practice between schools. Schools are reluctant to share their successful practices with other schools if it means those schools could jump above them in league table rankings.

Competition for league ranking also diverts energy and resources to marketing school image. Marketing image is used to attract students who will enhance a school’s ranking. School budgets and the time of school leaders are increasingly devoted to glossy brochures and prospectuses, slick promotional events and advertising. This is an easier way to improve a school’s ranking than effective school improvement which takes time and effort.

A key argument of advocates of league tables is that they inform parent choice of schools. However, league table rankings are misleading advertising because they are an inaccurate and misleading measure of school quality.

Average school results are influenced by many factors other than the quality of school programs and teaching. They include the extent of parent involvement in learning at home, the extent to which students are engaged in after hours tutoring, the socio-economic and cultural background of the community and student absenteeism.

League tables don’t distinguish between the ‘value added’ by the school and the influence of these other factors. For example, rankings may say more about the social composition of school enrolments than about the quality of teaching.

School results and league table rankings may also be distorted by the results of a few students in small schools and by transfers of students between schools. Studies show that small schools are much more likely to report large changes in average results from one year to the next, both positive and negative.

Stephen Smith argues that reporting of school results would assist in identifying struggling schools and those in need of intervention programs. However, this only reflects the ignorance of the Shadow Minister. This information is already available to Departments of Education and schools. Public reporting of school results is not needed to identify which schools are in need of more support and assistance in improving student outcomes.

There is an alternative to league tables to ensure public accountability for improving school performance. It involves reporting of aggregated school results in a way that does not identify individual schools but still ensures public accountability.

This can be done by reporting the number of schools in each state/territory whose average result falls within different score ranges so that the extent of improvement from year to year can be assessed. It could also include reporting the proportion of all students, and those from targeted equity groups, whose results fall within different score ranges so as to monitor progress in achieving greater equity in school outcomes.

Such reporting would ensure that Governments are held to account for making genuine improvements in low achieving schools and improving equity in student outcomes.

Federal Labor’s support for league tables means that it has cast its lot with the market approach to education delivery being implemented by the Howard Government. School league tables are fundamental to extending markets in education, which overseas research shows exacerbate social segregation and inequity in education.

The bi-partisan support for league tables also represents a break with nationally agreed goals of education to increase social equity in education in Australia. It will reinforce patterns of privilege and disadvantage in Australian schooling.

Trevor Cobbold


Media Release 18 June 2007 – Use Surplus to Improve Student Outcomes

Monday June 18, 2007

Save Our Schools has called on the ACT Government to use part of its Budget surplus to improve student outcomes.

SOS spokesperson, Trevor Cobbold, has told the Estimates Committee of the Legislative Assembly that the ACT Government has accumulated a $600 million surplus while ignoring student learning needs.

“The ACT Government has one of the strongest financial positions of any government in Australia. It can well afford to do something about the fundamental issue facing our school system – the large achievement gaps between the highest and lowest performing students and between students from high and low socio-economic status families. These gaps have been ignored for too long.

“There is money available to improve learning outcomes in our school system. The ACT Government has accumulated a budget surplus of over $600 million since 2001-02 while ignoring fundamental issues in government school education. A further $320 million surplus is estimated for the next four years.

“The Budget Papers show that the ACT Government has the highest negative net debt of any government in Australia, it has a lower net financial liabilities to revenue ratio than most other jurisdictions in Australia and its net worth as a proportion of revenue is one of the largest in Australia.

“The ACT has a negative net debt of over -80 per cent, a net financial liabilities to revenue ratio of 36 per cent (only Qld and WA have a lower ratio) and a net worth to revenue ratio of 357 per cent. These are indicators of a very strong financial position for the Territory Government.”

Mr. Cobbold said that the large student achievement gaps have been amply demonstrated by the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) studies of 15-year old students.

“The ACT has amongst the highest average outcomes in the world, but it has a significant proportion of students not achieving expected outcomes and one of the largest student achievement gaps of all the high achieving countries.

“About 12 per cent of 15-year old students do not achieve expected benchmarks. About 50 per cent of ACT 15-year old students from low SES families are below the OECD average in reading and science, compared to less than 30 per cent of all students.

“The Stanhope Government has continually failed to address these well-documented problems. It has made only token efforts in the last 5 years to reduce the gaps and improve outcomes. Government Budget initiatives are now almost entirely ‘bricks and mortar’ expenditure rather than recurrent expenditure to address learning needs.

“This year the Government has cut 60 teachers from government secondary schools, 35 from high schools and 25 from colleges. These cuts have already been disastrous for schools and students.”

“The Government is beholden to the credit rating agencies at the expense of the needs of the Canberra’s young people.”

Mr. Cobbold told the Estimates Committee that the Government should introduce a comprehensive high school improvement plan supported by adequate funding and restore staff cuts.

“The first priority is to increase staffing in high schools. The Government now owes each high school an average of four additional teachers – two to replace those cut earlier this year and two more to honour its 2004 election promise to put an additional $12 million into government high schools.

“In addition, more support staff are needed as well as a systematic plan to improve teaching practice, develop curriculum that engages students, improve student safety and improve student/staff relationships.

“The teaching cuts made to colleges earlier this year should also be restored. These cuts have reduced student access to teachers.”

Contact: Trevor Cobbold 0410 121 640 (m)

Previous Next

Media Release 21 June 2007 – Student/Teacher Advantage in Government Schools Slashed

Thursday June 21, 2007

Save Our Schools says that Canberra’s government secondary schools have lost much of their advantage over private schools in terms of their lower student/teacher ratio.

SOS spokesperson, Trevor Cobbold, called on the ACT Government to restore 60 teacher positions cut from government high schools and colleges earlier this year.

“The favourable staffing ratio held by government secondary schools for over 20 years has been slashed because the Minister for Education cut the resource equivalent of 60 teaching positions from high schools and colleges earlier this year. High schools lost the equivalent to 35 positions and colleges lost 25. These cuts occurred after the Australian Bureau of Statistics collected the figures that were published this week.

“The cuts mean that the student/teacher ratio in government secondary schools is more like 12.4 instead of 11.9 as reported by the ABS. Private schools have a ratio of 12.8.

“Government secondary schools have therefore lost over half their previous advantage. The situation is little changed even if we accept the Minister’s estimate of staffing cuts of 43 instead of 60. In this case, the student/staff ratio is 12.3.

“The cuts also mean the ACT advantage over interstate government schools has been completely lost as the student/teacher ratio is now the same as the national average for government secondary schools.”

Mr. Cobbold questioned the sincerity of the Government’s promotional campaign on behalf of government schools.

“The Minister told the Estimates Committee yesterday that the ACT Government is committed to promoting government schools. Slashing a key advantage held by government schools over private schools makes a mockery of any promotional campaign for government schools. It is a complete breach of faith with government schools.”

“The more favourable student/teacher ratio in government secondary schools has been an important factor in delivering high quality learning outcomes, strong pastoral care and enhancing student social and personal development. These features are now at risk because of phoney budget deficits and unnecessary cost-savings.”

Mr. Cobbold said that the Minister’s assertion that the quality of education in high schools and colleges would be unaffected by the teacher cuts demonstrated a disturbing level of ignorance about how learning occurs in schools.

“The Minister has a particularly narrow view of a good learning environment in secondary schools. It is not just what happens in the classroom. It is about the general level of support available for young people in a school. Fewer teachers mean less out-of-class learning help for students, reduced feedback for students, less out-of-class pastoral care and personal mentoring of students. Fewer adults in secondary schools mean less support for young people at a crucial stage of their learning and personal development.”

Mr. Cobbold said that the strong advantage held by government primary schools over private schools is unaffected by the cuts to teacher positions which were confined to secondary schools.

“Families can be assured that the large advantage in the student/staff ratio enjoyed by government primary schools remains.

“Save Our Schools calls on the Stanhope Government to come to its senses and provide government secondary schools with an equivalent advantage by restoring the cuts to teacher positions. It should also deliver on its 2004 election promise of an additional $12 million in funding for government high schools.”

Contact: Trevor Cobbold 0410 121 640 (m)

Previous Next