Shepparton Super-School is Unlikely to Improve Outcomes

The Minister for Education, James Merlino, is treating the Shepparton/Mooroopna community with breathtaking arrogance and contempt in refusing to provide any evidence that the new super-school will improve school outcomes. He has repeatedly avoided fronting the community to justify the school.

The Minister claims that the merger will boost student results. Yet, two years after the plan was first mooted, he hasn’t provided any evidence for his claim. When faced with a direct request for this evidence at a community meeting in Shepparton, government representatives couldn’t provide it.

There is good reason for this failure and the Minister’s attempt to bluff it out – there is little evidence to support his claim!

Many academic studies have examined the relationship between secondary school size and student outcomes over the last 30 years. The general consensus is that secondary schools should enrol between 400 and 1,000 students to provide the most effective learning opportunities. Certainly, it should be much less than the 3,000 proposed for the super-school. Two of the Shepparton schools are within the indicated range and a third has 1,123 students. The Mooroopna school is just over 300 students.

An academic review of nearly 50 studies of secondary school size and student achievement found that secondary schools serving a largely diverse and/or disadvantaged students should be limited in size to about 600 students or fewer. Each existing school in the area serves such populations.

About two-thirds of the students in three of the schools and just under 50% in the fourth are from low income families. The proportion of Indigenous students in all schools is high in comparison with the state average, one school has nearly 50% of its students from a language background other than English, another has 30% of its students in this category and a third 16%.

All this suggests that the existing schools should be retained instead of being combined into a super-school of 3,000 students. This conclusion is supported by more detailed results from research studies.

Some studies have found that test scores increase with size, others that scores increased up to a certain size and then declined and yet others showed that student achievement declined as school size increased. Studies finding positive results failed to take account of higher drop-out rates typically associated with large schools.

Almost without exception, studies show that small school size is unambiguously good for students from low income families. Students from these backgrounds achieve higher average results and higher retention and graduation rates in smaller schools.

Most studies show that student attendance and retention rates to Year 12 are significantly better in smaller than large secondary schools. Many studies also indicate significantly stronger student engagement and self-esteem in smaller schools and greater extra-curricular participation compared with large schools.

Smaller schools tend to have higher quality social interactions and students feel more connected to the school. In small schools, teachers and students have a closer relationship, and teachers are more able to respond to the individual needs of students. As a result, poor behaviour seems to be less of a problem in smaller schools.

Studies also show that breadth of curriculum is not a justification for large schools. An OECD review of the literature on school size and other studies have found that small schools that focus on a few core and high quality courses can also achieve high student outcomes.

The idea that creating separate units within the super-school overcomes the problems associated with very large schools is outmoded. Similar experiments with schools-within-schools in the United States 20-30 years ago proved to be spectacular failures with no improvement in results and increased stratification of students by race, academic ability, and socio-economic status.

The merger of three schools into Dandenong High School in 2009 and its adoption of the school-within-school model is not the success claimed. Its NAPLAN reading and numeracy results have not improved, and its writing results have fallen significantly. It has become more socially segregated as advantaged families who are better able to exercise choice moved to other schools. The proportion of students from advantaged families fell from 40% in 2011 to only 13% in 2018.

This is the likely prospect for the Shepparton super-school – no improvement in school results and greater social segregation between public and private schools in the area.

The Government’s claimed benefits of the super-school should be subjected to an independent review as proposed by the Shepparton/Mooroopna community. Let’s have an open discussion of the merits of the proposal based on evidence.

Trevor Cobbold

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