My School Results Mark the Failure of the Stanhope Govt. on Education

The school results published on the My School website are highly misleading as a guide for parents on comparative school quality. Up to 90% of the difference in school test results is explained by differences in student background – socio-economic, gender, ethnicity, Indigenous and students with disabilities. The large part of the variation is explained by differences in the socio-economic composition of schools, even with the flawed measure used by My School.

Parents can also be misled in assuming that their child will be in a ‘better’ class in a high scoring school than in a lower scoring school. The variation in test scores is much greater within schools than between schools. This means that a school with higher scores than another will likely have classes that perform worse than the best classes in the lower achieving school.

Despite its many flaws, however, My School does reveal information about school systems which can be used to hold governments accountable for their education policies.

For the ACT, it marks the comprehensive failure of the education policies of the Stanhope Government. It demonstrates massive achievement gaps between students from rich and poor families that still exist after nearly a decade of the Stanhope Government.

My School shows that the large majority of primary schools that consistently achieve in the top 10 results are high socio-economic status (SES) schools. The large majority of schools that achieve in the bottom 10 results are amongst the lowest SES schools in the ACT. The achievement gaps in literacy and numeracy results between primary schools range from 120 to 150 points.

The picture is similar in the high school sector. The three wealthiest private schools in Canberra consistently achieve in the top 5 results. In contrast, schools serving the poorest families in Canberra are consistently in the bottom 10 results. The achievement gaps are between 100 to 140 points.

The My School results add to other evidence of the large achievement gap between rich and poor in Canberra’s schools. International test results show that student outcomes in the ACT have stagnated since 2001 and have in fact declined in some areas. For example, average reading scores for 15 year olds in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) declined between 2000 and 2006 by the equivalent of about 6 months learning.

The PISA results for the ACT show an achievement gap between students from high and low income families of about 2½ years of schooling. This achievement gap is the highest in Australia, apart from the Northern Territory. Low SES students in the ACT are doing no better than low SES students across Australia.

This is a shameful outcome for the ACT. It is an indictment of nearly 10 years in office. Despite all the Government’s rhetoric about improving social equity, massive inequities in education still exist.

It is now time for a bit of transparency from the Minister for Education. Just how long has his Department known about the low results being achieved by a number of schools and why hasn’t he done something about it?

Well, we already know the answer. It is ten years since the first annual literacy and numeracy tests were first conducted in the ACT under the ACT Assessment Program and the results of individual schools have been provided to the Department of Education every year since. The bigger question is why the Government has failed to act on this information.

The Stanhope Government has been getting this information every year since it was first elected in 2001. The current Minister for Education has been getting school results every year since he was appointed in 2006.

Clearly, something has gone wrong in ACT education during the period of the Stanhope Government. Student achievement has declined under its watch and large inequities in education remain.

The fact is that the Stanhope Government focused on ‘bricks and mortar’ spending but it has failed to provide the recurrent funding where it is most needed in Canberra’s schools. Token funding amounts have only ever been provided to address disadvantage and inequity in education.

A massive new funding program is needed to reduce the large inequities in ACT education.

The new $1.84 million Federal-Territory program just announced for four disadvantaged government schools in the ACT over the next four years is not enough. It sounds impressive, but it amounts to a miserly $260 per student per year in these schools. This is not even enough to buy one teacher for a school of 300 students.

It is but a drop in the ocean of what is needed. Moreover, it ignores education disadvantage and inequity in other schools.

All the research evidence shows that schools serving highly disadvantaged families need double or more the average funding per student. Current average funding per student in the ACT is $16 061. This shows the enormity of the task we face to eliminate the achievement gap.

The Minister for Education has to do better than providing token funding to reduce the gap. This year’s ACT Budget will be a test of whether the Education Minister is serious about addressing inequity, or whether he will just resort to his usual ‘smoke and mirrors’ rhetoric.”

He has already been brought undone on his ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach to league tables.

The Minister assured the public that My School would not lead to school league tables. He was reported on the ABC last year (29 May) as saying “…fears that the Federal Government’s new reporting system will lead to a proliferation of school league tables are unfounded”. He told the ACT Legislative Assembly last November that “…it is not possible to create a simplistic league table for the information that is available on that site”.

He proved to be completely wrong. Within a day or so of the My School results being published, the Canberra Times, the Melbourne Sun-Herald, the Northern Territory News and the Sydney Morning Herald all published a variety of full or partial league tables.

The My School results show that the spin has to stop. It is time that the Chief Minister and his Minister for Education focus on the main challenge facing ACT education. It is to reduce the massive achievement gap between rich and poor in Canberra’s schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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