Shameful School Results Indict the Stanhope Government

The latest international test results put the Stanhope Government to shame. The new report of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that education standards are declining and inequity is increasing in the ACT.

The results are disastrous. Average results have fallen and large achievement gaps between rich and poor continue unabated. These results are a grave social injustice and threaten the high skill base on which the local economy depends. They demand a new approach to education policy and funding.

While the ACT is still achieving high average results, those for reading and mathematics fell sharply since 2000. The falls of twenty and twenty-one points respectively represent about six months of schooling. Science results have also fallen.

The declines occurred at both the higher and lower ends of the PISA proficiency scale. The proportion of students not achieving the reading proficiency benchmark increased from eight to thirteen per cent between 2000 and 2009. The proportion achieving at the most advanced levels fell from twenty-five to eighteen per cent.

The proportion of students not achieving the mathematics benchmark increased from eleven to fourteen per cent between 2003 and 2009. The proportion achieving at the most advanced levels fell from twenty-seven to twenty-one per cent.

These results cover both government and private schools. The national PISA analysis shows there is no difference between the results of government and private schools, once student background is taken into account. The problem is that the large majority of low socio-economic status (SES) and Indigenous students are enrolled in government schools which are not sufficiently resourced to overcome the social divide.

The Stanhope Government has particularly failed the disadvantaged. The PISA report shows that the achievement gap between students from low and high SES families in the ACT is the biggest in Australia.

The report shows that low SES students in the ACT are doing worse than those in most other states. Their average results are about six months or more of schooling behind low SES students in all other states except Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

The report labels the ACT as a “high quality, low equity” school system. In contrast, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia are all classified as “high quality, high equity” systems.

The report effectively condemns the Government’s record in meeting the needs of low SES students. It says that “…low socioeconomic students in the Australian Capital Territory are not particularly well served by their education system”.

This is an indictment of nearly ten years in office by the Stanhope Government. Despite all the rhetoric about improving social equity in education, large inequities still exist and appear to be getting worse.

It has to be asked how these disastrous results have come about despite large increases in government expenditure on schools over the past decade. Government school expenditure per student is the highest in Australia, apart from the Northern Territory. But, we are seeing declining results and greater inequity while the average results of other states which spend much less than the ACT are just as good.

Average results for reading, mathematics and science in the ACT results are statistically no better than those in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. The proportion of ACT students not achieving the PISA proficiency benchmarks is similar to those in all other states except Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

Yet, annual expenditure per student in ACT government schools is thirty to forty per cent higher than all other states except Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Clearly, something has gone drastically wrong in ACT education. It suggests that the Stanhope Government has wasted millions of dollars in education to no effect. It raises questions about the effectiveness of general reductions in class sizes which have been implemented since 2001.

The decline in standards and equity warrant an expert public review of ACT education. An independent public inquiry should be established to advise on how to reverse the decline in education outcomes and reduce the large achievement gaps between rich and poor.

It should examine results at both the higher and lower achievement levels. It should advise on how to reduce the proportion of students whose outcomes are at the lowest levels and increase the proportion achieving at the most advanced levels. It should review results in both government and private schools.

It should establish new priorities in education expenditure to address the declining results and the achievement gaps and what additional expenditure is needed to support schools serving disadvantaged communities.

Trevor Cobbold

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