Independent Public Schools Fail to Increase Student Achievement, but Increase Social Segregation

A review of independent public schools in Western Australia has found that they have not increased student achievement but could be developing a two-tiered education system in the state. The review found there is little evidence of changes to student outcomes, attendance and behaviour as a result of the introduction of independent public schools.

The great promise of school autonomy is that it will deliver increased school outcomes. However, it appears that the WA school autonomy program has so far failed to deliver on this promise. There are also widespread concerns that it is contributing to greater social segregation in public schools in the state.

An evaluation review of independent public (IP) schools in WA published last month found that there was no increase in student achievement in these schools over the three years the program has been in existence: “…there has been no substantive increase in student achievement after becoming IPS” [p.37]. The NAPLAN scores for IP schools in numeracy, reading, writing, spelling, and punctuation & grammar generally show no change across all year levels tested after entering the program. Some scores increased in some domains in some year levels, some declined and some had little or no change.

The review compared the NAPLAN results of IP schools with non-IP schools. IP schools were generally higher performing schools before joining the program and they remained higher performing after becoming IPs. However, here was no significant change in their advantage after three years. The average difference in test scores between IP and non-IP schools was generally much the same as before the introduction of the program.

The review also compared the percentage of students in IP and non-IP schools at or above the national benchmarks. The average across the five domains of NAPLAN at or above the standards in the other public schools was 85.3 per cent compared to 88.9 per cent for IPS schools prior to entry. After three years, there was little change in the average for IPS schools when it was 89.7 per cent.

Similarly, analysis of data on student enrolment and behaviour across all public schools showed no change for IP schools. There were also no substantial differences in attendance, suspension, exclusion and retention rates between IP and non-IP schools, even though IP schools had lower numbers of students with attendance problems prior to the program. The pre-existing differences in these rates between IP and other public schools remained unchanged over the three years of implementation.

The other interesting aspect of the evaluation report is what it termed “significant and pervasive concerns” by all stakeholder categories that independent public schools are creating a “two-tiered” education system. It said that regardless of the actual performance of schools, there was a community perception that selection as an IP school was an indicator of quality.

The results of an Education Department survey suggest that IP schools have gained a more privileged place in the market hierarchy than other public schools. It showed that 58 per cent of parents considering sending their children to a private secondary school considered IP schools a good alternative to private schools compared with only 36 per cent who considered the same for public schools in general. Some 61 per cent of the same group thought that IP schools have higher quality teachers than other public schools.

These results suggest increasing demand for places in IP schools by families who can afford to consider private schools, that is, higher income families. This creates the opportunity for IP schools to select more of their enrolments in future as has occurred in other systems where schools have greater autonomy, even where there are regulations restricting selection by public schools. For example, this phenomenon is well-documented in England where a clear social hierarchy of government schools has developed under the combined effect of school league tables and greater school autonomy.

Greater demand for IP schools amongst higher income families and greater selection of enrolments by the schools is likely to lead to more social segregation between government schools in WA. Inevitably, it will mean increased differences in school results and more inequity. This is what a market in education is designed to do.

Trevor Cobbold

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