OECD Says That Competition in Education Has Failed

The OECD has issued a damning verdict on education policies that promote competition between schools. Its latest PISA in Focus brief
says bluntly that the PISA international test data shows that more competition has failed to improve student results and has increased social segregation between schools.

Across countries and economies, performance is unrelated to whether or not schools have to compete for students.
Competition among schools is related to greater socio-economic segregation among students.

Increasing choice and competition has been the dominant education policy in many countries since the 1980s. In Australia, it has had bi-partisan support at both federal and state levels for the past 20 years. Increasing competition was the centrepiece of the education policies of the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments. It is being extended under the Abbott Government’s support for more independent public schools.

The theory behind increasing choice and competition between schools is that it creates incentives for schools to raise the quality of the education. It is believed that the threat of losing enrolments and, therefore, funding will force under-performing schools to improve their results.

But, the theory has not worked in practice. As the PISA in Focus reports:

The latest PISA results show that, on average across countries, school competition is not related to better mathematics performance among students. In systems where almost all 15-year-olds attend schools that compete for enrolment, average performance is similar to that in systems where school competition is the exception. Within school systems, there is no performance difference between schools that compete with other schools for students and those that do not, after taking into account students’ socio‑economic status.

The analysis also shows that social diversity among students is greater in school systems where schools do not compete for students than in systems with more competition.

The OECD finding is particularly damning for Australia. Bi-partisan support for more competition between schools has created one of the most highly competitive education systems in the world. Of the 64 countries and cities participating in the PISA tests, only Hong Kong and Singapore have higher levels of competition between schools than Australia.

The latest PISA data show that 89 per cent of students in Australia were in schools where the principal reported that their school was competing with two or more schools. In Hong Kong it was 94 per cent and in Singapore 93 per cent.

Despite this high level of competition, Australia’s PISA results have declined over the past decade. Reading and mathematics scores fell between 2003 and 2012 by 13 and 19 points respectively, the latter decline equivalent to about half a year’s learning.

While private school enrolments in Australia have increased under choice policies, a Melbourne University study published in the journal Economics of Education Review last year shows that the national decline in performance was largely due to falling results in private schools, with falls in both Independent and Catholic schools. It said “the falls in school performance were more apparent in private schools than in the government-run school systems in Australia”. Another study published in the same journal found that Catholic school performance has declined in comparison to government schools.

Private school performance declined despite receiving much larger government funding increases than government schools. Government funding per student in private schools adjusted for inflation increased 26 per cent between 1998-99 and 2011-12 compared to 16 per cent for government schools.

Government policies to create more competition between school sectors in Australia, then, have completely backfired. Australia now has one of the largest private school sectors in the world, but its school performance is declining.

Choice and competition policies have also increased social segregation between students. The social composition of government and private schools has changed dramatically over the past 25 years, especially at the secondary level. Students from low income families have increased as a proportion of total government school enrolments while the proportion from high income families has decreased. In contrast, private schools have increased the proportion of their enrolments from high income families and decreased the proportion from low income families.

Government schools have almost twice as many students from low income families as they have from high income families, while Independent private schools have twice as many students from high income families as they have from low income families. Census figures compiled by researcher Barbara Preston show that low income students comprise 42 per cent of all government school enrolments compared to 26 per cent of Catholic school enrolments and 23 per cent of Independent school enrolments. In contrast, high income students comprise 21 per cent of government school enrolments, 34 per cent of Catholic enrolments and 46 per cent of Independent school enrolments.

The failure of market-based policies demands an overhaul of Australian education policy. Resources should be directed to where they are most needed – reducing disadvantage in education rather than supporting privilege. This requires that the Gonski funding plan be fully implemented.

Policy change should also promote greater collaboration between schools. Competition between schools restricts the spread best practice teaching and learning as successful schools want to retain their advantages over competitors. Collaboration between schools offers much better prospects for improving results than more competition as advocated by the Federal Government and the Opposition.

Trevor Cobbold

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