What My School Really Says About Our Schools

The following article is a summary of a new report called School Daze by Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd.

Australia’s schools are very diverse, if only because of where they are and who they serve. Educational diversity is something to value, but we also have a social diversity, in fact a socio-educational hierarchy of schools which is serving some people more than others – and not serving the nation at all well.

The socio-educational gaps between schools are getting wider and deeper (pages 8-9), between urban and rural schools and especially between the school sectors, Independent, Catholic and government. The two private sectors and high status public schools are enrolling more of our most advantaged students – and fewer from less advantaged families. There is a noticeable enrolment shift from lower socio-educational advantage (SEA) schools to higher SEA schools.

Increasing socio-educational differences between schools have contributed to a serious school equity problem – a problem worsening over time and very apparent in our cities and in secondary schools. The Gonski review told us that family background matters more than it should. We have found that it matters more than it used to. Against this background of worsening equity, student achievement in Australia seems to be drifting. My School shows differences between states and schools, but there is an increasing divergence in student achievement between higher and lower SEA schools generally.

Achievement differences are usually attributed to variations in quality between schools, school types and especially between sectors. Quality matters; some schools are certainly better than others, but My School data tells us that achievement differences between schools don’t align with sector labels such as public and private. Schools that are enrolling high SEA students get the best results regardless of sector. The reverse is also true.

When it comes to improving schools and lifting the strugglers, money matters. My School data tells us that government schools enrol more of the strugglers, yet public funding to government schools between 2009 and 2013 has increased at around half the rate (12.4%) of funding to Catholic (23.5%) and Independent (23.7%) schools. When funding from other sources is added, government schools are even further behind.

These levels of funding have challenged some beliefs, especially the belief that having private schools saves public money. The public recurrent funding of private schools is getting closer to, and in some cases exceeding, public funding of similar government schools. This raises many issues and seriously challenges the sustainability of Australia’s already odd framework of public and private schools.

Many students who are already advantaged, especially those who attend high socio-educational status private schools, are generously funded from a variety of sources. But My School tells us that their measurable results are much the same as those achieved by similar students attending much lower-funded government schools. We are constantly told that providing more money doesn’t improve results. It seems we now know where that happens: in the most expensive schools.

In raising such issues we know we’ll be told that it’s all about school choice, something which is used to justify a range of oddities in our framework of schools. My School shows that choice of a fee-charging school is available only to those already advantaged. This choice is an illusion for half the population – hardly surprising, but something which can now be reasonably measured.

There are always things which data won’t tell us. Having been school principals we have lived our careers through the decades when great changes were taking place in our framework of schools. We were told about, and believed the importance of the school as a centre of the community and a source of the social and cultural capital that makes communities work. But less than a third of our schools now have an enrolment which resembles the cross-section of people in the school’s local area.

Schools and communities are drifting apart. The social diversity which previous generations witnessed within schools is increasingly evident between them. Someone needs to convince us that this is a really good idea.

Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd

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