PISA Results Show that Competition is not the Answer to Improving School Performance

International test results published last month are forcing the OECD to reconsider their long-held faith in the efficacy of competition to improve school outcomes. The results provide strong evidence that competition between schools and the presence of private schools does not lead to higher student achievement. The results also show that more competition tends to lead to greater social segregation between schools and greater inequity in learning opportunities.

The results undermine the international trend for more competition between schools as the answer to improving school results. Domestically, it cast doubt over rationale of the Coalition Government’s program for independent public schools.

In presenting the PISA findings last month, Andreas Schleicher, deputy education director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), conceded that the policies favoured by his organisation were not having the expected success.

“My organisation is very strong on choice, enabling citizens to make choices, and you would expect that systems with greater choice would come out better,” he said. “You expect competition to raise performance of the high performers and with low performers put them out of the market.”

“But in fact you don’t see that correlation… Competition alone is not a predictor for better outcomes. The UK is a good example – it has a highly competitive school system but it is still only an average performer.”

The study found no correlation between the degree of competition among schools and student performance in mathematics across OECD countries or the 65 countries participating in PISA [OECD, How Resources, Policies and Practices are Related to Education Outcomes , Vol. 4, Table IV.1.4: 235].

For the vast majority of countries, there was no relationship between the extent of competition between schools and student performance [Table IV.1.16: 250]. In only six countries do schools facing competition for enrolments from one or more schools achieve a higher mean score than schools facing no competition after taking account of student and school socio-economic background. In only the Czech Republic and Estonia do schools that compete with other schools for students in the same area perform better, on average, than schools who do not compete, after accounting for the socio-economic status and demographic background of students and schools and various other school characteristics [Table IV.1.12c: 246].

Australia has the highest extent of competition between schools in the OECD. Almost 90 per cent of schools face competition for enrolments from two or more schools compared to an average of 61 per cent across OECD countries [Table IV.4.4: 386]. Only Japan, New Zealand and the UK have comparable levels of competition – 85, 86 and 82 per cent respectively.

Schools in Australia facing competition from one or more schools scored 17 points below schools with no competition after taking account of student and school socio-economic background. While this difference was found not to be statistically significant, it is contrary to the direction expected by advocates of more competition between schools.

PISA 2012 also found that school performance is not related to the percentage of students enrolled in private schools across OECD countries and all countries participating in the study [Table IV.1.4: 235].

Within countries, private schools tend to achieve better results than public schools because students who attend private schools tend to be more socio-economically advantaged than those who attend public schools. However, after accounting for student and school socio-economic background, the study found no statistically significant difference in the results of public and private schools in the majority of 45 countries whose results were considered [Table IV.4.7: 390].

Public schools achieved significantly higher results than private schools in seven OECD countries and only in Canada and Spain did private schools outperform public schools after accounting for the socio-economic background of students and schools. There was no statistical difference in the result of public and private schools in 17 other OECD countries.

Australia has one of the highest enrolment percentages in private schools in the OECD. Almost 40 per cent of students are enrolled in private schools compared to the OECD average of 18 per cent. Only Chile, Ireland, Korea, Netherlands and the UK had higher percentages of students enrolled in private schools. The PISA 2012 results show that there is no statistically significant difference between the results of public and private schools in Australia [Table IV.4.7: 390] after accounting for differences in the socio-economic status of students and schools.

The PISA study concluded that:

… the results indicate a weak and negative relationship between the degree of competition and equity. Among OECD countries, systems with more competition among schools tend to show a stronger impact of students’ socio-economic status on their performance in mathematics. [Vol. 4: 54]

That is, more competition means greater inequity.

Coalition and Labor governments over the past 15 or more years have promoted more choice and competition between schools as the way to improve school performance. The new PISA results show that this has clearly failed in Australia, as elsewhere. Far from improving outcomes, it is leading to greater social segregation in schools and greater inequity.

If policy is going to be based on evidence, rather than prejudice and bias, it is time for Australian governments to rethink their promotion of choice and competition.

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