Govt. Blocked Evaluation of the Adverse Consequences of My School

Confidential minutes of a meeting of the national education ministers council reveal that ministers knew there would be adverse consequences from My School, and asked for them to be identified. The decision was never implemented. It appears it was blocked by the Federal Education Minister and her department.

The Sydney Morning Herald (30 March) has obtained the minutes of the meeting of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) of 12 September 2008. They reveal that the Council directed officials to identify adverse consequences of the new national reporting arrangements when My School went public.

Item 4.1.1 (viii) of the minutes directed an expert working group on school reporting to:

Commence work on a comprehensive evaluation strategy for implementation at the outset, that will allow early identification and management of any unintended and adverse consequences that result from the introduction of new national reporting arrangements for schools.

This decision required two actions to be taken by officials. One was the development of an evaluation strategy to identify unintended and adverse consequences of My School. The second was to implement the strategy to identify those consequences.

The chairman of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Barry McGaw, has admitted that the evaluation was not carried out. He told the Sydney Morning Herald that ACARA would be monitoring what happens this year.

The MCEETYA decision was not implemented because it was blocked by the Federal Department of Education. Responsibility for implementation of the decision initially lay with the Australian Education Senior Officials Committee (AESOC) which is chaired by the Secretary of the Federal Department of Education. It was only after December 2009 that responsibilities for school performance reporting were transferred to ACARA.

As a result of Federal Government obstruction, there has been no evaluation of adverse consequences. SOS understands that the Queensland, SA and WA ministers at the time pushed hard for an evaluation to be done and did preliminary work for it.

All along, Julia Gillard has refused to concede there are adverse consequences from the publication of school results. She has shut her eyes to all the evidence.

Overseas experience demonstrates that the adverse consequences of reporting school results are manifold. They include a narrowed curriculum for students, discouraging collaboration between schools, stigmatizing low performing schools and their students, making it difficult for low performing schools to recruit high quality teachers, misleading parents and policy makers about school quality because school results are significantly affected by a variety of factors beyond the control of schools, encouraging manipulation of school results by excluding low performing students and by cheating, and increasing social segregation between schools.

Many of these consequences are already happening in Australia. For example, soon after My School went operational, the Victorian Education Department instructed schools to spend more time on test preparation. This will narrow the curriculum and the learning of students. It will reduce time spent on non-tested subjects such as science, history, languages, arts and music, etc. It will also be at the expense of greater depth of learning in the tested subjects. The Sydney Morning Herald (8 February) has also reported evidence of a narrowing of the maths curriculum in NSW schools.

There is also increasing evidence of schools manipulating their results to look better. For example, it is reported that private schools around Australia are considering introducing pre-entry tests for students which could be used “to weed out and exclude potentially poor performing students” ( Adelaide Advertiser 26 March).

A survey of school principals conducted on behalf of the Australian Education Union revealed that some private schools are manipulating their results to look better by encouraging families of lower performing students to take their children elsewhere. There is also widespread anecdotal evidence of schools encouraging some students not to turn up on test day last year;

The Minister is so desperate to avoid public discussion of these consequences that she and/or her department have resorted to obstructing official action to identify them.

She has double standards on transparency. She has imposed a flawed system of reporting school results in the name of transparency but refuses to take action to identify and publish the adverse consequences. The whole process of establishing My School was conducted in secrecy and without consulting teacher and parent organisations.

It is imperative that immediate action be taken to assess the adverse consequences of My School and to inform the public of them.

The Government should put in place a system to monitor the adverse consequences of My School. For example, it should immediately conduct surveys in each state of the time spent on different parts of the curriculum so as to be able to monitor changes in the curriculum in future years in response to My School.

Save Our Schools also calls for a full public parliamentary inquiry into the harms and benefits of My School, and the failure of the Federal Minister and her department to deliver on their obligations.

Trevor Cobbold

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