No Educational Rationale for School Closures

The Australian College of Education has challenged participants in the school closure debates to focus on educational outcomes. Save Our Schools Canberra is happy to take up the challenge, since improving educational outcomes, particularly equity in outcomes, for ACT students, is the ultimate test of the Stanhope Government’s proposal – a test which it totally fails.

To start, it is important to remember that international surveys such as the OECD’s PISA and the TIMMS studies show educational standards in the ACT are the highest in Australia, and up with the best in the world. One of the few weaknesses in overall performance is a relative lack of equity in outcomes, with student background having an undue influence on educational attainments.  

There is, of course, always room for improvement, but the biggest challenge in the ACT is therefore improving educational outcomes for students from disadvantaged groups – in particular students from lower income families and Indigenous students. Proposals that leave these students without better support, let alone worse-off, are not what the ACT needs. From this perspective, the Towards 2020 proposals make no educational sense.

It is now almost universally accepted on the basis of solid evidence that the key to improving educational outcomes for students, and particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, lies in the early years. This view has been embraced by both the Liberal and Labor parties at the Commonwealth level, with proposals for universal pre-schooling, and in the ACT, it has led to bi-partisan programs to reduce class sizes in the early primary years. However, the impact of the Stanhope-Barr school closures fall mostly on the preschool and primary sectors – despite the general recognition that they are the most important.

A key part of the Government’s proposals is getting rid of small schools. But, one of the leading Australian experts on school size, Professor Brian Caldwell, has summarised the research evidence as showing that academic achievement in small school is at least as equal, and often superior to that of large schools, and that small schools provide better outcomes in terms of student attitudes and behaviour, participation in extracurricular activities, attendance and lower drop out rates. These are general attributes of small schools, but he also notes that outcomes in small high schools are similar to those from larger high schools, demolishing the Government’s claims that curriculum limitations are a major problem. The positive benefits of smaller school environments are particularly important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Caldwell notes that “poor students and those of racial and ethnic minorities are more adversely affected ……. by attending large schools than are other students.” A full version of Professor Caldwell’s article can be found here.

There is absolutely nothing in Caldwell’s summary of the literature to support the Government’s proposals – in fact, it is a compelling critique of Towards 2020 in educational terms. The Stanhope-Barr proposals simply ignore all this evidence, to propose sweeping cuts to the pre-school and primary school sectors. The impact of these cuts falls most heavily on children from disadvantaged families – precisely those for whom early educational experiences are so critical, and for whom small schools provide a better educational environment.

The proposed closure of a college also flies in the face of this, and other evidence. The recent college review has shown that the college system continues to provide major benefits for most students. The argument that the Government has used for forcing a Year 7-12 structure onto Campbell High School and Dickson College is that some students do not prosper in ACT colleges.

However, there is no evidence that the problems a minority of students have in colleges are related to the college structure itself. In every other jurisdiction in Australia, where Year 7-12 high schools are the norm, the non-completion problem is much more significant, so it is hard to blame the college structure. It is far more likely that it is the students, most from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have fallen behind their peers earlier in their education in primary and high schools who end up struggling.

There is, in addition, an obvious solution – to provide students who are at risk of non-completion with additional support for learning and welfare needs across the school years. In the last election campaign, the Stanhope Government promised to provide additional teachers for the secondary sector for precisely these reasons. But, it has now decided to cut over 100 teachers, most from the secondary sector. Once again, there is no educational rationale.

Overall, it is hard to find an educational rationale for any of the government’s proposals. What the Stanhope Government has produced is a dog’s breakfast of proposals, based on experimentation with integrated pre-schools, K-3, K-5, 6-10 middle schooling, K-10 and K-12 models, without a systematic review of the literature to investigate what really works. The only common theme is a drive towards larger schools, which, as outlined above, the research evidence does not favour.

So there is no educational rationale, and there are serious doubts over the figures produced by the Government to justify the program in financial terms. If there is to be an informed debate, it will clearly take an independent inquiry to get at the evidence that the Chief Minister has decided to suppress. It is now up to Labor back-benchers to make an inquiry possible, or they will pay the price at the next election.

Ian Morgan

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