Whoops – Australia accidentally privatised its education system

By | Education | No Comments

Australia is sleep walking into a privatised education system that will deliver massive inequity, steadily declining results, and cost vastly more. Last week the Federal Treasurer gave us a giant shove further down that road. In deciding to remove $5 billion from the State Education budgets, he is telling the States (who run the government schools) to make do with less. The inevitable result of this will be to accelerate the rush to private education and ultimately, the destruction of our once great school education system.

According to the APC (Australian Productivity Commission) in 2012 Australian Taxpayers spent $8,546 per student per annum on educating children in non-government schools. And according to the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) taxpayers spent $11,980 per child in government schools. Neither number includes capital expenditure, which was about the same per child in both systems. In other words, the average non-government school student costs the taxpayer 71 per cent of the average public school student.

And therein lies the core argument for boosters of private education in this country (unfortunately including our Education minister). You see, the argument goes, children at non-government schools are actually saving the taxpayer money. They are transferring the cost of their education from the community to their parents (and church congregations presumably). They are choosing to participate in a user-pay community. And even if it does only amount to a 29 per cent saving, they are doing us all a favour.

But those average numbers hide some pretty big gotcha’s for the public system. The government schools are overwhelmingly the ones providing education to Australia’s most remote students. They teach 7 times as many students classified by the ABS as living ‘very remotely’ and 4 times as many students classed as being ‘remote.’ When it comes to children with special needs, once again it is the Government schools doing the heavy lifting, educating 3.3 times as many children with a disability as their non-government brethren. Unlike public schools, non-government schools are exempt from the provisions of Australia’s discrimination laws. They are permitted by law to pick and choose who they will and will not be bothered trying to educate.

Educating the hard-and-expensive-to-teach students is undeniably a task that is increasingly falling to government schools but strangely it is in the non-government sector that the costs (to government) are exploding.  Over the decade prior to 2012, per student government recurrent spending on government schools increased by just 19 per cent. At the same time government funding for ‘private’ students increased by 28 per cent (both numbers after inflation).

That means that if current funding trends continue, it is inevitable that the taxpayer contribution to private schools overtakes the contribution to government schools. And that is notwithstanding that the Government schools are the ones educating the vast majority of the children with special needs, in remote locations or with behavioural difficulties.

The small and decreasing taxpayer ‘saving’ is the reward we have reaped for the decision to destroy the equity (and the achievements) of our education system. In the half century since Australian taxpayers started funding private education choices, our school education has been progressively failing.

Even though we now pay five times as much (after inflation) to educate a student, by the time that student reaches Year 9 they are 3 months behind where the same student was in 1964. And if that’s not bad enough, when we compare that same student to the world’s highest performing educators, we find they are more than two years behind. The leaders in education (a group that used to include us) have marched forward and we have slid slowly backwards.

Some people might be able to justify that destruction if the privatised part of the system was setting the world on fire. Unfortunately not even that is true. All Australian schools performed terribly in the latest round of international comparative tests. But our best private schools did even worse than everybody else.

And while (after adjusting for socio-economic disadvantage) all Australian schools performed equally badly overall, there were significantly less really high performing students in the nation’s private schools. There were no changes in the numbers at those levels in government schools. If private schools are supposed to cultivate the best and brightest, those results suggest they are failing dismally.

The privatisation of education, just like the privatisation of healthcare, results in islands of underperforming privilege amongst a sea of despair and it drags the whole system down. We have systematically created a school education system which performs worse for everyone (even the better off) than the system it replaces. That’s quite an achievement, but it is not irreversible. We can return to a high equity, high performance system. Unfortunately it appears the current Government is hell-bent on doing exactly the opposite.

Also published in The Courier Mail

Letters to the editor in response appear here.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Time to focus on the private school elephant in the pool

By | Education | One Comment

Tony Abbott’s hand-picked head of the Audit Commission, Tony Shepherd wants to end middle-class welfare but the Family Tax Benefits he’s targeting are just a sixth of the value of the annual subsidy paid to ‘private’ schools. In 1963 Australian taxpayers contributed less than a brass razoo to private education. Now we pay over $10 billion per year in recurrent funding. On top of that we taxpayers build fabulous facilities on private property (with capital funding) that very few of us have the right to access. It’s time the Audit Commission looked at the real middle class welfare, private schools.

Educating the children of prisoners (or guards) was not a priority in the early Australian colonies. And because it was charitable work, it was left to the churches to do with as they pleased.

As the population changed from largely prisoners to largely free colonists and the demands for education increased, the churches were able to negotiate significant government aid for their efforts. Unfortunately this resulted in a large amount of competition (and school choice) for easy to reach students in the cities and no education for everyone else.

In Australia, the market can deliver most things efficiently in the cities. But huge distances mean no profits to private providers and consequently no services for the rest of us. That particular ‘market failure’ is exactly why Australia found it necessary to have a state funded bank, a state funded telecommunications company and a state funded broadcaster.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Australian colonies solved this problem in schooling by withdrawing their funding from church run schools and investing in their own ‘state schools’. The aim was to provide a free education to every citizen no matter where they lived (or what brand of religion they favoured).

The Catholics opted out and decided to run their own schools (on a shoestring) and there were a few Anglican secondary schools who continued to rely exclusively on private fees. But for almost a century, Australian governments refused to fund private choices about school education. And for almost a century we had a high equity, secular education system which was the envy of the world.

It was mostly fear of an electoral backlash that kept the politicians at bay. But when Sir Robert Menzies won the 1963 election with a promise to fund science blocks in non-government schools, the can was open and the worms tasted freedom. There was no backlash. The electorate no longer cared.

There is no better way to target a marginal parliamentary seat than selectively distribute largess among school communities. School funding is the laser guided vote buyer. The pollies had entered pork barrel heaven. And Australia has incessantly increased funding to ‘private’ schools ever since.

But the annual funding is just the tip of the money-berg. In addition to the cool $10 billion the taxpayer forks out every year to run ‘private’ schools, we are buying Olympic swimming pools, cricket ovals that the ICC would envy, fabulously appointed gymnasiums, fantastic science facilities and computer labs to die for.

The total bill for all this extra taxpayer generosity between 2005 and 2010 was just a smidge under $5 billion (on top of the $10 billion a year in running costs).

Over the same time frame we invested about $10 billion in government school infrastructure. And while those ratios are roughly in line with the respective numbers of each, they don’t take account of the fact that after the money is funnelled through the state government bureaucracies, $1 buys you about 60c worth of building work in a state school.

In 1964, DOGS, (the Council for Defence of Government Schools) was formed to protest the decision by the Australian Government to fund private schools. Their campaign against ‘schools with pools’ goes on to this day.

A favourite publicity stunt of the early DOGS protests was to turn up to the pools their money had purchased and ask for a swim. They were swiftly given the bum’s rush. These are not like other tax payer funded gyms, pools and libraries. These gorgeous facilities are not open to the public (that would be you).

Taxpayer funds have been used to significantly improve the value of private property and provide educational facilities that no government school could ever afford. Yet ordinary taxpayers are not allowed anywhere near them.

So the next time you peer over the hedge of the local ‘private’ school at the new Olympic pool, remember this was built using (upper?) ‘middle class welfare’. The Audit Commission will ruthlessly target all manner of what it deems to be unnecessary government spending but I guarantee you it will coyly avert its gaze from the ‘private’ school elephant wallowing in the pool.

Also published in The Courier Mail

Image courtesy of markuso / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Should we de-fund ‘private’ schools?

By | Education, Media, Television | No Comments

In 2011-12 Australian governments spent a tad over $47 billion on running the country’s schools. But only three quarters of that went to government owned schools. The remaining $10 billion or so went to ‘private’ (catholic and independent) schools. Governments are not normally big fans of throwing public money at private choices, but when it comes to schooling, the purse is well and truly open.

I recently had a chat on air with Dr Timothy Hawkes, Headmaster of The Kings School about whether Australian taxpayers should be footing the bill for ‘private’ schools.

Click Here to watch the recording.

Tide of inequity to blame for falling education results

By | Education | One Comment

Education is a very big line item in State and Federal Budgets. And, thanks to incessant demands for smaller classes, it is getting bigger at an astounding rate. But rather than address the obviously impaired state of our education system, the Government’s plan is to send you the bill.

In 2011-12 Australian governments spent a tad over $47 billion on running the country’s schools. But only three quarters of that went to government owned schools. The remaining $10 billion or so went to ‘private’ (catholic and independent) schools. Governments are not normally big fans of throwing public money at private choices. If I hire a security guard because the local coppers are not doing the job to my liking, a request for funding from the government will fall on deaf ears.

Joe Hockey may think the age of entitlement is over, but when it comes to funding private educational institutions it is anything but. The average Australian ‘private’ school kid costs the taxpayer about 60% as much as they would if were in the other kind of government school.

From the government’s perspective that’s a great thing. And it’s getting better all the time. Australians are stampeding from state run schools.  But the enormous growth in non-government schools has not been spread evenly. The average growth of the sector over the 15 years between 1998 and 2013 was 30%. But the number of students attending Islamic schools tripled and the schools aligned under the banner of the CSA (Christian Schools Australia) exploded to over 55,000 students in 2013.

The parents rushing out of the public sector are not choosing an Anglican Grammar school or even the local Catholic, they are choosing small, strongly faith based, low fee, suburban independents. Anyone would think we had all suddenly become devoutly religious, but the research suggests that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In 2008, the ISCA (Independent Schools Council of Australia) commissioned a study to get to the bottom of why parents chose a ‘private’ school. The answers were (in order) ‘educational excellence, good teachers, a supportive environment and good facilities.’ Religion barely scored a mention at all.

The flipside to that survey is of course that parents think they will not be getting those things from a public school. Massive increases in teacher numbers (because of reductions in class size) since the 1970s, combined with significantly greater employment choices for women has meant that the academic aptitude of the average teacher has steadily declined. Over the same timeframe, the unionisation of the teaching workforce has meant that should a teacher be hopeless, there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Independent schools have more flexibility when it comes to hiring and firing teaching staff. And they play off that in their marketing to parents worried about dud teachers.

The better facilities are paid for using a fair chunk of the fees that the parents are paying (since the government is still picking up most of the cost for the actual education).

Because such a large proportion of government education spending is diverted to fund private choices, the public schools become progressively more and more decrepit. And so the vicious cycle continues.

If you love the purity of markets, then I suspect you will be saying ‘so what?’ You might be thinking the push to ‘private’ education is a good thing. The problem is that in Australia we already know how this story ends. And it doesn’t end well.

In the middle of the 19th century almost all our education was publicly funded but delivered by churches. The result was a massively unequal society. Some communities were significantly overserviced, with schools competing with each other for the best students and those students receiving the very best education available. Other communities had a choice of just one school and most of the population had no access to schooling at all.

The solution was to bring in free mandatory secular education for all and to immediately de-fund the ‘private’ sector. By the start of the 20th century, Australia was a shining beacon to the world. It had a high equity, high performance education system which anyone and everybody could and did access.

But we are on the fast train to inequity again. And as the studies have predicted, the more the tide of equity sinks, the worse our education results as a nation become.

Running away from the public system is not the solution to Australia’s education woes. It simply drives wedges into cracks in Australian society and replays the disaster movie our education system has seen once before. Any government that encourages that as a solution is looking after its bottom line not your child’s future.

This post also appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald

Buy David’s Books

By | Books, Cookbook, Education, Recipes, Sugar, Sweet Poison, Vegetable Oils | 6 Comments

All of David’s books are available from this site. And each book purchased is personally signed by David. If you buy multiple copies of books you will receive multi-buy discounts and keep an eye out for sugar themed or oil themed bundles which also offer great discounts.

All of the books are also available electronically (obviously those aren’t signed).

In addiction to the books there is a great range of electronic resources (such as guides to the sugar content of common foods) available in the Resource Store.

The Books

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Free Schools

David Gillespie has six kids. When it came time to select high schools, he thought it worth doing some investigation to assess the level of advantage his kids would enjoy if he spent the required $1.3 million to send them all to private schools.

Shockingly, the answer was: none whatsoever.

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The Sweet Poison Quit Plan Cookbook

Ex-lawyer and ex-sugarholic, David Gillespie, revolutionised the lives and eating habits of thousands of Australians with his bestsellers on the dangers of sugar, Sweet Poison and The Sweet Poison Quit Plan. To help get us unhooked from sugar, David with the help of wife Lizzie, gave us recipes for sweet foods made with dextrose-pure glucose, a healthy alternative to table sugar. Here, David has worked with a chef to develop more delicious fructose-free recipes.

All proceeds from the sale of this book are donated to charity

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Toxic Oil

“‘Vegetable’ oil makes you exceedingly vulnerable to cancer. Every extra mouthful of vegetable oil you consume takes you one step closer to a deadly (and irreversible) outcome.”With these words David Gillespie begins his follow-up to the bestseller Big Fat Lies: How the diet industry is making you sick, fat & poor. In Big Fat Lies he analysed the latest scientific evidence to show us that vegetable oils, specifically seed oils, are dangerous to our health, despite that fact that they are recommended by government health agencies.

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Big Fat Lies

In Big Fat Lies David explodes the myths about diet, exercise and vitamin supplements, examining the latest scientific evidence and exposing the role the multibillion-dollar food, health and diet industries have played in promoting the health messages we follow or feel guilty about not following.

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The Sweet Poison Quit Plan

Packed with reader anecdotes and lists to help you organise your sugar-free life, this book presents one of the most accessible and achievable strategies around for losing weight and avoiding some of the more pernicious lifestyle diseases that are increasingly associated with excessive sugar consumption. Gillespie is an informed and entertaining writer who makes his subject fascinating, and inspires with his passion and logic.

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Sweet Poison

The #1 Bestseller, Sweet Poison exposes one of the great health scourges of our time and offers a wealth of practical and accessible information on how to avoid fructose, increase your enjoyment of food and lose weight.

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Apple selects Free Schools as one of its 12 Best Books of the Month

By | Education | No Comments

Every month, the team at Apple Australia and New Zealand read and review a selection of books which are about to be released. They then select the 12 which they enjoy the most. I’m very proud to announce that Free Schools has been selected as one of the Best Books of the Month for February 2014. Click here to see what the other 11 were and to read the Apple review of Free Schools.

Lifelong love of learning key to great teaching

By | Education, Media, Print | One Comment

ACCORDING to international benchmarks such as the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment tests, Australia’s education system is sliding backwards at a dizzying speed.

And while the research is unequivocal that teaching effectiveness is the primary driver of student performance, blaming teachers for the slide is like blaming an infantryman for the Iraq War. Band-Aids will not suffice. It’s time for open-heart surgery on Australia’s education system. Unfortunately, the Band-Aid brigade is out in force when it comes to “fixing” teacher quality. In Britain, the Conservative government plans to fix teacher quality by continuing to support Teach First. It is a social enterprise that enrols recent graduates from non-teaching courses and puts them through a six-week course before dropping them into a classroom while they complete a two-year education qualification.

The same program runs in Australia and the US, and while there are impressive queues of fabulous graduates waiting to join, the five-year retention rate for qualified teachers is abysmal – so much so that the program has been derided as “teach first, then get a better job”.

The British Labour opposition has a different plan. It wants to relicense teachers every few years. Its manifesto would allow the worst ones to be sacked and the not-so-terrible to receive some training. In the US, the Band-Aid contains a little more carrot and a little less stick. There, Bill Gates is pumping a lazy $US335 million ($384m) into a trial teacher incentive program. One of the trial districts, Hillsborough County (193,000 students and 15,000 teachers) in Florida received $US100m of the pile, and $US60m of that went directly to teachers. With the bonus payments, a fourth-year teacher in Hillsborough could earn as much as someone who’s been in the job for 20 years. The bonuses are based on student outcomes and in-class evaluations of teachers. But now that the trial results are in, they are not encouraging. There seemed to be no statistical relationship between any student improvement and the people identified by the program as effective teachers.

Elsewhere in the US, and most recently in NSW, “raising the bar” is seen as the panacea to ineffective teaching. People have been noticing for some time that it’s getting easier and easier to enrol in an undergraduate teaching degree. Latest results from Queensland, for example, tell us that entry is open to all but the lowest 8 per cent of secondary school leavers, and it isn’t much higher in NSW.

Statistics like that have inspired the NSW O’Farrell government to insist that, from next year, you don’t get to study teaching without at least an 80 per cent score in three HSC subjects (one of which must be English). It’s a big call with an almost complete lack of evidence to support it.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest we need moderately literate teachers, but study after study tells us that beyond that, there is no correlation between a teacher’s marks and their classroom results. Worse than that, it runs the real risk of excluding people who will be effective teachers on the basis of something that is likely to be about as relevant as their favourite colour. Unlike Britain and the US, the countries handing us a solid flogging in international tests (China, South Korea, Singapore and Finland, for example) are not worried about how to produce effective teachers, because they have already solved the problem.

The detail varies from place to place but the end result is the same. Effective teachers are produced by systems that use effective teachers to make more, you guessed it, effective teachers. In these systems, teachers are closely managed and mentored from the moment they darken a classroom doorway.

They are not thrown into a locked class, never to be seen again. They don’t sit down with the principal for a once-a-year box-ticking “performance review” (and then get a pay rise anyway). They are watched by their peers, assessed by more experienced colleagues and work as part of a team based on continuous feedback about the performance of their students. They can also be dismissed if they fail to deliver.

If they measure up, their career advancement is based on their performance (and that of their students), not on the amount of time in the job. And they are required to continue to learn and publish throughout their career. In other words, they are lifelong learners in the art and science of teaching. And they are trained by the best, the highest performers from the generations before them.

To someone who is “doing teaching” (because it’s easy to get into, with a pretty good graduate pay and great holidays), I have just described a nightmare of lifelong assessment. To someone who loves learning and loves teaching, I have just described paradise. Bring it on.

Opinion piece also published in The Australian 28 January 2014

Money can’t guarantee a good education

By | Education, Media, Print | One Comment

SHE would probably have been less shocked had I confessed to selling my children into slavery.

The look of horror (with a tinge of outrage) said a truckload more than the “Oh, are you sure?” she finally managed to squeeze out. Nigella (name changed) is the proud mother of two kids who attended the same (government) preschool as our eldest and had then progressed to the same (government) primary school. At Year 4, she had shipped her children off to the most prestigious private boys’ and girls’ schools money could buy (in Brisbane). So when I announced that my wife Lizzie and I had decided our kids would be going to a government high school, the shock was palpable. “But,” she spluttered, “didn’t you go to Churchie? Surely you could get them in there as a legacy entry?” The idea that anyone might choose to have their kids educated in a public school seemed to be beyond any reasonable contemplation.

If people voting with their feet is any measure, Nigella speaks for the majority. In some Australian urban areas there are now more Year 11 and 12 children in private education than there are in state schools. But is it really the case that paying for education actually gets you a better result? Or that paying even more gets an even better result?

We have six kids, so the kind of eye-watering numbers that the automatic choice of sending them to my alma mater and its sister school implied ($1.3 million, I calculated) meant our kids were going public. I needed to know exactly what the research said about educational outcomes and money. And I really needed to know whether there were any smart choices I could make having decided on public education.

Much like medical research, educational research is arcane, hard to read and even harder to understand. Even worse, most of it appears to be based on hunches and feelings and very little of it on hard facts and actual trials. But once you strip away all the self-interest and the spin there are very clear messages about why some education systems and schools perform better than others.

The research tells us there’s no correlation between how much you pay and the quality of the education your child is likely to receive. Parents desperate to escape a system that refuses to remove (and indeed actively protects) poorly performing teachers are susceptible to the promise of better results if only they can pay for them. The wealthiest families dominate the independent schools, which draw almost half their population from the top quarter of income earners in Australia and 73 per cent of their students from the top half of the income scale. Government school students dominate at the lower end of the economic spectrum; these schools draw 36 per cent of their students from the lowest quarter of Australian incomes. Catholic schools are somewhat more balanced; 57 per cent of their students come from the top half of the income scale.

Non-government schools do have more money than government schools, and in some independent schools that money makes its way into the pockets of better-performing teachers and more administration staff, but more commonly all that extra dosh just ends up in new buildings. Studies have consistently shown that when you adjust for the socioeconomic status of the children in the systems, all three Australian systems are equally effective (or ineffective). Paying more for education will definitely get you nicer buildings and newer computers. And it will definitely allow your child to hang around with more kids of “his class” (assuming that’s a benefit).

The single advantage that independent schools have over government and Catholic schools is that their staffing policies are not dictated by union-negotiated enterprise agreements. The principal of an independent school has much greater power to remove underperforming staff and hire effective teachers than their colleagues in either the government or Catholic sectors. But a leader is no more likely to employ and develop effective staff if they themselves are incompetent or if their hands are tied by a board (or parents) dictating staffing policies (as often happens). Yes, they may be able to have better staff, but that’s no guarantee that they do.

The short way of saying this is that paying for an education is often unlikely to get you a better academic result than you’d get anyway. What I found during my research is that some things – teachers, principals – count a lot, while other things that most parents worry about – class size, school size, composite classes, fancy buildings – don’t matter at all.

Teachers and leaders matter
Good teachers get good results (significant and measurable gains in the academic performance of their students). Poor teachers achieve exactly the opposite. In one Queensland study, the quality of the teacher was shown to matter to the tune of an astounding full academic year’s worth of learning when you compare the best teachers with the worst.

Researchers involved in The Texas Teacher Quality Study found that teachers at the top of the quality distribution were able to move their students forward one and a half years in just a year, while the worst teachers were only able to move their kids forward half a year. The study also found that experience makes a difference, at least initially. Teachers who are new in the job are much less effective. But after three years, experience doesn’t appear to affect teacher performance at all.

Until recently we haven’t had any comparable research on teacher effectiveness in Australia, but in 2010, Andrew Leigh (formerly a statistician from the Australian National University and now a member of federal parliament) completed a major study of teacher effectiveness using the standardised test scores for 90,000 Queensland students between 2001 and 2004. The results were almost identical to those delivered by the US research. A teacher who’s better than 90 per cent of their peers will achieve in six months what a teacher in the bottom 10 per cent achieves in a full year.

And this doesn’t apply just to primary school. A large study in Chicago showed the effect was, if anything, more pronounced in high school teachers. Good teachers eliminate disadvantage. In comparison to a bad teacher, a good teacher will provide your child with a two-for-one deal: two years of education in a year. If they get two shockers in a row they’re on a path to academic destruction.

It doesn’t matter if the school is mixed or single-sex
I don’t know a parent who doesn’t have a view on whether schools should be single-sex or mixed. The demand for single-sex schooling appears to persist despite a spectacular lack of evidence that it makes the slightest bit of difference for either sex. In 2005, the US Department of Education conducted a systematic review of 2221 studies on single-sex education. They found a performance gap between single- sex schools (and classes) and coeducational schools, but that gap could be explained entirely by the differences in the socioeconomic make-up of the students likely to attend a single-sex school (which in the United States are usually private). When the researchers looked for longer term measures of success, any positive effects of single-sex schooling vanished entirely. Without even adjusting for background, they found no differences in academic performance beyond high school, university graduation rates or the likelihood of undertaking postgraduate study.

Closer to home, the WA Education Department reviewed the inconclusive evidence and decided to find out if it could detect a measurable benefit by trying single-sex classes in its high schools. The pilot program was implemented in five public high schools commencing in 2006, but after three years of trials in Years 8 to 10 classrooms, they found there was “no conclusive evidence in any school to indicate that single gender classrooms supported improved student outcomes”.

Composite classes don’t matter
Multi-age classes mix students of more than one (usually two, but sometimes more) grades in one classroom being taught by one teacher. They’re fairly common in small schools (less than 200 students – just under half of all Australian primary schools) because of uneven distribution of the numbers of children in each grade and the need to stay below the mandated upper limits on class size. Most parents I’ve met think multi-age classes are a good idea if their child is one of the youngest in the class but a bad idea if they’re one of the older kids. The resounding answer from the research community is that it makes not the slightest jot of difference. Not only does multi-grading not have any positive or negative effect on academic performance, it doesn’t change any of the “soft” measures either (like attitude to school, behaviour and so on).

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) ran a study which was extraordinarily detailed and allowed the researchers to answer a burning question most of the previous studies hadn’t: Does it matter if your little pumpkin is in the Year 4 end of a 3-4 or in the Year 3 end? Not a single one of any of the possible combinations (and they had them all) showed any difference at all. The research did reveal, however, that some principals may have a tendency to assign their best and brightest teaching staff to multi-age classes.

Homework doesn’t make a lot of difference
When you’re dragging six kids through the school system you get to attend your fair share of parent meetings. And I reckon I haven’t been to one yet when someone didn’t complain that insufficient homework was being given, followed quickly by someone else complaining that too much was being handed out. Because it’s such a focus for parental angst, there’s no shortage of research on every conceivable aspect of doing schoolwork at home. But the research in favour of homework is far from convincing, and the latest work suggests it’s a complete waste of everybody’s time.

In 2006, Harris Cooper, the director of Duke University’s Program in Education in North Carolina, led a team that analysed the vast majority of the homework studies performed to that point. The studies revealed that there’s no benefit to assigning homework to children in years equivalent to Australian primary schools. Indeed, no study has ever found a benefit to assigning homework to children of that age. There were, however, modest benefits to high school students in that those who did more homework tended to score better on standardised tests. Even the most persuasive studies are only demonstrating a mild effect and then only really in maths.

Try hard to avoid moving
Australia has one of the most highly mobile populations in the Western world. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 30 per cent of residents (from households with children) move at least once every three years. The Queensland Department of Education keeps detailed records on every student and (uniquely in Australia) can track them no matter which school they attend. Their most recent analysis reported that, of the 41,261 students enrolled in Year 7 in 2006, one in five had moved schools two or more times in primary school and one in 20 had moved four or more times (in six years). The researchers concluded that the best thing we can do for our kids is keep them in the same school. The children who obtained the best results were those who hadn’t changed schools at all, and there was a direct relationship between (lack of) performance and the number of moves. In the last three decades there have been more than 40 major studies on the issue. The results have been surprisingly consistent. Every time a child is moved, their education will be set back between three and four months, their reading and maths scores will decline, and they’ll struggle to keep pace with their peer group.

The perfect school
The research tells us what a perfect school should be. It also tells us what it won’t be, or, at the very least, helps us identify all the red herrings hung along the school fence. It might have gorgeous grounds, three Olympic-sized swimming pools, its own personal sports stadium, a single sex, fabulous tertiary entry results, new computers, high fees, very small class sizes, and be very small and have no multi-age classes. But it might have none of those things and still be an extraordinary performer when it comes to delivering the only thing that matters – a high-quality education for your child.

The perfect school will have a highly effective leader who engages the community and teachers, who mentors those teachers and gets the best from them. It will have a teaching culture of continuous learning. Teachers will approach their task not as underpaid, glorified child care but as an opportunity to improve their skills and their students’ outcomes. And the perfect school may do absolutely nothing else. It may accomplish these two things in a caravan on a mining site, in a sandstone building on Sydney Harbour or in any possible location in between. What it looks like and what it costs are very likely to be completely irrelevant.

A truly extraordinary school will provide a music program and it will teach at least one foreign language. It will teach children how to learn rather than just what to learn. It will use technology to ensure students have immediate feedback and teachers have the time to help those who need it most. Homework won’t be a priority but the school will work very hard at keeping parents in the loop. It won’t stream students academically, but it will accelerate the truly gifted and will definitely not rely on whole language as a means of teaching literacy.

In other words, its perfection will be almost completely invisible to all but the participants. Its outcomes will in no way depend on the advantage or disadvantage the children bring through the school gate. All of this is quite easily delivered within the existing budgets for government school education (or less) if the school leader is skilled and motivated. They’re not the majority, but these schools do exist. The trick is to find them.

Edited extract from Free Schools: How to get your kids a great education without spending a fortune, by David Gillespie (Macmillan Australia, $29.99)

First Published in The Australian, 25 January 2014.  Picture: Eddie Safarik Source: News Limited

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