Students will suffer as private schools chase top of the table

By March 28, 2017Education

AUSTRALIAN private schools are gaming results league tables to get an edge over their competition.

Valuable taxpayer funds are at stake for the school, but often it is the students who are paying the real price.

In the 1870s, Australians collectively decided we needed a free education system.

Gone would be the state-funded, church-run schools that delivered education only to the privileged few. The broken system of church run-education would be history. Well, at least, it would no longer be subsidised. At the time we knew that the only path to a prosperous future was an equitable education system. The only way for society to prosper was to ensure all of us were educated.

A new order was established. The protestant schools retreated to a rump, educating only those who could afford to pay the full freight. The Catholics opted out entirely and offered an (often) impoverished education in accordance with the dictates from Rome. The rest of Australia set about building one of the most impressive education systems the world had ever seen.

There was no competition between schools. There was no marketing. If you were Catholic, you went to the local parish school. If you were well off or religious (and not Catholic) you went to the local protestant school. And both of you paid your own way. Everybody else just went to the local public school.

That didn’t stop the rent-seeking. Many generations of church leaders repeatedly made the argument for government subsidisation often under the guise of “school choice”. The punter was entitled to government funding, they argued, even if they had opted to have education delivered by someone other than the government.

But the argument was stoically resisted. The churches were told their students opted out of a free public service (as was their right), but it did not entitle them to compensation.

The dam broke in 1964. A generation of politicians caved into the temptation of using school funding as a vehicle for pork barrelling. And once the pork was out of the barrel it couldn’t be shoved back in.

Every year since then, the amount of taxpayer funds channelled to the private sector has inexorably increased. As a result, the sector has almost doubled in size.

So now we have “school choice”. There is a vast array of choices and that selection is getting vaster by the day. The trouble is, with choice comes, well, choices. And to “help” us with those choices, schools need to invest in marketing.

Marketing comes in many forms. It might be that flash billboard. Or it might be that ad on the bus or in the paper. But the most insidious form is the one that doesn’t look like marketing and doesn’t cost a cent, the league table.

Ranked lists of schools are based on the percentage of the cohort who took the university eligible subjects. They are easy to manipulate — if you are entirely without conscience.

Let’s say you have a cohort of 100 students and 10 of those are heading for a top range score. If all 100 kids sit university eligible subjects, your rank percentage for those kids with the high scores will be 10 per cent. But if just the right 20 sit the subjects, you are looking much more respectable at 50 per cent.

That difference could easily bump you from the bottom of a league table to the very top.

All a school needs do is convince the kids who won’t make the school look as good, to pick different “pathways”.

As one teacher wrote in an exposé published last week: “these children’s futures are held to ransom for PR opportunities”.

Parents don’t want our educators focused on manipulating their position in a league table.

We want them focused on how they improve the lot of every single student in their care.

The sooner we shut down the notion of privatised delivery of government funded education (and the marketing that entails), the sooner we can begin to claw our way back to the top of the list of the world’s best education systems.


Also published in The Courier Mail

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Nicky Cooney says:

    This is a fantastic article! As an ex government school teacher but an ex private school student ( sister school to Churchie!) this piece explains a lot about the rankings and how they are manipulated. I just wish more people would read articles such as this. My family has succumbed to a generational view that great educational outcomes are the purview of only private schools. I could go on and on about the pros and cons of both however given the sector in which I worked and as I have said being a student of a GPS school I am convinced the government schools are no worse than private schools except they don’t get the funding they need. Just as a personal aside to you David, I have not read this book but genes and family environment are critical to early learning outcomes before formal education becomes involved. Too many parents seem to leave the
    ” fate “of their child’s future in the hands of a school and absolve themselves of all responsibility. Thanks for entering the debate and your comments but I don’t think you’ll convince my private school family to choose the path lest traveled.

  • Anthony The Koala says:

    Dear Mr Gillespie,
    I don’t know which of your education blogs to put ‘my two bob’s worth’ because my comment is like fitting a ‘square peg in a round hole’. Nevertheless, my comment is equally important because it may well be an issue of equity and introducing a culture of pressure on children on performing in exams and the danger of learning to an exam. There has been many a discussion on the falling education standards in Australia based on international surveys based on Programme for International Student Assessment (‘PISA’).

    The danger is that the PISA scores could be manipulated by education authorities in order to make the PISA scores higher. Higher scores are achieved by excluding students from low socio-economic backgrounds from participating in the PISA survey. These poor students come from from rural communities settled in ‘cities’ who are educated in schools within the testing area, the city, which are not up-to-standard as the city schools. Two effects are (i) the average PISA score for that particular district are higher than average by excluding the scores from poor students from the not-up-to-standard schools and (ii) students from the age of 15 are banished to a life of of poor paying jobs. Don’t these authorities realise that people that the poor children need a first rate education system and that children may develop their intellectual capabilities at different rates. Don’t these places have mature-aged entry to universities?

    It is ironic that Australia should try to raise its education standards based on the PISA results when some of our universities outrank the highest ranking university in Kazakhstan, sources The highest ranking university in Kazakhstan is Al-Farabi Kazakh National University with a ranking of 236 while some of our universities (with ranking) outrank Kazakhstan’s: ANU (22), Melbourne (42), Sydney (46), UNSW (49), Qld (51), Monash (65), Adelaide (125), UTS (193), Wollongong (218).

    You may say, ‘you’re comparing chalk with cheese’, that is comparing our schools with our universities and that the scoring for the universities is different than that of PISA. BUT then our undergraduates come from an education system, assessed by a PISA survey which is on par with Kazakstan and we’re bashing the school system. Sure there may be poor performing students as well as poor performing teachers in our schools. Then fix that! Don’t start having ideas to base our education system on stressing out students on performing to an exam system as it’s already happening with the NAPLAN system. Otherwise we have not fixed any equitable issues which may arise from poor students not being able to gain entry to the highest possible education choices.

    For those who say ‘but not everyone should go to uni, they should be tradies’, then I say TAFE is not easy either having experienced both TAFE and university. Raise the standards for those in a poorer background to be able to gain the competencies required for TAFE or university otherwise ignoring it in the pursuit of education.

    Thank you,
    Anthony of Belfield

    Other sources forming the basis of the discussion:
    (1) Prof. Vickers
    (2) Prof. Vickers
    (3) Brookings Institute

  • Anthony The Koala says:

    In the last statement I said “Raise the standards for those in a poorer background to be able to gain the competencies required for TAFE or university otherwise ignoring it in the pursuit of education.”.
    I meant to say “Raise the standards for those from a poorer background to be able to gain the competencies required for TAFE or university otherwise instead of pursuing a PISA score or pursuing to an exam which does not add to a love of learning.”

    Apologies, hope it makes my view more understandable,
    Anthony of Belfield.

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