The opening of the My School website last Thursday is a bracing reality check. Things that for many years were intuitively felt, and discussed anecdotally among parents and educators, have been quantified beyond doubt.
My School did not publish 'league tables' ranking schools' average NAPLAN (National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy) scores. But newspapers in many states quickly filled the gap. In my city, the Canberra Times published 20 graded lists of NAPLAN results across the ACT's 91 primary and 32 high schools.
Canberra is small enough for readers to recognise and compare the schools which are public, Catholic parochial (mostly administered by the CEO, the Catholic Education Office), and non-Catholic independent schools (NCIS).
Canberra does not have any elite high-fee-paying Catholic schools. The Catholic low-fee parochial system essentially serves most of the Catholic school population.
The public system used to be similarly universal, but over the past 25-odd years there has been rapid growth in the NCIS sector, from two Anglican grammar schools to 11 NCIS primary and nine NCIS secondary schools, including an Islamic school and a few secular community schools.
It is clear from My School data that in the ACT the educational peer-group streaming effects of this bifurcation of the formerly almost universal public secular education system have been statistically significant.
I imagine other states' league tables will show similar general trends, though qualified by two ameliorating factors: a robust tradition of selective public high schools in major state capitals, and a small Catholic high fee-paying elite school sector. Because we have neither of these in Canberra, the differences are clear.
As a parent of children attending Catholic primary and high schools, I have no particular axes to grind, apart from believing in a plural society, in free choice in education, and an interest in the quality and social justice of the education on offer to all Australian schoolchildren.
I cherish the Catholic parochial system, yet feel saddened to see the alternative public system eroding into disparate congeries of religiously affiliated and other NCIS, that seem on the face of it to be taking the academic cream of students, leaving an educationally disadvantaged school population in the public schools sector. For this is what My School-derived league tables suggest, to judge by the Canberra example.
A close look at ACT tables ranking numeracy at year 5 and year 9 reveals that the spread of school average scores in the Catholic system was similar to those in the public system. Most Catholic schools were bunched around the middle scores. In the year 9 numeracy test, the top scoring Catholic high school got 623 and the lowest-scoring got 582, compared with a national average of 589.
However, between Canberra's public and NCIS schools, there are large differences in NAPLAN average scores. In the year 5 numeracy test, NCIS came in first, second, fourth and sixth places; six of the 11 NCIS scored in the top 20 of the 91 schools. And by the year 9 results, of the 32 schools tested, NCIS occupied the top seven places; the other two NCIS ranked 11th and 14th. Scores ranged between 674 and 608, all well above the national average, and well above Catholic high schools' range of average scores.
In Canberra, parents and children face a three-way choice. A city that 50 years ago had a flourishing state sector, an under-resourced but striving Catholic sector, and almost no NCIS, now presents a paradox: a well-resourced Catholic system that works well in educational equity and social justice terms, but a troubled picture elsewhere of a burgeoning NCIS sector and a state sector whose professionals are worried about its future.
The Catholic system is highly equitable both between schools and between areas of the city. A child attending any Catholic school in the ACT will be part of a class peer group with NAPLAN scores which are reassuringly close to other Catholic schools, and almost all above the national average.
Non-Catholic system parents have a more difficult choice to make. If they regard NAPLAN class average scores as an important indicator of the peer group within which their children go through school, they will be pushed towards NCIS which have so many apparently brighter kids. They will face the choice of high fees and social narrowing in the highest-fee-paying schools, or perhaps constraining fundamentalist ideologies in lower-cost NCIS.
If they stay with the state system, where there are lots of very bright kids and good teachers, they will wonder whether their kids are getting a fair share of national educational resources. For at least in Canberra, the richer NCIS are doing hugely well out of the present national and state-level educational funding systems. In the non-Catholic system, the lesson seems to be: to him that hath, more shall be given.
While Labor education ministers around the nation say that the NAPLAN school scores will lead to more political pressure on governments from parents and voters to direct more resources to 'under-performing' schools, this seems disingenuous. Most federal funding has high automaticity, on a per capita basis. Except on the staffing side, there are limits to what state or territory governments can do to level the playing field.
Meanwhile, parents vote with their feet, moving their children across to the expanding NCIS sector. This trend can only be accelerated by the publication of NAPLAN tables.