Inside Story

Gonski and Gillard won’t fix this problem

In a forthcoming paper for the Centre for Policy Development, Chris Bonnor describes a worsening school equity problem that will persist for decades to come

Chris Bonnor 28 November 2012 3416 words

Julia Gillard releasing the government’s response to the Gonski report on school funding at the National Press Club in September this year.
Photo: Alan Porritt/ AAP Image

DURING 2012 the recommendations of the Gonski review have been variously celebrated, qualified and recast in language to suit the agendas of various players in education and politics. The Gillard government now has the job of spelling out how it will implement the recommendations in ways that reflect both Gonski’s findings and its own soothing assurances that every school will get more.

From the beginning it was clear that the review didn’t have a wide-enough brief, nor the government sufficient will, to tackle a fundamental problem that is beggaring our framework of schools: the ever-increasing social and academic divide between schools represents a looming disaster for the students being left behind and for a nation that is already feeling the effects.

Just a few weeks ago the latest report from the COAG Reform Council showed that a declining percentage of young Australians are in work, further education or training. This is despite “earn or learn” income-support policies, more skills development, some additional equity funding, and interminable declarations and target setting.

In this article I look at circumstances in provincial Australia and use new evidence to demonstrate that, despite all the talk and effort, the situation of a growing number of young people is worsening – at the very time that we seem to be working harder than ever to avoid tackling deep-seated structural causes.

How our schools have changed…

The way our schools have changed is especially visible in country towns. If you visited a medium to large regional centre fifty years ago you would have seen at least one government high school with perhaps a couple of feeder primary schools. All but the smaller towns had a Catholic school catering for students from kindergarten to Year 9 or 10 and sometimes to Year 12.

If you grew up in one of these towns you were a public school kid or a Catholic kid – or you disappeared for five or so years to a church boarding school somewhere else. This arrangement wasn’t unique to those towns; it was just more visible there because the schools, as well as pubs, churches and everything else, were in close proximity. The students from the different school systems knew each other, if just in passing, and exchanged taunts about their respective heritage and divergent Sunday pursuits.

Out of necessity, most schools were reasonably comprehensive in their enrolments and what they offered. In that sense, they characterised the inclusive qualities now associated in the research literature with higher school system performance.

This began to change across Australia from the 1960s. The postwar boom saw Catholic school enrolments and running costs grow rapidly. The church turned to governments for help, and Australia’s federal system ensured that the support was poorly coordinated and didn’t come with too many strings attached (in contrast to the strict obligations that accompanied the substantial funding of Catholic schools in New Zealand).

Once established, there were no boundaries placed around the various and changing rationales for funding private schools. The older well-endowed schools, as well as new schools, joined the queue for funding. By the end of the twentieth century a quite different framework of schools had evolved in provincial Australia.

Additional government schools served the residential areas established on the outskirts of the towns. In some cases these were middle-class communities; in other cases they included public housing and a growing urban Indigenous population. The Catholic schools began to attract many middle-class families.

But the greatest growth in the last two decades was in lower-fee independent schools – although even the lowest fee is high in a town where most of the schools have been (close to) free for decades. These new schools grew alongside the public and Catholic schools. In New South Wales and Victoria the biggest single group (up to 40 per cent of the independent schools) are now Christian schools with various emphases and group affiliations. Around a quarter are Anglican schools.

… in a uniquely Australian way

So far it is a familiar story, and one with widely claimed benefits – albeit for some students far more than others. The case for a diverse offering of schools and the case for choice is widely accepted, and the claimed benefits of competition for school quality is almost gospel.

The problem was, and is, that no thought was given to the longer-term consequences of operating free and (by law) inclusive schools alongside schools that charged fees. Regardless of other factors, it was always going to be the case that the fee-charging schools would cater for a disproportionately advantaged clientele, the charging of fees being the ultimate passive enrolment discriminator.

This was going to be the case particularly when the public schools began to accumulate a more disadvantaged enrolment. Families with the means to do so would start to avoid such schools. Despite everything written about choice, it is the social profile of a school’s enrolment, even ahead of student performance indicators, which tends to drive school choice.

By adding more “fee” schools alongside the “free” we set in place a growing social class difference between schools, created by the make-up of each school’s enrolment. Other countries were more alert to the potential problem. One of the drivers for New Zealand’s Private Schools Conditional Integration Act in 1975 was the fear of what would happen if NZ schools became socially differentiated as a consequence of some charging fees as well as being publicly funded. The 1944 Education Act in England ensured a percentage of free places at church schools. Integrated schools in the Netherlands cannot charge fees and must admit a child if there is no public authority school within a reasonable distance. The inclusion of faith schools as part of the state system in Ontario is accompanied by considerable central oversight of the operation of these schools and control of key policies and practices which might otherwise create inequity between schools. For very good reasons our hybrid public–private model is very rare on the world stage.

What did we create?

What did “doing it our way” bring about in provincial Australia? There had always been some differences between schools, especially built around local geography, but the addition of more fee-charging schools meant that the social hierarchy of schools became entrenched in complex ways.

Until recently, this hierarchy has been hard to measure, school by school. But it shows up very clearly in the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, or ICSEA, data on the My School website. The average ICSEA value for independent schools in provincial Australia is 1035, Catholic schools are quite close behind on 1027, and then there’s a large gap before government schools come in on 937. Where they exist, the independent schools form their own layers, with the older Protestant schools having the highest ICSEAs, closely followed by the Anglican schools and other Christian schools in that order.

Such averages considerably understate the social distance between schools in relatively close proximity. In larger NSW centres such as Albury, Armidale, Dubbo, Orange, Tamworth and Wagga the schools can be between 300 and 400 ICSEA points apart – a huge social gap. To discover such contrasts in metropolitan Australia one has to journey across a string of suburbs.

The academic outcomes of students in each school mirror these social contrasts. Across Australia, weighted NAPLAN scores rise or fall by between 30 and 40 for every 100 point rise or fall in ICSEA values. The achievement profile of schools is not strongly associated with school sector: NAPLAN scores don’t significantly vary between government, Catholic and independent schools with comparable ICSEA values. It is, instead, very closely linked to the socio-economic status, or SES, of families.

My School provides considerable information about other differences between schools in provincial Australia. Student attendance rates cascade according to ICSEA, with average daily rates of 92.8 per cent, 90.8 per cent and 87.4 per cent for higher, middle and lower ICSEA schools respectively. The enrolment of Indigenous students goes in the reverse direction: the highest ICSEA schools have the lowest average Indigenous enrolment (3.2 per cent), with 6.6 per cent in middle ICSEA schools and 9.3 per cent in the lowest ICSEA schools.

Even enrolment shifts are related to school ICSEA. Lower ICSEA government schools in provincial New South Wales fell 22 per cent in average enrolment between 1995 and 2011. Higher ICSEA government-school enrolment also fell, but by a lower 8.5 per cent over the same period. Students are moving from government to non-government schools but they are also moving from lower to higher SES government schools. Schools with a significant enrolment of Indigenous students are usually smaller and tend to be the ones losing enrolments. What they are gaining is a greater density of disadvantage.

Why is this a problem?

Much of the debate about such changes has an air of detached inevitability about it. We have always had a hierarchy of schools, and our schools will always display the sort of social contrasts created by the areas from which they draw. But the differences between schools now affect every community deeply. Students commute long distances to attend the school of family choice, even travelling to distant towns.

There is occasional debate about the social and cultural impacts of creating schools that are distinctive in these ways. Some people worry about the impact of educating children in separate religious communities. Some point to the distinction between the social bonding that goes on in church schools) and the community bridging that can go on in mixed-enrolment schools. There is also some concern about the impact on local “cultural capital” when families are committed to schools and communities somewhere else. And there is an undeniable but rarely debated racial dimension of school choice in provincial Australia.

But we now know much more about the educational effects of separating advantaged and disadvantaged learners – effects not only on students themselves but also on average education performance in Australia. Referring to Melbourne, the researcher Stephen Lamb noted that schools in lower SES areas have not only lost enrolments, but “the school reforms driving the growing diversity in schools over the last decade have [also] intensified the gaps between schools serving the rich and those serving the poor, gaps marked by growing differences in school size, student intake, resources and achievement.”

Reports from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, caution against separating students and concentrating disadvantage and advantage, which Australia is doing far more than the majority of OECD countries. This social pooling of enrolments is making the SES impact of the school itself, as distinct from the direct impact of family SES, far more significant. The impact of family SES on student achievement in Australia is close to the OECD average, but impact of school SES is among the highest in the OECD. This is the continuing legacy of how we have separated students into the “free” and the “fee.”

What is the impact of school SES on student achievement? According to the Australian Council for Educational Research’s report on PISA 2009, “Regardless of their own socioeconomic background, students attending schools in which the average socioeconomic background is high tend to perform better than if they are enrolled in a school with below average socioeconomic intake.”

We have started to measure this school SES effect. Key research in New South Wales shows how the SES of schools can lift or depress individual student achievement. This work has been replicated in Victoria by Richard Teese. The evidence was carefully explained in the research carried out by the Nous Group for Gonski and was certainly noticed by the review panel.

In effect, it means that students themselves constitute a very significant intellectual and cultural resource for schools – they bring prior learning, family education, networks and know-how. Depending on which students they enrol, schools gradually look and feel different in things such as resources, student discipline and time on task, number and type of welfare issues, teacher qualifications and expectations, curriculum, achievement culture and more. As Richard Teese and Stephen Lamb show, shifting the resource of students has a compounding impact in key areas such as school curriculum offerings and access, and the experience and expertise of teachers.

The Gonski panel clearly understood this. “Increased concentration of disadvantaged students in certain schools is having a significant impact on educational outcomes, particularly, but not only, in the government sector,” it reported. “Concentrations of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous students have the most significant impact.”

The problem is that the relative shift of funding towards schools enrolling students with the greatest needs, envisaged by Gonski, is going to be very incremental. Any public funding “penalty” for schools choosing to cater for the more advantaged won’t be felt for decades, if at all. The fundamental flaw in our framework – the unsustainable relationship between the “free” and the “fee” – remains unchanged.

And it is getting worse

There has never been any shortage of evidence about the growing social differences between schools in Australia, and the academic impact is also increasingly documented. The evidence is within the reach of every Australian, not in media reports about schools’ alleged success or failure, but in the data behind the My School website.

We know that the ICSEA value of a school has a direct relationship with student achievement. And we know that enrolment tends to shift from lower to higher SES schools. Is there any evidence that these enrolment shifts, as a consequence, may be continuing to widen the differences between schools, with all that such a trend implies for student achievement across Australia?

There are 399 schools with secondary enrolments in the 128 towns in provincial Australia where there is a choice of schools in the secondary years, which is the stage of schooling where choice is more commonly exercised. These schools can be analysed in groups based on their ICSEA. It is more difficult to find measures of student achievement over a longer period of time – NAPLAN only goes back to 2008 – and information about end-of-school student achievement is patchy. Hence it is really only possible to see a snapshot of trends revealed over periods for which comparable (within each state) data is available.

Available Victorian Certificate of Education, or VCE, data is readily available for the years 2003 to 2011. For this article two groups of Victorian schools were used to analyse changing VCE results. The first group consists of twenty-six schools with the highest ICSEA values in their town or regional centre. The second group consists of twenty-nine schools with the lowest ICSEA value in each centre. The total sample of fifty-five includes all of the schools for which data is available and which entered VCE candidates in both 2003 and 2011. The two VCE measures used are the median VCE score for the candidature in each school and the percentage of that candidature with VCE study scores over 40.

Between 2003 and 2011 the high ICSEA schools as a group recorded a slight fall (minus 0.39 per cent) in median VCE scores, from 30.73 to 30.61. The low ICSEA schools recorded a larger fall (minus 2.8 per cent) from 28.13 to 27.34. The percentage of VCE scores over 40 indicated a greater difference between the two groups of provincial schools. The average of these for high ICSEA schools fell from 8.46 per cent to 7.57 per cent. The average for the low ICSEA group of schools fell more sharply, from 4.51 per cent to 3.17 per cent. The student achievement gap between the two groups of schools clearly widened over this relatively short time.

Two groups of provincial schools in New South Wales were used in the analysis of changing Higher School Certificate results, this time over a span of just the five years (2005–09) for which data is available. The first group consists of twenty-eight schools with the highest ICSEA values among schools in their town or regional centre. The second group consists of fifty-two schools with the lowest ICSEA value. The Higher School Certificate measure used is the percentage of high scores as a proportion of the papers sat for the certificate in each school.

Between 2005 and 2009 the high ICSEA schools as a group recorded a significant rise in high scores, from an average of 6.49 per cent to 8.3 per cent. The low ICSEA schools as a group recorded a fall in high scores, from an average of 3.8 per cent to 3.26 per cent. The gap between the two groups represented by high-level achievement clearly widened over this relatively short period.

It is hardly surprising that the higher ICSEA schools mainly include independent and Catholic schools and the lower ICSEA schools are mainly government schools. It is also the case that some schools, regardless of sector, defied these trends. But the growing academic distance between higher and lower ICSEA schools in both states is very evident. The figures won’t come as any great surprise to principals and teachers.

Searching for solutions

Schools have the capacity to solve all manner of problems, so the ones that declare defeat in the face of tough challenges are doing students and families a great disservice. But the trends mean that the odds are continuing to stack up against low SES schools. Schools are reaching far and wide for solutions: dozens of government and non-government agencies, other providers and philanthropic organisations are involved with schools across Australia. Some programs are successful, others a waste of time; programs and solutions come and go, the problems don’t seem to reduce.

Early school leavers are essentially switched off school. The schools they leave behind (or are “asked to leave”) are in every sector, but the most visible disengaged young people are in less advantaged schools – and they certainly do little for school image. There are excellent programs that improve school retention and student achievement; they heavily rely on philanthropic funding, some of which really does target programs that work. Hands On Learning in Victoria creates a one-day-a-week opportunity for students to experience real success out of the classroom. A recent report by Deloittes points to its success. Big Picture learning reconfigures the way learning takes place across the whole school. Teachers, parents and especially students are very enthusiastic. It is now time for schools, systems and governments to support more seriously authentic innovation of this kind.

By way of contrast, solutions devised (and often imported) by governments might resonate well but make little difference, and frequently contradict each other. Everyone seems to believe in parachuting the best teachers into struggling schools – but the best students, who might otherwise be an asset, are effectively being funded to leave those schools. The cost of elevating the achievement of those left behind continues to rise.

Governments play with reward (and punishment) funding, manic testing and school rankings, paying homage to the discredited belief in the power of market forces to drive school improvement. Competition doesn’t improve the quality of all schools: it just sends principals in search of more desirable inputs in a quest guaranteed to create more winners and losers. Greater school autonomy will be a boon for them as they trawl for the best teachers and eventually for preferred student enrolments. The autonomy schools need, in curriculum, assessment and reporting, is not part of the deal.

Against all this the promise represented by the Gonski review may prove to be an illusion. Not much will change unless we are prepared to challenge some of the unexamined beliefs that have undermined our schools for decades. Faced with the growing social and academic divides between schools – and the equity challenges these create – all that the Gillard government has done is tie the hands of the Gonski panel, dilute any impact of its recommendations and oversee an ongoing squabble over who will pay.

Can we really sustain a quality, diverse, inclusive and free public school system alongside schools that prefer certain kinds of students and really expect to lift all students? Are we facing up to the educational and wider social consequences? What must we do to sustain both choice and equity – where does the balance lie?

The hurdles facing a breakthrough are huge. If little or nothing is done, current inequities in student outcomes will only increase, along with all the personal, community and national consequences. In the long run we’ll all pay. •