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Back in April 2010, when she was Education Minister, Julia Gillard commissioned an enquiry into School Funding in Australia. They are asking for submissions by 31 March, and my friend JV  has suggested that I join her in making a submission. I thought I’d post some of my initial thoughts here, to see if my readers have any useful comments to add. These thoughts are pretty rough, but given I’ve promised JV a post for nearly a week now, here they are.

Brief Background to school funding

A brief background for any interested non Australian readers. In Australia, we have three major school systems. We have Government schools, which are secular, and run by the States and Territories. They are funded largely by the States and Territories out of consolidated revenue (and have different curriculums and systems). We have Catholic parish schools, which are funded using a combination of a per student grant from the Federal Government, and fees to parents, and are run as a system by the Catholic Church (largely, there are some exceptions).

And we have private schools, which have a huge range from elite ($20,000 plus fees per year) to small local school that has been started by a group with some particular educational or religious philosophy they want to teach (here is an example, although being in the upper middle class of Sydney it is probably more expensive than average). These are funded school by school basis, by the Federal Government. It is a very complex funding system, which is based around an amount per student depending on the average socio-economic background of the school, ranging from 13.7% of the cost of a government school education to 70% of the cost. However, that isn’t quite the full story. When the system was introduced a few years ago, the formula led to a significant reduction in funding for some of the schools with the richest student backgrounds. So those schools get a guaranteed level of funding which is significantly higher than what they would get given the formula.

We have had a very strong movement from government to private schools in the last few years, from 71% at government schools in 1995 to X% in 2010. This is particularly pronounced in highschool years.

From what I’ve read, we have one of the highest proportions of private schooling around the world, and we also provide some of the strongest support to private schools of anyone. In most other countries that I have read about (and I’d love more data on this) non government schools cannot simultaneously charge fees and receive government funding.

The Enquiry’s emerging issues

The Enquiry has put out an emerging issues paper, in which they have asked for comments on the themes which have emerged from their consultation so far.

Their key themes are:

  • Equity of educational outcomes
  • Recurrent funding
  • Capital funding
  • Targeted and needs-based funding
  • Support for students with special needs and students with disability
  • Governance and leadership
  • Community and family engagement

I’m expecting my major comments to be on equity of educational outcomes, and the three funding bullet points.

Equity

The first question the enquiry has asked is about equity.

[The panel] … believes that equity should ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. The panel does not intend it to mean that all students are the same or will achieve the same outcomes, but rather that they will not be prevented from achieving their maximum potential because of their background or family circumstances.

There is a range of definitions of equity. I must admit I like this one, as it is about the outcome, not the government’s inputs. But the difficulty will lie in deciding how much of “background or family circumstances” should be compensated for. There is a spectrum here. Providing extra resources to compensate for a disability is, in theory, relatively uncontroversial (even if in practice very few governments do it as completely as this definition would suggest). Providing extra money or other resource so that teachers are more likely to teach in unpopular places is also not controversial in theory (at least I don’t think so) but in practice only happens in very remote areas, rather than the poorer areas of our major cities.

But should the educational system should provide extra resource to the child who has no books in the house, compared with the one who does? What about more resource to the child whose parents don’t provide coaching after school compared with the child who has three hours every afternoon? And, most controversially, my read of the enquiry’s definition of equity suggests that there should be no way in which private schools should be able to have access to extra resources compared with public schools (assuming the student body is comparable). So no fees beyond standard costs, no building funds, no extra computer labs, etc.

To me, the logical conclusion is that no private school should be able to charge fees if they get government help. This has always been my view, but it seems to follow logically from the equity definition. Of course, the corollary is that the government provision must be adequate for all. Which is nice in theory, but I know many cases where it has failed in practice.

Philosophically, my strong preference is for government schools to be adequate. There shouldn’t be any need for private schools. It is important for us as a society to education all members of society to their potential. Education is not a consumer good, it is an investment in our society’s future. There is an individual benefit to education, in that on average, the better educated you are, the more likely you are to earn more money over your lifetime. But in most countries, that benefit from a school education is assumed to be repaid by the higher taxes you will pay over your lifetime, and in the general improvement in productivity from the society as a whole (plus, of course the non economic benefits of having an educated population, such as a richer cultural environment).

Education cannot, by itself, fix all the problems in society. But it can avoid making them worse, and, if done well, can provide an opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (of all kinds) to improve their circumstances. But not if the education provided to the most advantaged members of society significantly increases that advantage, by further improving the outcomes of the child.

So I would like to see an outcome from this review

Other links:

Larvatus Prodeo thread on the review

Jane Caro in the SMH recently

Market mechanisms in education and why they don’t always work

What is equity in education from Save our schools

Jon Stewart interviewing Diane Ravitch about her book which is anti standardised testing

The NSW Department of Education’s views.

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Banning Christmas

Helen at Cast Iron Balcony has a post up noting the seasonal reappearance of the usual story of politicians taking back Christmas from the perils of political correctness. Sadly, our school was part of this annual beat up this year.

Chatterboy’s teacher was in charge of the Year 5 end of year concert this year. She got the Year fives together and asked them to choose a song. “Something that makes everyone happy”, she said. “Something inclusive.”

One child enquired, “does that mean it shouldn’t mention God?” Our teacher agreed/suggested that may not be inclusive for everyone. So after a bit more back and forth, the class chose Mamma Mia, which has the advantage of being well known to practically everyone already, after they all watched the movie last year.

One child (probably one who talks a lot more about school than our two do) went home and described this scene to his/her parents. Said parents, without any further checking, or even communication with the school, immediately called the local paper, which put together a front page story entitled School bans Christmas, despite much of it’s story being denied by the school.

Once it was on the front page of the paper Channel 9 sent a camera crew around. They didn’t have to bother checking any facts, since they could just report the local paper story. Alan Jones picked it up, with the result that the school administration started getting hateful anonymous calls accusing them of being “Moslem-lovers”.

Chatterboy’s teacher, one of the best in the school, took a day off during the worst of the press. She’s a self confident, strong person, so it probably won’t put her off teaching, as an experience, but being the centre of a media storm like that can’t be pleasant.

I find myself, when recounting this story, pointing out the demographics of the school. Just like pretty much anywhere in Sydney these days, we have families from around the world. Our biggest two first generation ethnic groups are Japanese and French, but both boys have had no shortage of interesting parents coming in to talk on Harmony Day about their cultural and religious backgrounds.

But you shouldn’t have to have a multitude of religions in the student body to make a secular end of year concert permissible. This is the state school system. We do, theoretically, have a separation of church and state. What on earth is wrong with a bit of secular good cheer just in time for the long summer holidays?

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Ever since I won the negative in a debate at school on the topic “that Anzac Day was the birth of modern Australia” by taking the then trendy anti-war view of Anzac Day, I’ve struggled to decide what I think of Anzac Day.

But this year, the nuances of my thinking have got more complicated. Chatterboy and Hungry Boy are old enough that they are learning about Anzac Day at school. Largely they are learning about the Gallipoli landings themselves – what a debacle they were. It’s a simple story so far, but it quickly becomes complex when we talk about it.

In personalising the story for them we’ve talked about their relatives. The boys have two grandfathers and two great-grandfathers who served in World War I, none of whom fought in the Australian army. One was an ANZAC, from New Zealand, who fought on the Western Front in France. One was a Scot, who fought for the Argyll Highlanders on the Western Front. One was English, and fought on the Western Front. But the final one was a Croatian officer, who fought for the Austro-Hungarian army, in Italy.

An increasing number of Australians have family histories like this. Their ancestors come from both sides of the great European and Asian wars. But as Australia becomes a land full of people from other places, Anzac day is increasingly irrelevant to the very many Australians without a personal connection to the wars and battles in those wars that are commemorated.

The Anzac Day commemorations, as personal memories of the horrors of war fade, still largely commemorate that narrow group of ancestors who fought for Australia a long time ago. The boys’ grandfather, who was a Yugoslav partisan (captured by the Gestapo twice) was never allowed to march because other Yugoslavs, who had been on other sides in the complex struggle that was the Yugoslavian WWII, got to Australia first and put their case to the RSL. Some RSL leaders have allowed Turks, in particular, to march in Anzac Day, because they were “an honourable enemy” but others hate the idea.

Anzac Day used to be, at its best, a day that remembered the stupidity and futility of war, as well as recognising the sacrifices of those who fought and died, regardless of whether the fighting was sensible. The structure of the day, with the marches, and the dawn service, doesn’t make it easy. But I’d like to see a way in which there could be more recognition of the sacrifices and dead of all the wars, and all the losses in the wars that have made Australia what it is – many of which have done so by sending refugees to us from conflicts around the world.

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More on schools

The myschools website is a small step towards the US No Child Left Behind Model, in which school funding depends on testing results for individual schools. So via Laura at 11d, it was fascinating to see a complete turnaround from a Dianne Ravitch, someone Laura describes as one of “the handful of people who really matter” on education policy in the US. Ravitch has written a new book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. It is reviewed here at Slate, and Ravitch answers her critics here.

I haven’t read the book yet (and I want to!) but from the Slate review, some of her argument is about how the testing process and rewards led to a devaluing of testing. We’re not at that stage here in Australia yet. She also talks about the issue that although it is clear from the research that quality teachers are key, there are, as yet, no proven ways of improving the quality of teachers overall, because it is impossible to predict who will make good teachers before they teach.

What Ravitch doubts is that this intervention [opening the teaching profession to everyone and paying teachers more for good outcomes] all by itself can realistically promise to turn around failing schools in such extraordinary fashion, without any attention to other variables that affect student outcomes. And as a practical matter, she asks, how are schools—especially in inner-city neighborhoods—supposed to attract these large stables of consistent superstars? As Ravitch writes, “This is akin to saying baseball teams should consist only of players who hit over .300 and pitchers who win at least 20 games every season; after all, such players exist, so why should not such teams exist.”

But the key point for me was this one about whether parents will actually exercise choice when given the information to do so:

“While advocates of choice”—again, Ravitch included—”were certain that most families wanted only the chance to escape their neighborhood school, the first five years of NCLB demonstrated the opposite,” she writes. In California, for example, less than 1 percent of students in failing schools actually sought a transfer. In Colorado, less than 2 percent did. If all this seems a little counterintuitive, Ravitch would be the first to agree. That’s why she supported charters in the first place. But the evidence in their favor, she insists, simply hasn’t materialized.

In other words, providing data, so that parents know their child is in a bad school doesn’t of itself create the impetus to move. Parents choose schools for their children for all sorts of reasons. And many of them involve the whole of the family life where the family would like to live – the parents’ employment, the availability of neighbours to share the drop-offs and pick-ups, existing friends for the children, etc. etc. Schools are generally a local monopoly, and the important policy imperative is to improve each school, not just allow parents to remove their children, and assume that those who don’t deserve the bad education they end up with. To quote Ravitch again:

But, as I point out in the book, going to school is not the same as shopping. Most parents want a stable school that is within a reasonable distance of their home, so that they can drop off their child in the morning and pick her up at the end of day or get to school quickly if she gets sick in the middle of the day. Schools operate differently from, say, shoe stores, which open and close in response to consumer demand. Schools are essential community institutions, like firehouses. They are cooperative enterprises, where the adults are expected to work closely with one another towards common goals.

This is pretty much what Jennifer V said when she commented on my last post on this topic:

The government should be providing high quality education to EVERY child who attends ANY public school, not promoting faux-competition between schools so that the privileged can move their children to a “good school” which then attracts even more resources (eg, good teachers – because part of the drive towards competition between public schools is giving individual schools power over hiring) and the less-privileged who stay behind put up with the scraps (because if you are a poor-performing school in an unappealing part of the state, the “power to choose your own teachers is meaningless” – you just have to take whoever applies or have nobody).

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The SMH has published a league table of all schools in NSW, derived from the myschool site, ranking them by their Year 5 and Year 9 average results. They’ve called it an “alphabetized list” (because league tables are illegal), which is rubbish, because each school has a ranking (calculated on the average year 5 and year 9 results).

There are all sorts of problems with the ranking (it ignores year 3 and year 7, it doesn’t show the raw material the school started with, which is why the selective schools dominate the list, just to name two), but the bigger problem, for me, is the intrinsic assumption made both by the website that it is OK for children from low socio economic groups to get worse results. The Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) is used to decide which schools are ranked against which. So the thinking behind the MySchool website is that it is perfectly fine for children from a school like John Warby Public School to be significantly worse than the state average, because if we compare their results with similar poor children, they mostly do a lot better. I’m sure that means that the effort the teachers, parents and children of that school make is well directed. But imagine what more they could do for their children if they had the resources of this school.

It’s not acceptable that this site implies that John Warby Public School students are getting a good outcome from our school system. That implies that it is fine for children from poor backgrounds to get a worse education than average. This information should be being used to take resources away from the schools which are beating the state’s unadjusted average, particularly if they are private schools, and give more resources to schools that have a NAPLAN average below the average.

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Well, give me some statistics about something I care about, and I can’t help myself. I’ve just spent an enjoyable hour and a half getting statistics about all our local primary schools, plus the high schools we’re thinking of sending Chatterboy and Hungry Boy to.*

Robert at Larvatus Prodeo points out some of the problems the site has if you happen to be compared with a selective school – the demographics of the parents of a selective school probably aren’t as important to the NAPLAN results as the fact that all the students have passed an exam to get in. I’d add to that a problem here in NSW – OC classes for year 5 make some schools (eg my old school) look very strange. If you double the size of a year cohort, by adding  a group of students who are all in the top 5% of the state, you’ll appear to do a fantastic job of teaching your year 5 students! Not surprisingly, the school is suddenly substantially better than every single one of its statistically similar schools for Year 5.

The Grattan Institute (via LP) has a report pointing out that there are better ways to measure students than a crude correction for demographics – value add (looking at the change in students’ individual scores from year to year) is a much better way of measuring school performance, and has the advantage of being more comparative across demographic starting points (although then you run into the problem of which school gets the credit, given the tests are done fairly early in the school year).

Helen, who hasn’t managed to get on to the site, laments the continuing commodification of our schools.

For myself, I’m mostly too busy wallowing in statistics to draw any conclusions. But I’d really like to know what we parents are expected to do with the information. Julia Gillard said:

And what people will see is they’ll probably see some areas where their child’s school is going well or better than similar schools or as well as or better than the national average. They might see some areas where their school is falling that bit behind and they’ll want to go and have a conversation at the school about what they can do to lift that performance.

But when people have chosen a school, I think what they will do is they will look at My School and if there’s an area that they think their school needs to lift in then they will be there talking to the teachers, talking to the principal, working in partnerships with school to lift those standards.

There is a limit to how much control parents have over the children’s education. There are generally lots of reasons why people live where they do, and enormous costs (social, as well as economic) to moving house, or moving their children to a school further away. And there is also a limit to the influence any parent, no matter how involved, can have over the performance of their local school. Most teachers, quite reasonably, will resent parents telling them how they can teach their little darlings better.

But the government has had access to this information for quite some time. And what have they done with it? They have funded schools strictly on a formula which nobody, even the beneficiary schools, believe has any semblance of fairness. If they really believed that this information was useful in improving school performance, then they would already be using it to try and improve the performance of all those schools which have a below average performance. But I can’t see any evidence of that in this government’s “education revolution”. Instead, every school in the country, regardless of how good their facilities already are, has a building program. And I’ve not seen any evidence in any educational policy announcement of the struggling schools getting any extra help or resources to lift them to the level of the most successful schools.

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* Actually the most interesting part of the site, for me, was the socio-economic scores themselves. Some surprises there in which schools had the highest scores around where we live. I suspect that some of the counter-intuitive results (Mosman not being the highest, for example) came from the proportion of Mosman parents who send their children to private schools even in primary school.

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As Chatterboy gets closer to high school, our conversations and angst about high school seem to intensify. I’ve blogged about this before – the choices we have for our boys are:

  • two very exclusive private boys schools within walking distance
  • a selective boys school within a long (2km) walking distance
  • a very exclusive coed school that is a short bus ride away
  • a comprehensive coed school a longer bus ride (probably 40 minutes door to door on a public bus) away that is locally notorious for being the place children get sent when they get tossed out of the exclusive private schools (which happens to be Mr Penguin’s alma mater – he doesn’t think it is as bad as painted, but it wasn’t great)

Of course, this means that we are incredibly fortunate. Although we don’t want to, we could afford to send our boys to those exclusive schools, if we decided it was worth while.

When we have this discussion with other parents, sooner or later the conversation gets to the selective schools and the dreaded ‘coaching’. The stereotypical view of selective schools in Sydney these days is that only “Asian” students get into them, by spending every waking moment being coached – perhaps here or here.

Lisa Pryor, in The Pin Striped Prison summed up the conversation well:

To families with children at elite private schools, all this tutoring is considered somewhat distasteful. ‘Asians’, they whisper and point discreetly. Filling up the selective schools with their hardworking ways, cheating with tutoring! Don’t these Asians have any respect for the fact that the only student who is supposed to have an advantage in the race for gifted and talented classes and selective schools is the white child whose parents speak fluent English, work in professional jobs and live in houses crammed with books? Private schools like to teach their children to be workaholics in other ways. Well-rounded ways. By rising at six in the morning for swimming squad, spending the lunch hour rehearsing with the madrigal group, taking speech and drama classes after school.

I think that there is some degree of truth to the stereotype – there are a lot of “Asian” students at our local selective high schools. I see students from all the local private exclusive and selective schools on my way to work in the morning, and the difference in the faces between the schools is quite stark. Those “Asians” have all sorts of backgrounds – from first generation immigrants to children whose families have been in Australia for generations. But they generally value education fairly highly – highly enough so that they travel from all over Sydney to get a selective school education, and, rumour has it, have a lot of educational coaching after school, in primary and secondary school.

But as Lisa Pryor asks, what exactly is wrong with being coached? If a child is good at sport, it is perfectly socially acceptable for them to spend (by the end of primary school) six hours doing it. The academic coaching that I linked to above seems to vary. One seems to be of the order of one or two afternoons a week. Another seems to make it possible to spend every afternoon studying, plus Saturday mornings.

As Pryor points out above, the upper middle class parents (like us) who say that they want their children to spend their time being children, rather than studying, don’t necessarily give them all that extra time as unstructured time. They get them to do other things, like drama (the boys are spending this week of the school holidays at a theatre course). They spend a lot of time reading books, and going to museums (we went to the Maritime museum last weekend, to learn about mythic creatures). Of course they watch TV, but many of the things we do as a family are also quite educational in a broad sense. So we aren’t exactly coaching our children, but we are educating them outside school as well as in it.

One of the pieces of research that Malcolm Gladwell spends a lot of time on in his book Outliers is the fact that by an enormous margin, the best predictor of someone’s success in a given field is the amount of time they have spent practising it. He calls it the 10,000 hour rule (blogged by a reviewer here), and it is based on research by Ericsson and Charness, among others. So if children have spent a substantially greater time studying, they are likely to be better, objectively, at pretty much any test a school is going to give them. If all they’ve been studying is a particular kind of test, then that’s all they are good at. So those coached children really do belong in a selective school. They’re better at school, and selective schools are supposed to be for children who are better at school. They are likely to be better at school than children who haven’t spent a lot of their non school time studying.

Today’s Australian society does value education more than pretty much any society in history. Knowledge workers are those who have the highest potential incomes. So education is important. It seems, though, that we have reached a very unhealthy form of apartheid in the way in which many parents react to that. Some shell out ridiculous amounts of money to exclusive private schools (which also get far too much funding from the federal government). Others have their children coached throughout school – here or here. And the children of parents who don’t do either of those things are more and more likely to fall behind in educational outcomes.

Education is too important to be left entirely up to the market. And so, here in Australia, it isn’t. Everyone is entitled to a public education. But increasingly, that public education is more and more inferior to the private, or private supplemented, alternatives. And that can’t be a good thing for our society, particularly if we have any expectation of equality of opportunity for our children.

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