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Issue #1440      27 January 2010

League tables threaten public education

Even before schools reopen for the new year, the nation’s public education systems have been thrown into confusion by the Rudd government’s insistence on the use of national literacy and numeracy tests to compare the academic performance of various schools as part of its national education plan (NAPLAN) - in effect to use the tests as school “league tables”.

The tests have been used for many years to identify areas where students are having difficulty and need special assistance. However, they were never intended to serve as a basis for comparing schools on a competitive basis. Their use for this purpose has been severely criticised by the Australian Education Union (AEU) as misleading, inaccurate, damaging, demoralising and unnecessary.

In the short term, use of the tests for this purpose is likely to cause frictions between schools. In the longer term they will be used to lead to the closure and privatisation of those schools as parents seek to remove their children from schools stigmatised by poor test results.

The union’s President, Angelo Gavrielatos, has commented that using the tests for school comparisons is misleading and inaccurate, particularly because of margins of error and distortions created by differences in student attendance.

He also noted that the practice is damaging and demoralising, because schools that don’t do well in the tests are branded as “failing” schools, a tag that demoralises both students and teachers, takes years to throw off, and actually makes it more difficult for the school concerned to improve its performance.

This occurred recently when a Sydney newspaper used leaked information to identify a school with poor test results, which it named in screaming front page headlines as a “school of shame”, with shattering effects on school morale.

And finally, Mr Gavrielatos pointed out that politicians don’t need schools to be publicly ranked in order to know which ones need help and more resources, and that parents can readily access relevant information about school performance by contacting the schools themselves.

An aggressive government

The Rudd government continues to insist that the test results should be publicly released because parents are demanding access to information on school performance. The claim by the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, that release of the test results does not correspond to publication of league tables is facile and deceptive, because release of the results would have precisely the same effect.

As education unions have pointed out, league tables are not only inappropriate and damaging, but their use is not supported by a majority of parents. In extensive polling conducted by the Labor Party’s polling company UMR, 63 percent of parents expressed a desire for the federal government to pass new laws to prevent the creation and publication of league tables.

Nevertheless, Ms Gillard has announced that on February 28 the government’s My School website will publish the results of previously-conducted national literacy and numeracy tests.

In response, at its recent annual federal conference the AEU voted unanimously to refuse to conduct the next tests in May this year, rather than putting public education at risk.

In comments on the issue Ms Gillard displayed a contempt for teachers and principals, and an ignorance of the education process. After a recent “national conversation” with 150 school principals, the Minister in effect accused them of being prepared to keep children in cheerful ignorance, rather than using the national test results to improve their performance. When the principals repeatedly expressed their concerns over the use of the tests, she declared in disdain: “I actually don’t believe our aim is to have schools full of happy illiterate, innumerate children.”

In his address to the national conference, Angelo Gavrielatos responded angrily, “This is what one calls a studied insult. What the minister fails to understand is that if children are illiterate and innumerate, they are unlikely to be happy, and if the child is happy in him or herself and happy at school, they are more likely to be successful learners.”

National action crucial

Since elected to office, the Rudd government has trumpeted its commitment to public education. The total amount of education funding has indeed risen substantially, and the total amount allocated to public education has also increased. This is certainly welcome, but what is decidedly unwelcome is that the grossly disproportionate and unjust education funding system introduced under the Howard regime has been deliberately preserved by the Rudd government.

Consequently, as honorary associate professor of Education at Sydney University Jim McMorrow complained bitterly, “Commonwealth funding of schools is projected to total $82 billion over the funding period 2007-08 to 2012-13: $35 billion for the two thirds of the nation’s students in government schools and $47 billion for the one third in non-government schools.”

In short, every private school student is now receiving 2.7 times as much federal government funding as each public school student.

The proposal by teachers to ban further national literacy and numeracy tests has placed the union in direct opposition to the Rudd government, whose actions prove that it favours private education and a “market driven” approach to education in general.

The confrontation between teachers and principals on the one hand, and the federal and state ALP governments on the other, is far more significant than it might appear at first glance. Its outcome is crucial for the future of public education and for our children, and the ban should be supported by all parents of children attending public schools.

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