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Canberra schools settling for second best

The disparity was staggering. Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2100 words. By age three, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were three , the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn't help, it was detrimental."

Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times, April 10, 2013

Emma Macdonald, of this fine publication, has done us all a favour in pointing out that there is no room for ACT complacency about recent NAPLAN results, which again confirmed that the schoolchildren of Canberra have the highest average reading and numeracy rates in the nation.

They also tend to confirm that the ACT education system is tired, complacent, and in need of some revision and re-visioning. Far from being smug about the results, we should reflect on the fact that most ACT children, and most ACT schools are performing less well than their socio-economic status might have suggested.

What galls is not that ACT children are failing to do as well as they theoretically might do, if only some worked harder. There is almost always such a gap, and, no doubt, every school is held back by some under-performers.  But most of our ACT schools are performing below the levels of, and achieving worse results than their real peers, schools of similar backgrounds, are actually achieving in other states and territories. 

These are consequences concealed behind high average scores, comparing chalk schools with cheese ones. The peer-to-peer comparisons are not the sort of results that ACT schools, public or private, are likely to triumph in their marketing. But the general report card on the ACT public and private system is "could do better" – and, probably, with the same resources." I know of no just complaint that the schools which are outperforming their peers in the ACT are doing so because they are, on average, better resourced. 


The socio-economic rating of schools is a measure of the occupation and background of parents, and the marks Emma was using compared like schools with like schools both in the ACT and elsewhere around Australia. The higher the score of a school's socio-economic advantage, the higher its marks, on average, will be, if only for the reasons given in the quotation at the top.

Emma used statistics comparing the performance of Canberra schools not with each other, but with the averages, around Australia, achieved by schools of comparable socio-economic advantage.

At grade three level, only 23 of 91 ACT primary schools achieved average results at or above the average levels of other schools of that socio-economic advantage. The rest, in varying degree underperformed for their level. 

At that same grade 3 level, only 15 of 91 ACT schools  were performing at or above their individual averages in writing, only 10 in spelling, 16 in grammar, and 18 in numeracy.

At grade 5 level, only 25 of 93 ACT schools compared had an average performance at or above the level of their peers.  With writing it was only 15 schools, spelling only 18, grammar only 20 and numeracy only 16. 

In Grade 7, 12 of the 36 ACT schools compared performed, on average, at or above the level of their peers. With writing it was only six schools, in spelling only seven, grammar 12, and numeracy, shamefully, only two (Marist Pearce and Lyneham High).

The position was hardly better by grade 9, by when, one might have expected, individual secondary schools had had ample time to identify and improve underperforming individuals. Only nine of 36 ACT schools were at or above the level of their individual peers in reading. In writing and spelling, only three were, in grammar, only six were. In the numeracy test, only Emmaus Christian and Covenant College were ahead of their individual peers; 34 were under the level, 20 of them by more than 20 points.

The report cards for most schools might say "So so, and not actually struggling but could do better. Given the money being spent, should be setting the standard for all of Australia."

One ACT school, Canberra Grammar, is in the NSW, not the ACT, system, but its results give no great ground for complacency that this state's system, at least as applied in an elite, disciplined and excellent school, is necessarily better than the ACT model.

Of grade seven students, Grammar boys, on average, were seven points in reading below what their peer, on average, were achieving. Their average score of 614, was easily the highest of any of the ACT schools compared, but, on average, the socio-economic advantage of Grammar boys is higher than any other and one would expect that results would match. Grammar, in short,  did well, but was below average among its real peers.

Likewise, at that grade level, it  was 13 points below its peers in writing, 21 below in spelling, 28 below in grammar and 20 below in numeracy. That had it outperforming many ACT schools, but was worse than one might have expected of Grammar.

At grade nine level, Canberra Grammar boys averaged 647 points for reading, again the top average of ACT schools. Compared, however with its socio-economic peers, this was 10 points below average. Grammar boys were also nine points below their peers in writing, seven in spelling, 28 in grammar and 16 in numeracy. If one were to judge a school merely by NAPLAN results (and of course one should not) one might remark of it that it was not making the best use of its opportunities.

I am not try to pick on Grammar simply because it is a well-endowed private school. It has its share of outstanding students, and outstanding results. But it is fair to remark that better is expected from those who are, in most respects, better endowed and Grammar has a very high socio-economic advantage.

But that is, in fact, true of the whole ACT system, even if no school's advantage is as great as Grammar's. Figures differ for every catchment, but every ACT school has a far higher proportion than average of students whose parents are well-educated professionals on comfortable incomes, and a smaller (if still present) proportion of students from the underclasses, disadvantaged or of lower socio-economic status. It is, generally, the whole of the ACT system which could do better.

I have no reason to think that the fault lies in unmotivated students, poor individual teachers, or in systemic philosophies, or facilities, at different schools. I assume that teachers, students and parents care (or at least at the broad proportions one might expect of their socio-economic cohort) and are trying hard, 

But the ACT educational system, once the best in the land, is no longer automatically producing the best students, or making the best of its opportunities. That's sad.

It reflects on the community generally and the city. And it reflects on its leaders, not least its politicians, many of whom are themselves products of the ACT system. Looking back on the entire succession of ACT Education ministers, I cannot think of one who has really been providing intellectual leadership, driving excellence in outcomes, or adaption to a changing educational environment. What we have been getting, from them and the education bureaucracy, are platitudes, minor rearrangements of the furniture and managerialism.

There has been no fundamental shake-up, or review of the system, since 1975, when the college system was established. That was far thinking for its time, as was the degree of local school autonomy, not only in management but also in curriculum development. A review would not necessarily undermine  this, but build on it. Its first focus would continue to be the promotion of excellence rather than, as so often, the squeezing and rationing of every aspiration into a budget, or into some box artificially divided as to whether it was public or private school education.

In speaking of excellence, I am not only referring to stretching, extending and developing the best and the brightest students in Canberra, although I am unabashedly in favour of that and believe more could be done. I am simply referring to maximising the potential of every student, and of ensuring that educational restrictions put on students are appropriate to modern circumstances, rather than the constraints of 1975.

The fundamentals of the ACT system were in place before the computer, before the internet, the mobile telephone, or the ipad. I remark that not because I think that these ought to be classroom tools: the evidence seems to suggest that they do not help in the classroom and that all too much is made of their usefulness. Most ACT schools, and homes, are well equipped with computers, library and internet research capacity.

But the communications revolution does not seem to have produced much in the way of the linkages that would now exist between students of particular aptitudes and interests, between school and university, and school and vocational training institutions, and between schools and the community. One might, for example, well understand why few, or no schools, would have the critical mass of interested students to teach some particular language, such as, say, Arabic, or Hindi, or Serbo-Croatian. Or, Latin or Greek for that matter. But the potential of the internet to link students from different schools  so as to create such a critical mass is hardly exploited.

The evidence, likewise suggests that the ACT, of all places, is doing all too little, whether from its geographic or college advantage, to link into its local universities or to develop its hard-science curriculums  according to academic (or, a separate consideration, labour market) need. What is done, and it is declinming, is about a fraction of the potential. Likewise with the mix (not least with mathematics) for any number of vocational and computer-oriented high school courses. And arguably with a host of other community and cultural resources.

There should be more, not less, potential for specialist teachers, and, particularly (though not exclusively) at college level, more potential for treating subjects as ones akin to university lectureships, stimulating and leading interest into particular areas, and somewhat less focused on the instillation and regurgitation of ideas. But the issue goes wider, involving questions about whether an excellent teaching workforce can be assisted by infusions from mid-career professionals giving back to their disciplines and the community, the "permanent education" regime and thirst to remain up-to-date among adults and the elderly, and, I suspect, a now out-of-date and too remote school architecture. 

But my real aim is to reinforce the role of reading, and my real fear, for the ACT as much as anywhere, is that reading, whether of books or newspapers or their internet equivalents is actually falling away, and dumbing us down – in the home, in the school, and in the school library. If we want excellent students we must renew, and nurture, a spirit of inquiry and openness to fresh ideas.  


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