The OECD has issued a damning verdict on education policies that promote competition between schools. Its latest PISA in Focus brief says that the PISA international test data show that more competition has failed to improve student results and has increased social segregation between schools.
"Across countries and economies, performance is unrelated to whether or not schools have to compete for students ... Competition among schools is related to greater socio-economic segregation among students."
Increasing choice and competition has been the dominant education policy in many countries since the 1980s. In Australia, it has had bipartisan support at both federal and state levels for the past 20 years. Increasing competition was the centrepiece of the education policies of the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments. It is being extended under the Abbott government's support for more independent public schools.
The theory behind increasing choice and competition between schools is that it creates incentives for schools to raise the quality of the education. The threat of losing enrolments and, therefore, funding will force under-performing schools to improve their results.
But, the theory has not worked in practice. As the PISA in Focus reports:
"The latest PISA results show that, on average across countries, school competition is not related to better mathematics performance among students. In systems where almost all 15-year-olds attend schools that compete for enrolment, average performance is similar to that in systems where school competition is the exception. Within school systems, there is no performance difference between schools that compete with other schools for students and those that do not, after taking into account students' socio‑economic status."
The analysis also shows that social diversity among students is greater in school systems where schools do not compete for students than in systems with more competition.
The OECD finding is particularly damning for Australia. Bipartisan support for more competition between schools has created one of the most highly competitive education systems in the world. Of the 64 countries and cities participating in the PISA tests, only Hong Kong and Singapore have higher levels of competition between schools.
The latest PISA data show that 89 per cent of students in Australia were in schools where the principal reported that their school was competing with two or more schools. In Hong Kong it was 94 per cent and in Singapore 93 per cent.
Despite this high level of competition, Australia's PISA results have declined over the past decade. Reading and mathematics scores fell between 2003 and 2012 by 13 and 19 points respectively, the latter decline equivalent to about half a year's learning.
While private school enrolments in Australia have increased under choice policies, a Melbourne University study published in the journal Economics of Education Review last year shows that the national decline in performance was largely due to falling results in private schools, with falls in both Independent and Catholic schools. It said "the falls in school performance were more apparent in private schools than in the government-run school systems in Australia". Another study published in the same journal found that Catholic school performance has declined in comparison to government schools.
Private school performance declined despite receiving much larger government funding increases than government schools. Government funding per student in private schools adjusted for inflation increased 26 per cent between 1998-99 and 2011-12 compared with 16 per cent for government schools.
Australia now has one of the largest private school sectors in the world, but its school performance is declining.
Government policies to create more competition between school sectors in Australia have completely backfired. Australia now has one of the largest private school sectors in the world, but its school performance is declining.
Funding to promote choice and competition has also increased social segregation between students. Census figures compiled by researcher Barbara Preston show that low income students comprise 42 per cent of all government school enrolments compared with 26 per cent of Catholic school enrolments and 23 per cent of Independent school enrolments. In contrast, high income students comprise 21 per cent of government school enrolments, 34 per cent of Catholic enrolments and 46 per cent of Independent school enrolments.
The failure of market-based policies demands an overhaul of Australian education policy. Resources should be directed to where they are most needed – reducing disadvantage in education rather than supporting privilege. This requires that the Gonski funding plan be fully implemented.
Policy change should also promote greater collaboration between schools. Competition between schools restricts the spread best practice teaching and learning as successful schools want to retain their advantages over competitors. Collaboration between schools offers much better prospects for improving results than more competition as advocated by the federal government and the Opposition.
Trevor Cobbold is the national convenor of Save Our Schools.