High school classroom.

High school classroom. Photo: Virginia Star

The latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment appear to show that Canberra continues to lead the nation in education. Beyond the averages, however, the PISA report shows that there is a significant connection between socio-economic status and student outcomes, and that the ACT's position at the head of the country is largely a result of Canberra also having the highest average and least spread SES in the country.

But what of the Canberra students who don't fit the Canberra profile? If the character of a society is best judged by how it treats its least well off, then we need to be asking how the ACT education system is serving the most disadvantaged. A close examination of the PISA report shows that the ACT quickly falls to near the bottom of the nation when it comes to equity in education with only the Northern Territory showing a greater connection between SES background and PISA achievement. Disparity in the ACT is masked by the higher average SES of ACT students and the absence of a ''long tail''. Especially striking is that the ACT has the biggest in-school variation linked to student SES of any Australian jurisdiction. There may not be much difference between schools, but within them students are performing very differently based on their SES background.

Another striking feature of the ACT results is that students in average SES schools are not achieving as strongly as students in schools of similar SES in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia.

The ACT has more students with high SES and relies on those students for the high average score in PISA. On the other hand, ACT students from average and low SES backgrounds do not achieve as well as students from similar backgrounds in most other states. It could be suggested that Canberra schools are reproducing social gradients rather than reducing them. So what is happening?

In contrast to the Northern Territory, the connection between SES and PISA achievement happens within schools rather than between them, and this may be a strong indication of the problem.

Canberra's planning has ensured that there are no suburbs or areas of high disadvantage. This results in most schools having very small numbers of highly disadvantaged students rather than disadvantage being concentrated in just a few schools. This outcome is measurable and evident in the ICSEA scale of educational disadvantage reported on the My Schools website. In a school where 490 students come from a similar background, it may be easy to lose sight of the 10 who are different. This appeared to be the case in some recent research we conducted into indigenous student literacy levels in ACT high schools. In the schools within the study the enrolment of indigenous students in individual schools was too low to show a statistically valid difference between the performance of indigenous and non-indigenous students in the school, and the school leaderships were sure there was no performance difference. When we grouped the data together, however, it was clear that there was a difference in reading ability equivalent to two to three years of learning, and that the ACT is the only jurisdiction in Australia where the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students actually widens in high school.

The ACT can take pride in its high levels of educational achievement. However, if a judgment of our education system is to be based on how it serves the least well off, then we still have work to do. As a recent project looking at the history of the ACT education authority (centenary.estem-uc.edu.au) has reminded us, a generation ago the parents and teachers of Canberra worked together to create a separate education system. It was based on the principle that each school is unique and that teachers need to be empowered to meet the particular needs of all students in each school. In that era the ACT didn't want a system dominated by a one-size-fits-all approach.

In contrast, today's focus on our comparative ''average'' rank in national and international testing encourages teachers to teach to the middle. The results of PISA serve as reminder that we live in an increasingly diverse community.

Let's start next year mindful of the founding principles of the territory's education system and thinking of the students who don't fit the Canberra profile. Let's set our own standards on what is right, just and fair. What would our schooling look like then?

  • Philip Roberts and Dr Simon Leonard are researchers in curriculum and educational systems and policy at the University of Canberra.