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Numbers all add up for hero schools

<em>Illustration: Simon Bosch</em>

Illustration: Simon Bosch

Sitting in the parliamentary press gallery in Canberra, waiting with the other vultures for Craig Thomson to make his statement to Parliament on May 21, I was surprised by the venom already being directed in the chamber. It had nothing to do with Thomson. Dr Sharman Stone, a Liberal MP, was on her feet blasting away:

''We all know that NAPLAN is a farce - it is not a sensible way to measure your children's increasing knowledge across the nation - but we already have NAPLAN indicating that there is a substantial drop in literacy, numeracy and people being able to interpret literature.''

Stone's loathing of the one-size-fits-all measurements imposed on the nation's schools by the Gillard government was echoed in an open letter signed by 100 academics last month which condemned the NAPLAN tests wholesale:

''As a group we are appalled at the way in which the Commonwealth government has moved to a high stakes testing regime in the form of NAPLAN, despite international evidence that such approaches do not improve children's learning outcomes.''

Farce. Appalled. These are strong terms. Then last week came a report from the Australian National Audit Office which found that the $322 million spent by the government over the past three years to lift national literacy and numeracy standards had barely made a dent.

All this raises the question: is the NAPLAN scheme just another Labor bureaucratic white elephant like the pink batts scheme, the gold-plated school building program and the billion-dollar-a-year asylum-seekers debacle?

The jury is out. Whatever flaws the NAPLAN data may have, it does tell a great deal. It confirms private schools generally outperform non-selective public schools of comparable socio-economic rank. It confirms girls schools outperform boys schools. It confirms that a school's socio-economic catchment area has a huge bearing on school performance.

Everyone already knew that - except for the NSW Teachers Federation, which prefers ideology over reality - but now the figures say it. What those NAPLAN scores and ICSEA (Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage) indexes also reveal - and this is their point - is that the hero schools can rise above their socio-economic limitations and deliver superior academic performance that breaks the iron grip of wealth.

You don't have to be wealthy to get a good education. I've gone through the data and ranked schools by their ICSEA socio-economic scores, then cross-referenced these with their NAPLAN scores rank. I found a dozen schools which rank at least 200 places in NAPLAN results above their socio-economic rank.

Here are those schools, from modest, low socio-economic areas. Half are public and half are private:

1. Pal College Sydney School of Mathematics and Science, Cabramatta (NAPLAN scores rank 161)

2. Taree Christian College (321)

3. Moriah College, Queens Park (87)

4. Sefton High (42)

5. Barellan Central (134)

6. Tempe High (116)

7. Macquarie Fields High (86)

8. Cabramatta High (481)

9. Freeman Catholic College, Bonnyrigg (140)

10. Malek Fahd Islamic, Greenacre (48)

11. James Sheahan Catholic High, Orange (303)

12. St Ursula's College, Kingsgrove (110)

Two schools have the advantage of being partially selective, Sefton High and Tempe High, while two other state schools, Barellan Central and Macquarie Fields High, also partially selective, belong to centre-of-excellence programs. But all draw students from modest socio-economic areas.

Why rate a school like Cabramatta High so highly when it ranks only 481 on the NAPLAN scores? Because it ranks 758 among the 783 high schools in NSW in the ICSEA socio-economic measure. Thus it is a comprehensive school in one of the 30 poorest areas in the state but its scores ranked it 277 places above its socio-economic ranking. This is exceptional.

Another school in Cabramatta did even better, topping my list. Pal College Sydney School of Mathematics and Science is a small private school which, like Cabramatta High, has more than 90 per cent of its students from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Despite a low socio-economic score of 925, Pal College ranked 161 in NAPLAN scores, by my calculation a phenomenal 510 places above its ICSEA socio-economic rank.

Seven of these 12 schools have students who are predominantly from non-English-speaking backgrounds while an eighth, St Ursula's, has a small NESB majority, mainly Chinese. These schools - Pal College, Sefton High, Tempe High, Macquarie Fields High, Cabramatta High, Freeman Catholic, Malek Fahd and St Ursula's - are engine rooms of upward social mobility for immigrant families.

The three schools in regional NSW on this list, Taree Christian, Barellan Central, and James Sheahan Catholic, have almost no students from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

The six private schools, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, would be selected by parents with a heavy investment in their children's education, as would non-denominational Pal College.

Overall, good religious schools deliver the highest economic pay-off in delivering above-average performance. Although state selective schools, being free, are the great bargains of the education system, even they tend to match the high correlation between superior test scores and superior socio-economic ranking.

The sheer diversity of these 12 schools points to common advantage: they must all have high-quality leadership. Thus the move to give greater autonomy for headmasters at state schools, to match that of private schools, should be buttressed by the NAPLAN data because it shows schools can rise above modest circumstances.

The chairman of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, Barry McGaw, says: ''Opponents of NAPLAN would deny parents and students information that sits in a bigger picture than the local school. They would deny the schools the chance to identify others from which they might usefully learn.''

twitter Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU

Correction: The original version of this story did not say that Macquarie Fields High was partially selective.

93 comments

  • Another Monday morning - another news story of yet another ALP Government program where tax-payer money appears to have been wasted.

    Commenter
    Smack
    Location
    City of the Fallen
    Date and time
    June 18, 2012, 8:17AM
    • Another ideological rant by Paul Sheehan. The reality is that both the school building program and the insulation program were largely successful. Yes there were problems with both, as there are with all multi-billion programs, whether in public or private sector, but these were a tiny percentage. Given how rapidly these had to be rolled out it's remarkable there weren't more issues. Not that Paul Sheehan will ever allow the facts to get in the way if his need to make a political point

      Commenter
      Senyai
      Date and time
      June 18, 2012, 9:43AM
    • clearly you didn't read through the whole of the article.......

      Commenter
      djpoh
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 18, 2012, 9:50AM
    • djpoh - I prefer to listen to the findings of the ANAO rather than the government spin if that's all the same to you.

      Commenter
      Smack
      Location
      City of the Fallen
      Date and time
      June 18, 2012, 10:17AM
    • Why not have just one school system.

      Get rid of these private and public systems.

      I don't care what one calls the single system.

      Since most people pay taxes the Federal lot should take on the financing of it.

      My son is a high school teacher and every time I see him I advise him to get out of this occupation. I tell him to find something where his efforts are properly rewarded and his work is appreciated.

      Last weekend he had to mark 50 essays for two 12 year class students which were a test preparing them for the HSC. The teacher of the second class was taken off sick to the hospital.

      To do justice to the students efforts one has to spend considerable time on each essay.

      I didn't know all that much how many hours a good teacher puts in a week but I certainly know now.

      My son said he loves teaching because he can do something for young people to prepare them for the future.

      Most days he works from 8.00 to 5.30pm and then does marking and report writing at home most days of the week.

      He looks after an autistic student in his class which needs special help. Then there are the parents and teacher evenings which usually go beyond 9.00pm.

      At this stage he agreed to look at his position in a few years time to assess whether he should get out. I advised him to do it before he reaches 35 years.

      I told him let all the smart arses and complainers teach their own children . Then they will find out what it involves.

      Commenter
      cacaledonia
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      June 18, 2012, 11:42AM
    • caledonia - Your son is following a noble profession and good on him for believing in it and feeling he is making a difference - especially as he is a male teacher. I simply take issue with the large amounts of tax-payer's money spent on government programs with little oversight or accountability where per the ANAO - years later and nothing positive result for the investment has occurred.

      Commenter
      Smack
      Location
      City of the Fallen
      Date and time
      June 18, 2012, 11:58AM
    • Senyai - "Not that Paul Sheehan will ever allow the facts to get in the way if his need to make a political point" - you claim that but you are guilty of worse. You claim "the reality is that both the school building program and the insulation program were largely successful" - how were they "successful"? What is fact is the government debt has been increased by over $200bn with nothing to show except for loss of lives and over-priced school sheds. Think of how many hospitals and other essential infrastructure could have been built with over $200bn.

      Commenter
      hbloz
      Date and time
      June 18, 2012, 12:51PM
    • Paul save Fairfax a lot of money. Just write your Monday article saying I hate Labor elect Abbott. Whatever, the item you put a spin to support the opposition, never any analysis, just a new spin on the truth. You never talk of the success of the BER or the savings for millions of Australians through the insulation program (jobs, electricity cost and of course to the environment).

      So please save us from reading your bias, just write, LABOR BAD, ABBOTT GOOD

      Commenter
      n720ute
      Location
      North Coast NSW
      Date and time
      June 18, 2012, 1:05PM
    • ... and btw did anyone notice that Paul considers Queens Park to be a "moderate, low socio-economic area". In what universe would you call the Eastern suburbs of Sydney a moderate, low socio-economic area?

      Commenter
      candy
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      June 18, 2012, 1:40PM
  • Ho ho! Paul seems, (I think) to support NAPLAN but does so with a swipe against pink batts, school halls and asylum seekers.

    Does he not appreciate that these are also matters on which the jury is still out?

    Commenter
    Ross
    Location
    MALLABULA
    Date and time
    June 18, 2012, 8:18AM

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