<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.''

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