ACT's education spend needs a greater dividend
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ACT's education spend needs a greater dividend

Canberra parents would be justified in looking at the performance of the city's education system and wondering whether they were getting value for money.

Several alarm bells have sounded in the past two years raising questions about the state of the ACT's schools, public and private, and how far the territory government's spend is going in lifting performance.

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Photo: The Canberra Times

Some of the questions are pointed at the very model the government uses to administer schooling in Canberra, while others reach to finer but important details like teaching practices.

The latest in-depth look into the ACT's school results confirms a problem articulated by auditor-general Maxine Cooper last year and evident after recent NAPLAN tests.

Canberra's students are underperforming, considering the amount of government spending on schools, lagging others of comparable wealth interstate.

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For a territory with the advantages the ACT has, it is a disappointing state of affairs and one that requires more urgency on the government's part in resolving.

The Australian National University study of national test results, published on Monday, should sharpen the ACT's thinking about the systemic underperformance it found across all socio-economic groups in examining five years of NAPLAN results.

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There were "an alarming number" of Canberra schools "where the students were, on average, more than six months behind the levels of learning of students in other comparable schools".

Looking at public high-school students' maths and writing skills, results lagged those of students in similar Australian schools by eight to 12 months' worth of learning.

Consider the amount of cash the ACT pours into schools and the problem appears more vexed. The territory government's expenditure on public school students is proportionally among the highest in Australia with recurrent expenditure per student of $20,532 in 2014-15, compared with the Australian average of $16,670.

While such problems shouldn't be reduced simply to a matter of test result per dollar spent, this disappointing dividend for the ACT's education spending points to a system that isn't achieving as it should.

Those looking for the causes behind Canberra's underperformance in education point to several possible problems: the level of academic expectations, how teachers operate in the ACT, and the amount of autonomy the government gives schools.

The fact is, the ACT is not clear on what is responsible for these findings. As one of the ANU study's authors points out, the territory needs to set about diagnosing the problem. A public inquiry into the ACT's school results would be a good start.

So far, the government has tended unfortunately to bat away criticism and lay blame elsewhere. Education Minister Yvette Berry has explained the lacklustre results revealed by the ANU research by saying other states and territories were catching up. Such comments sound like excuses and suggest the government isn't willing to admit the problem may be internal.

Attacking the MySchool website is another distracting blame game with the potential to slow improvement in Canberra's education system. Any changes to how results are reported should not stop parents from accessing them and comparing schools.

That would be to hide the sort of problems the ANU study has helped expose for the ACT.