CHRIS BONNOR & BERNIE SHEPHERD. NSW public schools are bursting at the seams – but which ones and why?

Sep 1, 2016


A news report in The SMH August 29th revealed that more than 800 public schools in NSW are operating at 100% of capacity or more. Apparently 180 of these are stretched beyond their limits. The report listed a large number of these schools.

Where are these schools and why are they in high demand? Most are primary schools, usually located in metropolitan areas. There are 118 of these for which full My School data is available. 98 of these are located in metropolitan areas.

The most noticeable feature of these 98 schools is that they already enrol advantaged students. Their average Index of socio-educational advantage (ICSEA) is 1069. This compares with the NSW average for public primary schools which is around 100 lower at 967. It is a big difference.

Why are these schools with advantaged students in such high demand? Are population densities in advantaged areas increasing? This is possible – and perhaps explained by increases in medium and high density residential development in higher value locations close to transport. On the other hand this doesn’t explain similar trends in provincial areas.

The high demand for schools with advantaged students has to be considered alongside what else we know. In Uneven Playing Field we show that across Australia low ICSEA schools are tending to reduce, and high ICSEA schools tending to increase, in size. Shifting SEA distribution within schools suggest that it is movement of higher SEA students up the school social ladder which is driving these changes.

There are increasing reports about student movement and places where schools are growing, for example in northern Sydney. We compared school growth in northern Sydney with changing local numbers of school-age people. In the Hills, Ryde and Hornsby LGAs for example, school enrolments are increasing at a rate greater than the local growth rates in the school-age population. Clearly some of the enrolments are coming from elsewhere.

Further data illustrates this enrolment shift. Using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, Esri Australia has mapped the school market share held by government, Catholic and Independent schools. The trends they reveal are also based on My School data and show, amongst other things, that recent enrolment shifts in Australia’s largest cities are towards government schools in higher SES regions, and towards non-government schools in the lower SES regions.

In combination such information suggests that the movement of students reflects what research also tells us about school choice: that it is based around socio-educational factors and these become a proxy measure of school quality. Parents are seeking assurance by enrolling their children in schools with an advantaged peer group.

What we also demonstrate in Uneven Playing Field is the regressive impact of this flight to higher ICSEA schools on overall student achievement and the capacity of schools to create and sustain social and cultural capital. Essentially the apparent shift to, and strain on, high ICSEA public schools is yet more evidence of the failure of unregulated choice in a marketplace of schools.

Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd are Fellows of the Centre for Policy Development

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