CHRIS BONNOR. Schools punching above their weight – or just punching each other?

Dec 28, 2016

Put your hand up if you are participants in the festive season. No, not that Christmas stuff – I’m talking about the annual festival of the HSC/VCE or whatever. You must have searched to see where your old school, your kids’ or grandkids’ school ranked in the hierarchy. For many people it joins real estate values to sustain endless dinner table conversations.  

Or maybe you didn’t bother. After all, the results – and the media reporting of schools that rise and fall – have been much the same from year to year. In NSW in 2009 it was ‘James Ruse in a class of its own’…again. In 2011 ‘Private schools all but vanquished from top 10 list’. In 2014 it was ‘Boys proving that they are all-rounders too’.

Each report is accompanied by quotes from the principals of the schools which gain honorable mention, putting their performance down to this or that outstanding school practice. For Reddam House this year it is apparently about “the teachers’ relationship with the students”. Nothing is said about Reddam’s changing enrolment profile and that just 1% of its enrolment now comes from the most disadvantaged quarter of the population.

For all schools there are stories about the results that rarely get told – or are told badly. A large portion of the results come, not from what the schools do, but from the families behind every student. I regularly match the top 100 HSC schools against the top 100 ranked by each school’s level of socio-educational advantage. Two-thirds of the schools in the first list are usually in the second. As for public/private differences, these all but vanish when schools enrolling similar students are compared.

But the media coverage is improving. In 2015 and again this year the Sydney Morning Herald matched HSC results against each school’s level of socio-educational advantage. The latter is published each year on the My School website. Last year’s SMH headline was ‘The real star performers of this year’s HSC’. The new hero schools were not the top 100 but those that were ‘punching above their weight’ – scoring results that defied their relatively low level of socio-educational advantage. Politicians especially just love these schools and quickly follow up with the narrative about how any school can do this and (by implication) it isn’t about money.

In 2015 it was schools like Narrandera High, Coonabarabran, Canley Vale, Canterbury Girls and Strathfield Girls, Moriah College, Loreto and more. The apparent laggards on the other hand included St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney Grammar, Mosman High and Hunters Hill High. All these schools feature on the better, or the worse, side of a trendline of the Herald’s scatter graph. You too can find where your school lies.

In 2016 the SMH reported on how Sydney was divided by an education ‘latte line’ – with the high achievers on the north-east (more affluent) side of Sydney and the low achievers on the south-west (less affluent) side. But again some schools emerged as performing above their level of socio-educational advantage and others below. The performers included a clutch of schools in the Liverpool area and Malek Fahd Islamic school. Those apparently underachieving included a swag of both public and private schools.

But there is a problem. The ICSEA index on the My School website is very useful for comparing large groups of schools (e.g. by location or sector) but it far less reliable as a tool to use to compare – and jump to conclusions about – individual schools. Malek Fahd, a school that (in the words of the SMH report) “defied it’s postcode” illustrates the problem.

The information about the school, provided by the school, suggests an ordinary school doing extraordinary things. So is it punching above its weight? Unlikely: the students enrolled in Year 7 each year are chosen “based on an interview, academic and behaviour reports as well as results of a selective exam undertaken in the year previous to enrolment”. What isn’t reported is that it is effectively a selective school, enrolling higher achieving students who would otherwise enrol in other schools. It is highly likely that the staff do a wonderful job – but like all selective schools, regardless of sector (and there are many more than we think), it is punching other schools as much as punching ‘above its own weight’.

To some extent enrolment selectivity is reflected in each school’s ICSEA value, but not to the extent needed for accurate comparisons. It might surprise some, but bright kids can come from low SES families! And my research with Bernie Shepherd certainly shows a drift of students from low SEA to higher SEA schools, compounding the advantage of the latter, in ways not well known or measured.

School principals in the higher schools know the bonus in school results created by combinations of higher expectations, curriculum rigour, resources and stronger social and cultural capital created by the sought-after students. These schools don’t have to punch above their weight, the weight just shifts to benefit them in ways insufficiently measured by My School.   

My School is imprecise in other ways. It doesn’t take into account the gender balance in each school’s enrolment. NAPLAN scores show a small but measurable lift for girls. Girls’ schools seem to be prominent among the HSC ‘punchers’. Nor does the website seriously attempt to take into account the compounded advantage for schools which manage to harvest aspirant and advantaged students. Finally, while the ICSEA values of Liverpool area schools are relatively low, they do enrol, as one school principal acknowledged, students from a very aspirational local community.

Schools know about the glow which can be cast by measures such as the HSC and VCE, and by inference, ATAR. It is hardly surprising that some schools stop at little to maximise their scores. Their reputation and future viability can be at stake. The competition is especially vicious at the high ICSEA end. Funny, despite all the claims about the benefits of such competition the outcomes for Australia of this competition include, by international measures, very ordinary levels of achievement.

The other thing the media needs to come to grips with is the reality that some schools are edging away from the HSC/VCE as the ultimate game. Some of the above mentioned schools are strongly into social justice initiatives. Many students are sitting for the International Baccalaureate. Some universities are also very receptive to portfolio entry for students. We can anticipate more moves in this direction. What will this do to the massive investment in the HSC/VCE/ATAR arms race? Can’t wait!

None of this should get in the way of celebrating the authentic achievements of students, teachers and schools. It’s just that we may not be at all throwing the accolades at those who deserve them most. We should certainly find out more about how, how much and where schools are ‘punching’. And that means going well beyond the headline stories at the time of the HSC/VCE festival.

If we can’t be too confident about the big punching schools now it is even going to get harder in the future. In the meantime the media, politicians and the rest of us need to develop a far more rounded view of what constitutes school achievement. Maybe we could go back to the beginning and revisit why we have schools, who they should serve and how do we really know whether or not they are succeeding for students, for families and for the nation.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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