CHRIS BONNOR. Separating scholars in Australia’s schools

The beginning of the school year is a time of excitement and expectation for students and their families: a new year, new friends, and often a new school. It is also exciting for teachers and school principals as they welcome returning and new students. Principals are always keen to know how many students they will have; higher enrolments mean more resources. But they are interested in much more…

The new school year is about much more than student numbers. Principals know improving the quality of teaching and learning is their priority. They also know some students, more than others, help this happen. Students bring to school varying levels of prior learning, family education, networks and know-how. Getting the ‘right’ students forms a hidden agenda in the competition between schools.

It is a very unequal competition: some schools set entry tests or charge fees, while others must take all comers. Families can view the latter with suspicion. Quality matters to parents, and naturally they want the best school for their kids. They may not know that when schools enrolling students with similar backgrounds are compared there is surprisingly little quality difference between those schools.

The real problem is that schools increasingly don’t enrol similar students, which means Australian families and children can have quite a disparate experience of school. Those well placed to do so are walking away from less advantaged schools at an increasing rate.

If we track school-by-school results over a long period of time a story emerges about diverging schools, with widening gaps between those seen to be winners and those judged as losers. It’s having a marked impact on patterns of student achievement across Australia. It’s enough to sober up any dinner table conversation about league tables and what it all means for families, schools, communities and Australia.

New research that shows where high achievers go to school tells the story. Let’s start with the city and the bush. In New South Wales the number of Distinguished Achievers in the HSC has considerably increased in urban schools over the last decade – but has stagnated in rural and regional areas. In Victoria, average VCE scores in regional areas have been in decline for years. In Queensland the major cities are increasingly winners when it comes to high level results.

Rural-urban migration explains some of this, but the distribution of students isn’t changing that much; the bigger change is that the schools losing out have an increasing proportion of the most disadvantaged students. The schools haven’t changed, but who goes to which school certainly has.

The second part of the story is that high achieving students increasingly attend high SES schools — those schools that are ranked higher in terms of socio-economic status — regardless of location and sector. Distinguished Achievers in the HSC are no longer found in lower SES schools in anywhere near the numbers they were a decade ago. The story is similar in Victoria and Queensland.

Cutting across these layers is the third story, the division between government and non-government sectors. Non-government (and selective government schools) have the lion’s share of high-end Year 12 results. That won’t come as any surprise, but again the gaps between these schools and the others are widening – discriminators like entry tests and school fees are producing separate experiences and outcomes for students related to their advantage, location and ability. Unequal opportunities have always existed, but it is simply getting worse.

Surely some schools are still better than others? Indeed some are, particularly those showing significant and sustained improvement. The quality of schools always needs to improve but when so many schools with a similar location, status or sector lose their high achievers there is much more than school quality in play.

This not about blaming parents. It is how the system works. But the system isn’t working for everyone. It is failing to improve overall student achievement. Instead, we are seeing growing clusters of high achieving students attending advantaged schools, and the opposite trend in poorer schools.

We are separating scholars like never before.

A couple of years ago the late Bernie Shepherd and I crunched the data behind the My School website and could only see a school future which included rising inequity and inequality, enrolments shifting to advantaged schools, concentrating disadvantage, a deepening school SES hierarchy, an increasing achievement gap, and increasing costs of failing to tackle disadvantage. The changing distribution of student achievement confirms that we are on target for this unhappy future.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, and author of a new discussion paper, Separating Scholars: how Australia abandons its struggling schools.

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Chris Bonnor is an education researcher and writer.

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