Is NSW education in for big changes? Let’s hope so

May 11, 2023
NSW Education Minister Prue Car speaks during question time at NSW Parliament in Sydney, Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts) NO ARCHIVING

With the NSW election behind us the media is mulling over what Labor has in store for the premier state. The Sydney Morning Herald recently unpacked the agenda of education minister Prue Car. There is much to cheer about, but will she deal with deep-seated problems?

The cheers are well deserved. After a promising start, the Coalition had lapsed back into the resonating but useless school reforms straight out of the Tory playbook. As well-described by John Frew, the bureaucrats running the show increasingly came loaded with tertiary management qualifications, but little in the way of school experience.

For the system and its schools this meant that excess supervision and stress increasingly replaced trust and support. Even highly respected principals fell foul of the system – many never to return, and few wanting to take their place. At the classroom end, teachers are in short supply, with little evidence that the best among their students would ever want to join their ranks.

Prue Car seems focused on ending all that and more. She has sacked the education secretary, replaced in the interim by an effective and respected school system leader. Hopefully some of the business college graduates further down the food chain might take a quiet walk. She plans to reduce the administration workload of teachers and will be reviewing policies on student behaviour, school reports, and more. She has made positive noises about teacher salaries and teacher supply.

One firm commitment she has made is to bring NSW public schools to 100% of the School Resourcing Standard. That’s fine, as long as the funding is for schools, and not for other costs that are only loosely related to schools – as is currently the case.

But there is a related problem that needs an early and structural fix. Currently the Commonwealth contributes 80% of the public funding going to private schools, and the states contribute 80% of public school costs. Hence there is a perverse incentive for state governments to support the establishment of private schools. Once set up, the running costs are met by the Commonwealth and parents, rather than by the states.

The Australian taxpayer doesn’t save by funding private schools but the state treasuries certainly save if someone else builds and runs them. This might help explain the expansion of ‘low fee’ private schools on the fringes of our cities. In speaking to the Herald’s Lucy Carroll, Prue Car observed: “Where I grew up [in western Sydney] governments haven’t built enough schools”. To solve this problem the new minister might have to do battle on the national stage, and maybe even with the NSW treasurer.

Structural change is needed on another front. Prue Car has prioritised turning around academic performance. This is usually pitched as a school quality challenge, but there are many layers. The reality is that high achievers still exist, but they have progressively shifted from comprehensive schools (mainly but not only in the public sector) to high SES and selective schools.

This trend presents a formidable challenge. In the 2006 HSC, high achievers in NSW public schools were spread 45% in low, and 55% in high SES schools. The spread is now 28:72. The achievers have scrambled up the SES ladder and have taken their high scores with them.

Schools at the lower SES end have dramatically changed. Not only have they lost their high achievers, in the process they have accumulated many more strugglers, far more than is the case in other states. NSW enrols 30% of Australia’s school students, but accounts for almost half of all Australian students in schools with high and increased concentrations of disadvantage. It is almost as if NSW decided to assign its strugglers to the schools least equipped to support them. By any standards this is beyond shameful!

It would be easy to blame all this on families and the mechanisms of school choice. But one in every ten NSW secondary public schools is now a selective school, and they account for just over half of the HSC distinguished achievers (DAs) in NSW public schools. Additional schools in the pipeline will take this closer to 60%.

It isn’t hard to join the dots between this trend and the crowding of low achievers in other schools. The latter are almost literally in ‘a class of their own’ peers, with all that means for their learning outcomes. To rely on endless within-school reform within such schools to restore their achievement profile, without addressing wider structural issues and peer effects, borders on futility. It is a structural problem and needs a structural solution.

The solution might not be as elusive as often assumed. The Coalition had proposed, and Labor has accepted, the establishment of two and possibly three new selective schools in western Sydney.

But there is no reason why they have to be stand-alone bricks and mortar places. And they shouldn’t be anchored to a selection process which has arguably over-catered for high test achievers without reaching all gifted and high potential students. There are other modes of operation, learning designs and platforms which could enhance the effectiveness of the new schools … without diminishing opportunities for those not selected.

In taking on challenges, new education ministers often go for the usual low hanging fruit in school reform. Prue Car seems made of sterner stuff. She should be cheered on, but she will need to go much further and deeper if the cheering is to become sustained applause.


Chris Bonnor is co-author, with Tom Greenwell, of Choice and Fairness: A Common Framework for all Australian schools, Koshland Innovation Fund, 2023.

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