Australian education stands up well in some important international comparisons. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD) assessments of the performances of 15-year-olds, Australia tied with five others in 2nd place (behind Finland) in reading; tied in 6th place with four others (behind Finland, South Korea, the Netherlands, Japan and Canada) in mathematics; and tied in 4th place with three others (behind South Korea, Finland and Japan) for problem solving.
While our average performance levels are high, Australian education is much less equitable than are the education systems in many other OECD countries. Differences in students’ social backgrounds are more strongly related to differences in students’ educational achievements in Australia than in countries such as Canada, Finland and South Korea. Disadvantaged Australian 15-year-olds are around 1 ½ years of schooling behind similarly disadvantaged Finnish 15-year-olds (though 1 ½ years ahead of their German counterparts, if that’s any comfort).
This effect is also evident in school differences in Australia. In the Scandinavian countries, there is very little difference between schools in average performance. There are, therefore, not ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools between which parents must choose. In countries like Germany, Austria, Belgium and Hungary, there are very large differences between schools but they are there by design by the time students are 15. (Several years earlier, those education systems have sorted students into schools of different types academic and vocational. They expect the schools to be different.)
Australia maintains a comprehensive curriculum up to age 15; it does not formally sort students into schools of different types for different curricula. Yet there are much bigger differences between Australian schools in student performances than there are in the Scandinavian countries. Moreover, 70 per cent of the variation between Australian schools can be accounted for in terms of differences in the social backgrounds of the students. In Canada, it is less than 50 per cent. In Finland, it is just over 20 per cent.
We do not know how much of this impact of social background on educational achievement in Australia plays out through the differences between public and private schools, because the information on type of school is suppressed in the Australian data submitted to the OECD on the basis that schools randomly selected and invited to join the survey were promised that no comparisons would be made between sectors. We can say, however, that in all other countries all the differences between schools in performance can be explained in terms of students’ social backgrounds. That is, the differences are due to whom the schools enrol, not what they do.
The influence of social background on school differences is somewhat complex. Some of it is due to the social backgrounds of individual students (around 60 per cent in Australia) and some is due to the average social background of students in schools (around 40 per cent in Australia). That is, some of it is due to who the students are individually and some of it is due to the company they keep.
On the face of it, that would seem to justify the common intuition that it is worth seeking good company educationally. Further OECD analyses in Austria and Switzerland, however, have shown that not to be the case. Good company confers little educational advantage on socially advantaged students; poor company confers a large additional educational disadvantage on already socially disadvantaged students.
Sorting students into relatively homogeneous social groups in schools will not raise the performance of socially advantaged students but it will depress the performances of socially disadvantaged students and so lower the overall average performance as well.
Poland has abandoned early selection into schools of different types and adopted a comprehensive school system. Polish 15-year-olds in the 2000 OECD data collection were in selective schools; while Polish 15-year-olds in the 2003 OECD data collection were in the new comprehensive schools. Poland was the only OECD country to have improved on all measures of student performance between 2000 and 2003 and it did so by improving the performance of its poorer performers. It did not lower the performance of its higher performers. It did not ‘dumb down,’ it ‘levelled up.’
Australia is going in the opposite direction, encouraging social selectivity in its school system with a growing drift even a flight from public schools into private schools for those who can afford it. It is facilitating that move with substantial public funding on the argument of fiscal equity that taxes should follow the personal choices of taxpayers not wanting to use public services.
Australia is also making its education system more dependent on private financing. Australia ranks 18th in the OECD in spending 5.8 per cent of our GDP on education well behind Iceland (8 per cent), South Korea (7.5 per cent), and New Zealand and the US (7 per cent).
Australia ‘s 5.8 per cent is made up of 4.3 per cent from public funding and 1.5 per cent from private funds. Only South Korea at 2.9 per cent and the US at 2.1 per cent contribute more from private funds. So, Australia is 18th in the OECD in overall expenditure on education, as a proportion of GDP, but 3rd in expenditure from private sources.
We say that we want schools to teach values. We indicate in surveys that a ‘fair go’ is high on our national list of values. But, we are building an education system that denies a fair go to many. We are building a school system that predominantly reproduces existing social arrangements. And we are now compounding that by giving access to university to students who fail to make the cut on Year 12 results but who can afford to buy a place. We nod in the direction of equity with Fee Help to cover the costs of full-fee university places but do not provide enough to cover the full costs of fees for many courses.
This can all sound like a counsel of despair with the only solution a return to a fully public system of education (not that we ever had one). But, in any case, this option is now unavailable because too much has changed in the last 40 years since the commencement of public funding for private schools. Australia is a wealthier country. Many families can afford choices that they could not have in earlier years. Spending on education in the expectation (or hope) of buying positional advantage for their children seems a noble thing to do. Having committed to such substantial expenditure, few are likely to doubt the wisdom of their choice and there is, in any case, little systematic evidence collected with which they might test it.
Instead of seeking to obliterate differences between public and private schools by reducing the private sector, it might be more productive now to seek new forms of collaboration between them. In Golden Grove in northwest Adelaide, there is a single secondary school site accommodating three schools: government, Catholic, and joint Anglican-Uniting. They share a common library and common senior science laboratories. They timetable their foreign language classes at the same time and offer, together, more choices than any one of them could alone. For these classes, students from each school move to the school offering the language they want to study.
All the primary school sites in Golden Grove similarly accommodate co-located public and private schools. On one site, even the staff room is shared.
The Golden Grove experiment is now more than 15 years old. Ot
hers have followed. A striking consequence is that the public schools working in these arrangements are in demand unlike the public schools in the surrounding region.
This kind of arrangement has been restricted mostly to new developments on green-fields sites but, with several States about to invest heavily in redevelopment and consolidation of existing public school sites, it’s fair to ask what other possibilities could we imagine than simply replacing them with the current version?
Disclosure: Golden Grove was a Delfin Lend Lease development. Since returning to Australia at the end of 2005 after seven years at the OECD, I have been working three to four days a month with Delfin Lend Lease on the further development of the education services model that it uses in its property development projects.