The Federal Government’s recent Schools Assistance legislation marks a watershed in the way Australian schools will operate.
As a precondition for $33 billion in Commonwealth funding over the next four years, states, territories and non-government school authorities must publicly provide information about the performance of individual schools. The information to be released by schools to parents and the general community will include:
- Student and staff attendance, and staff retention;
- information on teacher qualifications, and expenditure and teacher participation in professional development activities;
- data on the proportion of Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 students achieving the national benchmarks in reading, writing and numeracy, as well as changes in these results from the previous year;
- information on the extent to which schools facilitate improvement in student academic performance above normal expectations (“value-added” measures);
- average standardised assessment results for Year 9 students;
- average tertiary entrance data for Year 12 students;
- proportion of Year 9 students retained to Year 12;
- information on post-school destinations of students, including university, vocational education, or employment; and
- data on parent, student and teacher satisfaction rates.
After lagging behind on this issue for a number of years, some state and territory governments are also introducing their own reporting standards. For instance, Queensland and New South Wales are to introduce plans to provide school reports that gauge student performance in state-wide tests, with other jurisdictions anticipated to follow over time.
However, despite broad community acceptance, including voters during the 2004 Federal Election, these proposed school performance reporting standards have been met by howls of indignation by various teacher unions, principals’ associations, school sector advocacy bodies, and a number of educationalists. Many of these interest groups have disparagingly labelled the proposals as “league tables” which will rank individual schools from best to worst performers, and have sought to provide critiques as to why standard school reporting frameworks ought not to be introduced. For instance, one of the more colourful criticisms is that publication of reporting standards, which demonstrate relative underperformance by individual schools, will somehow punish, humiliate and demoralise students (the “poor little Johnny” syndrome).
This raises a deeper question as to why these reforms are being introduced in the first place, and why there are negative reactions. Regarding the former it is helpful to recall the statements of Federal Education Minister, Dr Brendan Nelson, who predicated the introduction of the national school reporting model on the basis that “… For too long, parents have been kept in the dark as to how well our schools are performing. Information that is critically important for parents to make meaningful decisions about school choice, to hold schools accountable and to identify underperforming schools, is frequently difficult to obtain or is non-existent.” In the absence of clear, accurate information on the performance of schools, parents are thus left to rely on rough, unreliable rules-of-thumb such as “prestige” and “tradition” when choosing between schools for their children.
In short, the development of schools reporting guidelines is a policy which will strengthen the hand of parents: as the financiers of education; charged with the primary responsibility for educating their children; in ensuring that schools have extra incentive to adopt improvements such as experimenting with different educational approaches; providing quality facilities; and promoting excellence in teaching, in order to maintain and attract students.
Reliable and comparable performance information will encourage the use of “exit” (i.e. moving from one school to another) and “voice” (i.e. informing the school of the need to improve performance standards) mechanisms by education consumers - the parents and their student children.
The promotion of school accountability and responsiveness to the customer base will be of particular benefit for low-income families who have precious few financial and other avenues of recourse in an environment of limited information about school performance. For the first time, low-income parents will be given a real voice to air their concerns about underperforming school providers, based on rigorous information already publicly provided in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom.
Far from being a mechanism to humiliate or punish poorly performing students and schools, consistent schools reporting will provide a greater impetus for the implementation of school improvement strategies by individual schools and governments to ensure the provision of high-quality education.
The only ones who should feel afraid of schools performance reporting standards are those schools that are simply unwilling to improve performance for the benefit of students in a more open, accountable and competitive Australian school sector. After all, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that schools are here for students and their parents, not the other way around.
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