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Competition between schools

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 11 September 2014

The recent OECD PISA In Focus report titled ‘When is competition between schools beneficial?’ is being used as evidence to criticise Australia’s so-called market driven policies in school education represented by state and Commonwealth governments promoting autonomy and choice.

Trevor Cobbold, for example, in a comment piece published in the SMH September 3rd describes the OECD report as a “damning verdict on education policies that promote competition between schools” and uses it as evidence to conclude market-based policies have failed to raise standards.

It’s true that the PISA In Focus report states “Across countries and economies, performance is unrelated to whether or not schools have to compete” but, relying on one study to reach such a conclusion ignores other studies that prove the opposite.


School choice advocates like Ludger Woessmann, Eric Hanushek, Patrick Wolfe and Caroline Hoxby argue that a more market-driven approach involving competition between schools, plus other factors such as vouchers, school autonomy and external examinations, leads to stronger outcomes.

Based on the assumption that the existence of non-government schools facilitate school choice and, thus, competition between schools Woessmann and Hanushek conclude “students in countries with privately managed educational institutions scored significantly higher in both mathematics and science”.

In the OECD Working Paper No 15, also involving Woessmann, the argument is put that governments supporting school choice by properly funding non-government schools is also beneficial.

The paper notes, “In short, a level playing field between public and private schools in terms of government funding seems to create an environment of choice and competition that raises student achievement”.

As noted by the US researcher Patrick Wolfe, the benefits of school choice are also proven by the Milwaukee school voucher and charter school programmes where students in such schools outperform public school students in reading and gaining entry to college.

Instead of increasing disadvantage and leading to greater inequity in education it is also true that many of the voucher and school charter programs in places like Washington DC, Florida and Milwaukee successfully serve disadvantaged communities.


Contrary to the argument that school choice, represented by the presence of Catholic and independent schools, leads to nearby government schools underperforming both Ludger Woessmann and Caroline Hoxby argue that a more market-driven approach represents a tide that will lift all boats.

Balwyn High School in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, where non-government schools predominate, provides a good example.  The pressure of losing enrolments to nearby high performing non-government schools is proving a powerful incentive for Balwyn High to achieve equally as good, if not stronger, academic results.

Trevor Cobbold’s statement that “Bipartisan support for more competition between schools has created one of the most highly competitive education systems in the world” is also open to question.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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