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School league tables don't tell parents what they need to know

By Morag Fraser - posted Tuesday, 12 November 2002

Fires in Sydney. Flooding rain in Melbourne. Apocalypse now. It must be time for VCE results.

And when they come, they will issue in another row about who should know what about how well schools have fared in the VCE exams.

Yes, that was schools I wrote, not individual students. The League Tables, as they are becoming known, when they are published, will have the effect of ranking Victoria’s schools. A pecking order. The median VCE study scores for each school and the percentage who pass and the proportion of high performing students will all become public information.


Then, so the reasoning goes, parents will know what they have a right to know. The system will, in the jargon, have shown itself to be ‘accountable’. Parents will have the data they need to enable them to make the much-vaunted ‘choice’.

So if your Emma or Simon or Brent or Kylie hasn’t scored top-notch marks and doesn’t look likely to get into Law/Commerce at Melbourne then you might, on the basis of the published information, start thinking seriously about shifting the younger sister/brother out of the school that didn’t deliver the goods.

And if you are a kid from a school that looks a bit dire on the League Tables then you might revise your glee at having done better than expected (as many solid toilers do). You just might turn all glum because your school suddenly looks like a loser. Nothing takes the shine off modest achievement more quickly than being made to look bad by comparison.

This issue of access to comparative information is clearly very contentious. One can understand that parents want to know enough to make sound decisions about their children’s education. It is also easy to understand why politicians, and education ministers in particular, should want to give the voting public what they have been encouraged to demand—access to comparative information. The education rhetoric at a federal—and to a lesser extent state—level has been intense for years now. Schools (and teachers particularly) need to be kept up to the mark. Outcomes are what we need. Everything should be scrutable, testable and deliverable in graphs. Measure. Assess. Compete. Compare. And assess again. And parents, use all this data to judge which is the optimal environment for maximal education advantage. Then choose.

No wonder we are being encouraged to believe that publishing the VCE data will make things clearer, better and more open.

But will it?


Does anyone believe for a second that all Victorian schools function on that flat surface beloved of economists—the level playing field? And if they do not, how then do we read the VCE League Table data seriously and profitably? Does anyone seriously contend that the majority of parents will be sufficiently across the very complex stats to make informed decisions on the basis of what they read?

What account will the published material take of the fine grain of circumstances in which children are educated—including their language abilities, the support their parents can afford to give them, their home environment (books on the shelves, a quiet room, Internet access—or none of these).

And what about equity? Some parents will be in a position to exercise choice on the basis of the information. They may well be able to shift their children to more ‘successful’ schools. But other parents will not. And, at a policy level, what happens if school enrolments become so volatile as to be unmanageable? How much mobility is desirable? Why not improve all schools instead of making a fetish of competition?

League Tables are only a symptom of something fundamentally wrong in our thinking about schooling at the moment. Behind League Tables lies a notion, or model, of education as an individual good that can be accessed or purchased. The dynamic of education—the rich two-way exchange between learner and teacher—is ignored in this model. So are other subtle interconnections—between parents and school, between school and neighbourhood, between generations of students. Loyalty is ignored. So is trust.

In practice, most teachers, students and parents, if they are honest, understand this dynamic and they value the trust upon which it is built. But it is disturbing when policy rhetoric and practice do not jig with our deepest educational experience. And it is even more disturbing when teachers are so little valued that the public now feel entitled to inspect them and their work as though they were mere units in a production line deserving of little more than a routine quality control check.

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This article was first published in The Age on 7 December 2002.

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About the Author

Morag Fraser is a former editor of Eureka Street. She is currently Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, and writes for a diverse range of magazines and newspapers.

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