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
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
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
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.