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The Myth of School Choice: Government support for Independent Schools and Standardised Tests

In March 2016 the Grattan Institute released another report on school education in Australia. Pete Goss and Julie Sonnemann write, in “Widening gaps: what NAPLAN tells us about student progress” published 21 March 2016, “Learning gaps between Australian students of different backgrounds are alarmingly wide and grow wider as students move through school.”


The NAPLAN tests are intended to be taken by every school student in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in May each year. The test were introduced in the early years of the Rudd-Gillard Government and the first were administered in 2008. The website tells us, “NAPLAN tests identify whether all students have the literacy and numeracy skills that provide the critical foundation for their learning, and for their productive and rewarding participation in the community. Students are assessed using common national tests in reading, writing, language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation) and numeracy. (Further comments on standardised tests and NAPLAN are at the end of this essay.)


Goss and Sonnemann have introduced a new time-based measure, ‘years of progress’, which they say, “makes it easier to compare groups of students. Rather than saying that a group of Year 5 students scored 540 in NAPLAN, we can say they achieved two years ahead of their peers. The new measure captures in plain language the rates at which students are progressing at different stages of their learning.”

The Grattan Report finds that “in a typical year 9 class typical Year 9 class, the top students can be more than seven years ahead of the bottom students …”

The administrators of NAPLAN cop criticism for setting minimum standards “way too low to identify the stragglers. A Year 9 student meets the minimum standard even if they are reading below the level of a typical Year 5 student.”

Goss and Sonnemann recommend policymakers take on board three changes:

There are several very important issues here.

First, the tests in reading and numeracy are equated with learning. As others have observed, skills in these areas are only part of learning, notwithstanding that they capture an important component of learning generally, something writer and advisor/consultant Dean Ashenden pointed out in reviewing arguments about PISA. The assumption is that without skills in these areas achievement in other areas will be poorer. And that is asserted to have consequences for individuals in later life, especially in getting a job and contributing to the economy. Standardised testing is a feature of the demand for accountability and is therefore linked to a neoclassical economic view of life.

Secondly, as is pointed out later in this essay, tests identify social and economic disadvantage.

Thirdly, and importantly, “bright kids in disadvantaged schools show the biggest losses”. This is perhaps the most important issue. We need to keep in mind that the overall average achievement is lowered by the number and range of low performances (as well as the number and range of higher performances). Improving the achievement of those who already achieve at a high level is a great deal more difficult than it is for poor performers. As Daniel Kahneman once pointed out consistent high performance is hard to achieve: luck contributes significantly to the variation. Foolishly, much more resources are devoted to already high performing students than to low performers!

Laura Perry and Andrew McConney of Murdoch University in their study of SES data and PISA results showed that achievement levels were affected by the average SES level of the students in the class.

All of this is extremely important for policy and has implications for the entire testing regime. The results of NAPLAN for each school are posted on the internet every year, together with data about financial resources and socioeconomic background of the school’s students. When NAPLAN was introduced Gillard and Rudd emphasised strongly that ranking schools – constructing league tables – was not to be a feature of the program. The aim was to give parents information to help them choose the school which most suited their child, they said.

But is that how parents have used the information? And is that how the media have ended up treating the results? No. And no!

Despite the fact that identifying best performing schools simply on the basis of students’ test scores is more than highly problematic, parents have made a simple choice. Though not always in possession of considered and well analysed information, they have where possible tried to have their child enrolled in the school with high NAPLAN scores and which have a reputation for attention to other issues they consider critical. And if they have had to change where they live to make it easier they have done so if they could afford it. Of course there have been implications for housing affordability in some suburbs as demand affects price. Understanding what research in behavioural economics reveals would have told policymakers that this is how parents would behave, had they inquired.

Some media have made a point of publishing the results in league tables without any apparent understanding of the myriad factors which contribute to educational achievement. This also is what would have been expected. The ideologues in politics and the media, and the community generally, have no particular respect for what politicians in government say. The result has been well-resourced independent schools with a relatively homogeneous enrolment of advantaged students and, with the exception of specialised schools, relatively poorly resourced public schools with substantially greater diversity ethnically, socially and economically. (That also means that students attending independent schools emerge with less understanding of the community’s diversity. After all the enrolment is of kids who think alike though with increasing participation of Asian students they are less likely to look alike.)

In the minds of many parents who are better off financially, public schools aren’t as good as independent or private schools. And private schools have done their best to capitalise on that. The Howard Government made support of non-government schools a major feature of schools policy. The result has been disproportionate growth in funding of public schools, which must accept every student who seeks to enrol, and others who can chose who they want. Independent schools have benefited by extra facilities and higher paid teachers.

The result has been an extraordinary waste of money: study after study after study has shown that, after allowing for differences in socioeconomic background, students at independent schools do not do any better educationally than others. Unsurprisingly, independent schools, including Catholic schools, deny this wherever they can.

So the schools policies throughout Australia are severely distorted. The entire basis of the policy is conflicted on ideological grounds with little regard to research studies which are of a quality as high as in any discipline.

But have parents wasted their money after all? Often children from advantaged backgrounds find themselves more likely to gain jobs with higher wages because firm recruitment favours students from particular schools and universities. That is why one group of economists cautioned against linking test scores to teacher performance: the link between test scores and employment is problematic or worse![1]

Similarly, the continuing biased selection by the more prestigious universities of students from certain schools has recently been highlighted by Simon Marginson of University College London in an outstanding keynote presentation to the 50th Anniversary Colloquium of the Society for Research into Higher Education on 26 June 2015 (The Landscape of Higher Education Research 1965-2015 Equality of Opportunity: The first fifty years)  and by Andrew Delbanco, in respect of the United States in Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality in the New York Review Of Books for July 9 2015.

The substantial increased support for private schools by the Howard Government has also affected the expenditure levels of the Gonski proposals since it was made clear that no school should expect to get less money as a result of any change in total funding.


What My School really says about schools. And parents exercising choice

The evidence from the Grattan study joins yet another study showing a very disturbing trend in school demographics. A report released at the end of March 2016, summarized by Trevor Cobbold on the SOS site, finds “a significant drift in enrolments from disadvantaged to advantaged schools, with experts warning Australia is heading towards a two-tiered education system”.

Chris Bonner and Bernie Shepherd, former school principals and commentators on school education policy, were commissioned by the Centre for Policy Development. Their report, School Daze: What My School really says about our schools, finds that “between 2011 and 2015, enrolments in disadvantaged government schools dropped by 7,500 students nationwide. During the same period, enrolments in advantaged government schools increased by 22,000 students, enrolments in advantaged Catholic schools increased by 13,000 students and advantaged independent schools increased by 10,000 students.” Their previous research had shown this.

The ABC TV program Lateline headlined, “Concentrated disadvantage: Study finds parents rushing to enrol kids in high-performing schools”. Lateline presenter Emma Alberici on 23 March sought comment from NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli on the proposition that disadvantaged students and schools would get left behind. Piccoli has committed to fully implement the last two years of the ‘National Plan for School Improvement’ as agreed with the Gillard-Rudd Government. Unsurprisingly, although Alberici provided plenty of opportunity to disagree with the policies of his federal colleague, Education Minister Senator Simon Birmingham, Piccoli demurred. He said he didn’t object to the tests asserting that they provide useful information to teachers and parents. He declined to lobby Birmingham to abandon school league tables, pointing out that the problem was the misuse and misinterpretation of the data. (In truth Birmingham doesn’t distribute league tables.) Piccoli did point to limitations in comparing schools distant from one another to which Alberici correctly responded that parents were making the choice between schools in the same area.

Alberici accurately referred to the arguments by Birmingham and the Commonwealth government about a multiplicity of agreements with the states and the refusal to fund the last two years of the Gonski proposals (as contained in the National Plan for School Improvement). Piccoli said he continued to lobby for restoration of the funding. He went on to emphasise the increase in professional development and in mentoring. He depicted the failure to fund “Gonski” as a lost opportunity.

The research published last year by Hong Son Nghiem of the University of Queensland and colleagues[2] was, one would have thought, sufficient to close the matter, not least because of the substantial data set and the sophisticated statistics: it isn’t so much that private schools don’t deliver any gain, it is that what matters is the parents and the home environment and the relationships between child and parent in the early years.

Yet advocates of independent schools continue their propaganda that public schools are overrun by unions, bureaucratised, lack a commitment to high standards and that it would all be fixed by ensuring teachers are excellent and principals have administrative control of their schools.

The study of the effectiveness of private schooling in Australia by researchers from the University of Queensland, Curtin University and the University of Southern Queensland, led by Hong Son Nghiem is extremely important. It is also the largest study of its kind yet undertaken. The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children to assess cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes.

The data comprised four waves of Australian primary school-aged children born since March 1999, in total more than 4,000. Researchers used results from NAPLAN tests in years 3 and 5, a Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (which measures language capabilities) and a matrix reasoning test that measures non-verbal outcomes for children by asking them to match pictures to incomplete sets. Data on birthweight, variations on IQ tests, parents’ education and work habits and the availability of resources such as books in the home were analysed.

Hong and colleagues say, “Using cognitive test scores and SDQ behaviour measures, we found that independent schooling did not confer any significant advantage on students, while the cognitive outcomes for students in Catholic schools were worse than those for students in public schools (when controlled for other variables).”

Reading test scores for students of independent schools were higher. But the significant difference disappeared when a comprehensive set of controls were applied to mitigate against the selection that independent schools use to make decisions about enrolment. Mean scores were lower for all children who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in Year three, although there was marked improvement by Year five testing.

Some clear factors that had an influence were identified in the study. Those factors were extraneous to school! Children with a birth weight of less than 2.5kg achieved significantly lower test scores, especially in grammar and numeracy. And children’s test scores decreased as mothers’ work hours increased, but the working hours of the father were found to have no statistically significant impact. Children of parents who had both completed Year 12 had significantly higher test scores on all subjects. The residential neighbourhood and its characteristics such as household income were also found to be important.

“One of the strongest predictors of a child’s success is their level of development at preschool. What the data suggests is that because they haven’t been exposed to schooling yet, whatever skills that have been developed due to nature or nurture are really influential.”

The results supported findings from other international studies in the US and Britain that the returns from attending independent primary schools are no different from those of attending public school. “The findings of these studies send a simple message for parents who send their children to private schools. If you think you are getting some advantage in education outcomes from sending your child to a private school rather than a government school, think again”.

As one media report of the study said, “So no matter what classroom your child finds themselves in, what is the key to statistical success? Hope that they weigh more than 2.5 kilograms when they are born into a wealthy neighbourhood where the majority of people have finished high school and everyone buys them lots and lots of books.”

Advocates of independent schools were unpersuaded. Dr Geoff Newcombe, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of NSW, dismissed the value of the study as questionable. “Parents choose an independent school for a wide variety of reasons including its values and ethos, focus on pastoral care and extracurricular options, as well as academic rigour. The strong enrolment growth we see in the sector is testament to the fact that independent schools are meeting parents’ expectations by providing high-quality teaching and learning.”

Others reiterated the superior (raw) scores of tests or dismissed the results as presenting an over-simplistic view of what constitutes success, in the words of Ron Gorman, deputy director of the Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia, “because the measures are actually quite narrow”.

Heaven forbid that we would try to genuinely understand the meanings of the study and translate the conclusions to public policy. Far more important to defend the existing privilege, even though it is an impost on taxpayers! And let’s not run away with the idea that parents of private school students are saving taxpayers money, as we can see from the study by David Zyngier, explained below.


Dr David Zyngier of Monash University, has analysed the MySchool data and results from 2015 Victorian VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education, the credential awarded to secondary school students who successfully complete high school level studies). His report Money can’t buy you love but can it buy you a better education?, as summarised on the Save Our Schools website concludes, “public schools and private schools with similar Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) rankings have very similar VCE results. However, public schools achieve these results with far less funding… Top performing public schools (excluding select entry schools) actually outperform private schools with similar ICSEA rankings.” (There is a link to Zyngier’s report on the SOS site.)

Zyngier points out, “When it comes to funding, private schools on average outspend public schools by almost $4,000 per student with almost 50% of private school funding coming from federal and state funds. Private school parents are paying on average over 15 times the amount paid by public school parents for year 12. The average total capital expenditure (government funding plus private sources) in private schools was $14,058 per student in 2013 compared to only $6,586 in public schools.

“Spending more money on students and on school building, playing fields, rowing sheds, music centres and swimming pools seems to make no difference at all when students have similar social and economic status. When all other things are held equal it seems the only factors here that are actually making the difference are the teachers and the students in public schools who defy expectations and labels.

Zyngier’s study is further confirmation of the conclusions of the report, ‘Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement’ by Lyndsay Connors & Jim McMorrow.


On 2 April 2016 the website I Give a Gonski reported the Australian Education Union’s State of Our Schools survey for 2016. It showed 67 per cent of public school principals say their school is receiving “Gonski funding” – funding distributed in accordance with the agreement between Commonwealth and State governments – compared with 34 per cent in 2015. Half received over $100,000 and 27 per cent over $400,000.

Funding was devoted to

However, 45 per cent of principals said their schools was under resourced and 48 per cent of principals, compared with 38 per cent on 2015, find it more difficult to fill staff vacancies.


NAPLAN and Standardised Tests

In the last few months of 2015 in Australia reports appeared on the outcomes of national government mandated standardised testing through NAPLAN, options for future funding arrangements in the context of Federation reform and some important research on whether school makes a difference and if so whether independent schooling is more effective than public schooling.

Five years of NAPLAN have produced no significant improvement in the performance of most school students. I have dealt with this before. And numerous criticisms have been levelled at standardised testing and its obsession with accountability, its contribution to league tables of schools leading to a rush by those middle and upper class parents who can, to suburbs where supposedly better schools are located and its undermining of a broad curriculum. Not to mention its contribution to additional stress and its susceptibility to gaming. Even the forced absence of poorly performing students from the tests and the failure of many students to attend.

Unfortunately some writers on education seem prepared to endorse the notion of “report cards” on schools simply because it seems to be part of the political agenda they favour despite evidence about other factors that lead to improved performance.

Worst of all, standardised testing focuses criticism on teachers whose students are not performing to expectations when in fact many teachers over many years contribute to an individual student’s achievement in any one year. And that is apart from the contribution of the home environment, particularly during the earliest years of life. Blaming one particular teacher is simply stupid, dangerous and irresponsible. Worse it is likely seen as unfair and thereby contributes to cynicism.

The late Kenneth Rowe observed,“In high stakes testing environments, educational practitioners are likely to distort their behaviour in order to meet the demands of the indicator, usually to the detriment of their real job… Measurement of learning outcomes using standardised achievement tests is inherently risky; test scores have low information value about the outlying processes “as well as the environmental and administrative frame conditions necessary to understand and appreciate the skills and efforts needed to fulfil a certain educational goal”… the majority of such tests assess skills in terms of generalised academic abilities and enduring cognitive ‘traits’ rather than specific learning outcomes arising from classroom instruction.”[3]

Rowe concluded, “Above all, even when suitable adjustments for students’ intake characteristics and prior achievement have been taken into account, the resulting value-added estimates have too much uncertainty attached to them to provide reliable rankings”. “Australian politicians and senior bureaucrats currently advocating the publication of such performance information in the form of league tables”, Rowe observed, “are naively, and in typical fashion, stomping around in an uninformed epistemopathological fog’.

In Australia, from the beginning of the education reforms of the Rudd and Gillard governments, standardised testing, though not league tables, was a cornerstone of policy. It was unfortunate.

[1] John Cawley, James J Heckman, & Edward Vytlacil, ‘On Policies To Reward The Value Added By Educators’, The Review of Economics and Statistics 81, 720-727, 1999.

[2] Hong Son Nghiem, Ha Trong Nguyen, Rasheda Khanam & Luke B. Connelly, ‘Does school type affect cognitive and non-cognitive development in children? Evidence from Australian primary schools, Labour Economics 33: 55-65, 2015.

[3] Multilevel structural equation modelling with MLn/MLwiN & LISREL8.30: An integrated course (4th ed.) The 7th ACSPRI Winter Program in Social Research Methods and Research Technology, The University of Queensland. Camberwell, Vic: The Australian Council for Educational Research, 2000, p. 46