Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Secret Education Business

Imagine. You are moving to a new city from overseas or interstate and you want to know which school will best meet the needs of your children.

If you live in England, the answer is simple. Look at the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) Internet site and you can search for the name of a particular school and download the school’s inspection report.

Government-funded schools are inspected every six years and a written report is made publicly available. The report addresses questions such as: What sort of school is it? How high are standards? How well are pupils taught? How well is the school led and managed? Not only do inspectors evaluate the school, but schools are also identified as successful or underperforming.

In the language of OFSTED, inspectors have to decide:

… whether or not the school, although providing an acceptable standard of education, nevertheless has serious weaknesses, in one or more areas of its work; whether or not the school, although not identified as having serious weaknesses, is judged to be underachieving.

Unlike schools in Australia, where there are no official sanctions or rewards, English schools are evaluated and, if found wanting, face the consequences.

Such transparency is the opposite of the situation in Victoria, for example, where the Government refuses to rank schools or to make test results widely available.

In addition to inspectors’ reports, it is also possible to search the OFSTED Internet site to find out how well schools perform in national tests. In primary schools, for example, all 11-year-old students take tests linked to the national curriculum.

The test results are then posted on the Internet. Parents can search a database by postal code, by local education authority or by the name of a particular school. Shown against the national average and the average grades achieved by the local education authority are the grades achieved by individual schools.

Greater accountability and transparency are also being forced on American schools. President Bush’s recent national education bill (to the value of $US26.5 billion, 2002) requires state testing in reading and maths for every child from grades three to eight.

The bill also provides incentives for under-performing schools to improve.

First, under-performing schools receive additional funding;

second, if results still do not improve, students receive funding to pay for private tutoring.

Finally, if particular schools consistently fail to meet the grade, students will be allowed to transfer to more successful schools. Again, this is unlike Australia, where education departments and governments allow failing schools to put students at risk year after year, without any attempt to address the root cause of the problem.

Of course, those most to gain from keeping Australian parents in the dark—teacher unions and faceless education bureaucrats— argue that test results or inspectors’ reports should never be released.

Public exposure will destroy a school’s reputation and students’ self-esteem.

In answer to those resisting change.

First, comparing schools is not simply a matter of comparing apples with bananas. In England, research into how schools ‘value add’ to student performance is based on comparing schools with a similar socio-economic profile. Thus, schools from a wealthy area, with good facilities and parents able to afford the extras, are compared against similar schools, and not against those in less privileged areas.

Second, making results public, in most cases, leads to under-performing schools receiving additional funding and to standards improving.

As parents will agree, there is also the reality that good test results, by themselves, are not the sole reason why they might choose one school over another. But when such results are made public, parents are in a position to make a more informed decision.

All Australian departments of education have been collecting data about school performance for some years. State and Territory governments also have the results of literacy and numeracy testing, generally at grades three and five for all primary schools, since being introduced over the last eight to ten years.

In addition, school Year 12 school results are also available to rank schools. Given the rhetoric about accountability and empowering communities, one wonders when the Ministers of Education of the State and Territory Labor governments will make such information freely available.

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