My School is a stunt if it’s not backed by funding
Deciding to take a peek at the My School website was a little like tuning in to Big Brother – I knew what I was about to see might alarm me, but I couldn’t help being drawn in for a little look.
And given the huge number of hits on the site over the last few weeks, there is no doubt that education – and the quality of education – is a huge issue, although I did wonder if they were all guilt ridden mothers like me who spend too much time on the net.
Just like Big Brother, My School has proven a high rater on the shock factor. I saw schools extolled by Ministers as models of inspiration and hard work look like they’re failing.
The Deputy Prime Minister has implored parents like me to use the site to tackle teachers about any poor results, or alternatively pluck our children from underperforming schools. But gazing at the coloured bars of schools as far flung as inner Sydney and outback Western Australia, I tried in vain to comprehend what I’m supposed to do with all this information?
I’m all for empowerment, but seriously, am I responsible for school performance? Education isn’t a commodity that can be shopped around for, schools aren’t stacked in neat little rows like the TV’s in Harvey Norman, and I know first hand that settling children into a new school is no walk in the park.
Education is also an area where the problems are really hard to fix. The My School website shows a clear link between better school performance and social and economic advantage, and conversely performance appears lower in areas of disadvantage.
This might seem pretty common sense, but its now common sense backed by an invention called the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA).
Trying to fathom the variables in the ICSEA presents its own literacy challenge, but basically it’s a highly complex modeling process to compare like with like student populations. But it’s looking at schools with unlike populations where the real trends become apparent. This show that if household income is low, joblessness is high, and there’s no computer at home then the school’s population has a lower ICSEA ‘value’ and generally this trends towards performance that is under the average, although there are exceptions.
Of course, education, policy and union advocates have been banging on about the link between education outcomes and socio-economic disadvantage for years but My School sets it out pretty baldly. Rather than a website that suggests the real policy challenge is to falsely empower parents to address individual schools shortfalls, Government needs to take up the real challenge and adequately fund schools based on community need.
A simple explanation is that our whole social policy framework is cracking under the strain of neo-liberalism, and many of these problems end up getting played out in the classroom and become the responsibility of schools. Neo-liberalism isn’t a word that you’ll hear at the local public school P&C meeting, but every parent there will be well aware of funding shortfalls, teacher shortages and the endless fundraising drives that it carries in its stead.
In a recent collection of essays on inequality, the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Zoe Morrison has calculated that one in seven Australian children lived in poverty in 2005. Morrison says a major contributor to Australia’s high child poverty rates is high levels of lone parenthood, joblessness and wage inequality. It’s no big leap to see how these policy failures in areas like the labour market can find their way into the classroom – greatly testing the job demands of teachers and the resources of schools.
Other contributors to this collection highlight the vital role of education in alleviating social and economic disadvantage. But as community expectations of education continue to rise, almost in tandem, the share of public funding for education – already at the low end of international comparisons in 1995 – has fallen. This is explored in a forthcoming book by Ross Gittens and Rodney Tiffen How Australia Compares. They point out that our private share of education spending was third highest compared with 17 other advanced economies including Canada, US, Japan and Western Europe, while our spending on public education spending was 12% below the average.
Unfortunately the My School website seems to be good for headlines, but little use for meaningful comparisons unless equity in funding and support for needy schools is part of the policy mix.
Still information technology will never properly capture the huge value add that any school and its staff makes to students lives. Nor can it replace the experience of being part of a diverse and supportive school community.
- Jo-anne Schofield is Executive Director of policy network Catalyst Australia
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