MySchool wowsers trying to lock out parents
School league tables splashed across newspapers earlier this year, heralding an unprecedented era of education openness in this country, are on death watch.
A coalition of teachers unions, academics and public education advocates are well advanced with their mission to strangle through technological modifications any further league tables in 2011.
The tables ranking of individual schools for literacy and numeracy were the most sensational outcome the MySchool website, arguably Prime Minister’s greatest reform triumph as Education Minister.
The information they so succinctly presented in a ranking form offered fodder for a million dinner table and bus stop debates about education choice. Overnight, parents were empowered with knowledge, even if it was a brutal outing of school performance.
But the league tables, run in various forms in newspapers including The Australian, Herald Sun and the The Sydney Morning Herald, were not an authorised part of MySchool, more like its bastard child.
MySchool helpfully compares individual school results on national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests to the Australian average and a group of “statistically similar” schools. It was the media that took the next obvious step of producing league tables ranking schools.
Many of the 1.4 million visits to MySchool in its first four days were due to teams of journalists and support staff making thousands of repeat visits to strip out its NAPLAN data to create their league tables.
While the MySchool website will be back in 2011, possibly with enhanced features that will be welcomed by parents, a new round of league tables may not be possible.
The website changes, should they not be stopped, could mean attempts to collect the data in 2011 for league tables will now take weeks or months of commitment, possibly putting their creation beyond the resource availability media organisations.
The tables were an extraordinary tearing to shreds of the secrecy shroud that hid the vast differences in the performance of individual schools based on national tests and between private and public systems.
As popular as the league tables were with parents, they also enraged teachers unions and the public school lobby which saw them as the education equivalent to opening the gates of hell.
Australian Education Union federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said that the league tables were based on “simplistic” data that was highly damaging to individual schools, teachers and students.
It was never publicly stated, but there was a fear in the public school lobby the rankings might further encourage the flight to private schools.
Following threats of industrial action to stop the next round of NAPLAN tests going ahead in May, Ms Gillard appointed a working party of teacher unions, school representatives, academics and professionalised parent groups, to respond to their concerns about use of NAPLAN data.
That working party has already reported back to the national education watchdog, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), with a list of technological proposals to prevent league tables when MySchool 2.0 is launched in 2011.
The ACARA media unit has confirmed that work is progressing on making the NAPLAN data much more difficult to strip out of the MySchool website next year.
Under one likely change, anyone logging on to check a school in 2011 will be confronted by a lengthy “click wrap” of up-front terms of conditions banning commercial use of the data they must formally agree to every time they log in, slowing down all access to a crawl.
A letter by ACARA chief executive Peter Hill, dated June 21, outlines options for changes to the 2011 MySchool website to “address” concerns expressed by the Australian Education Union and other groups.
Along with other recommendations, like adding information on funding sources, the document states that “Ministers have endorsed” investigating “action to minimise misuse” of the information on MySchool.
It is clearly stated that ministers had endorsed the working party presenting “ways of deterring or preventing automatic scraping of data from the website”.
A final decision on the measures would be presented to a ministerial council of education ministers in August and October.
Australian Parents Council Executive Director Ian Dalton, a member of the appointed working party, said technical changes would stop “unauthorised usage” of MySchool data next year.
Mr Dalton could not say whether the changes would prevent league tables, although he said it was important “to stop publishing data that misrepresented information included on the MySchool website”.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Simon Crean, Ms Gillard’s replacement, would not comment on the proposal, referring all questions to ACARA.
Despite the move towards blocking league tables, there is strong evidence that the publication of league tables in NSW was handled sensibly by parents. There were no walk outs from schools that performed poorly, or any immediate flight to private schools.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 1989 from the Department of Education and Training on enrolment changes on all schools between the period January 27 to February 28, 2010 showed no unusual enrolment changes compared to the same period in 2009.
Among those placed near bottom of league tables, Airds High School had more students withdraw in the 2009 period than in the 2010 period after My School was available and league tables were published. The school had 24 students leave in 2010 compared to 51 in 2009.
Another struggling performer, Lurnea High School had 84 students leave in 2010, compared to 100 in 2009, while another high school that was placed low in tables, Chifley College, Bidwill, had 52 enrolment withdrawals, down from 60 last year.
As well as no evidence of walkouts from individual schools, there was also no evidence of a flight from public to private schools. The documents showed there were 23,570 students who left the NSW public school system, about 2000 fewer than the same period in 2009.
But there were some parents who did react. Mum Gaynor Reid admits she quickly changed the kindergarten enrolment of her daughter Kiara Inman-Ried from Fort Street Public to Paddington Public after examining the MySchool website the night before.
Fort Street recorded results below the average of schools in the inner city area in the NAPLAN test areas, so she contacted Paddington public immediately the next morning.
Ms Reid, a public relations manager with a large hotel group, even had to borrow a school uniform from a friend for the new school.
“We literally had to change that very day. We had already bought the uniform for Fort Street and Kiara had even done an orientation and met a ‘buddy’ to look out for her,’’ Ms Read said.
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