Lean over PISA. Make way for a better future for schools

By Chris Bonnor

As the year grinds to a close, we celebrate the end-of school results of our Year 12 students. It’s an annual ritual, the festive season is always accompanied by school league tables and predictable stories about school and student success – somewhat in contrast to the seeming failure of other schools and students. 

But something extra happened this year. The results festival was preceded by the release of the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores and analysis . . . hotly followed by the quite separate release of proposals for Australia’s next National Schools Reform Agreement (NSRA). When seen alongside our end-of-school results, these two events point to a sorry past and present, but one gives us a glimpse of a better future.  

Let’s start with PISA

Each PISA report usually sparks a moral panic about our schools – not so much this year because there seems a bit of good news: Australia’s student achievement picked up a tad. We have actually climbed the international rankings … alas, only because others have slipped backwards. 

But a different story lies behind the headlines. PISA shows that the achievement gaps between high socio-economic status (SES) and disadvantaged students have continued to widen in reading, mathematics and science since 2006. For those at the bottom, this now amounts to years of lost learning time and opportunity. 

Even where progress seems evident, variations within Australia reveal problems. NSW students have improved most in maths and reading . . . but NSW has the widest range of scores between the top and bottom students, results usually found in the Northern Territory. It’s a bit unsettling: in terms of the school achievement gaps, NSW ranks alongside the poorest parts of Australia.

End of year results

Of course, not everyone wants to dig into PISA scores to get a handle on such gaps. So why not see how it plays out in those end-of-school results that get us excited every December? We know that the HSC and Victoria’s VCE, as two examples, tell something about student achievement, school by school. But the changing distribution of high-level scores reveals much more.

There has always been a gap between the highest and lowest SES schools; those near the top creep up, those at the bottom just keep struggling. So what has happened to those just above and below the middle – the schools which enrol most students? Back in 2006 the schools above the middle increased their share of the most valued students and, in the case of NSW, their equally valued distinguished achiever awards. But the schools below the middle saw their share of such students cut in half. The pattern in Victoria is similar, with fewer extremes. 

Put bluntly, large swathes of rural and low SES schools, even if they can attract teachers, struggle hard enough to offer a rounded senior school curriculum, let alone boast many, if any, high-level achievers. The latter have gone, and they took their high scores with them.     

It’s almost as if the lower half decided not to try harder. Certainly, that’s often implied by the commentariat, and by legislators who should know better. And of course there is no shortage of reasons offered up for such poor performance. Take your pick from some recent ones: too many devices, an inadequate science syllabus, impact of COVID, misbehaving kids, not enough phonics, the list goes on.

Reasons for optimism

But there is reason for optimism, and this is where we get to the third big event, alas the one with the smallest headlines: the panel set up to inform the upcoming National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) has now reported. As expected, and as it should, it wants full Schools Resourcing Funding for all schools, closing the funding gaps sooner.

There is much more. By any standards, the report Improving outcomes for all developed by this remarkable panel and its supporting team has potentially broken new ground. 

It clearly states that “the current system entrenches educational disadvantage and makes it less likely that other reforms will realise Australia’s longstanding ambition of equity and excellence.” They won’t and shouldn’t walk away from authentic and proven reform, but they are effectively saying: let’s stop fluffing around here with peripheral (and appealing) reform and reduce the segregation of student enrolments which is increasingly widening achievement gaps and contributing to poor overall performance. 

Markedly different obligations

It effectively confirms a fundamental and sadly unique feature of Australia’s public/private framework of schools, its hierarchical nature. Schools operate on a very unlevel playing field, with often similar funding . . . but markedly different obligations. In the inevitable competition between schools, those with choice – and that includes both families and schools – do well, those without risk falling behind. 

Who they enrol and where they come from

The hierarchy is everywhere. Anyone can compare, for schools in their local area, this year’s HSC or VCE results alongside My School’s measure of school socio-educational advantage. It is the work of schools which should contribute most to ‘school’ results; instead, the school-by-school differences are more determined by who they enrol and where they come from.

Given that this crazy framework of schools is rusted into our psyche and functioning as families and schools, it was arguably brave of Education Minister Jason Clare to set up any review, especially one entitled a Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System. Then, it was a very forward looking panel to deliver recommendations which, if implemented, will begin to change our system for the better.

The panel has directly addressed the need to increase socio-economic diversity in school enrolments and to do it soon, by “reviewing existing policy settings by the end of 2027 and implementing new policy levers to increase socio‑economic diversity in schools and lift student outcomes” and, even earlier, to set in place the reporting of the SES diversity of schools and systems. To serve this and other purposes it recommends substantial improvement in data collection and use at all levels.

Those on the panel and in the supporting reference group could see the problem. The Productivity Commission has stated that peer effects and less experienced teachers in schools with high concentrations of disadvantage were drivers of poorer student outcomes – and that students from priority equity cohorts demonstrate, on average, less learning growth if they attend a school with a high concentration of disadvantage. Parents know this and arguably have for decades, it substantially drives their search for schools up the SES ladder. It matters to them who their kids sit with – and the evidence, even going back to the Gonski Review, backs up their concerns. It has left Australia with a profoundly wicked problem.  

What next?

Where to from here? The recommendations have gone to Australia’s education ministers and will be worked into Commonwealth legislation for the next School Reform Agreement.    Our leaders and legislators need to be firmly convinced that what are relatively mild recommendations should remain and be even strengthened and implemented in full. And that’s just the easy part. It then has to navigate a perilous path among politicians who will need to fully understand all the issues and possible solutions – and cast their lot in with those who really do want a better and fairer education system.

Chris Bonnor AM is a former teacher and secondary school principal and was a previous head of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council. He has co-authored a number of books, most recently Choice and Fairness: a common framework for all Australian schools and is co-author with Tom Greenwell of Waiting for Gonski, how Australia failed its schools. NSW Press, 2022. He regularly contributes to a range of publications and media.

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One thought on “Lean over PISA. Make way for a better future for schools

  1. Chris says:

    Don’t quite get this article. Is it saying that things will look better by preventing parents from living in areas often at personal expense that provide access to government schools in which there are less disruption to a students learning. Why should a student who performs be held back by students who use class time to not engage and therefore disrupt? From my experience it only takes two to five students in a class to be disruptive to reduce the learning experience for the whole class. What is the wicked problem – parents who seek the best advantage for their child or the parent who enables their child to disadvantage other children?

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