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How well are ACT schools performing?

By Rebecca Vassarotti - 27 July 2017 17

Hot on the heels of the Auditor General’s inquiry into the performance of ACT schools, the Australia Institute has released a new report that suggests that ACT schools in high socio-economic regions are performing poorly compared to similar schools across the country. This report raises further questions regarding whether or not we are doing the very best in relation to children and young people’s education in the Territory.

This is not the message that parents are used to hearing – we normally hear how well ACT schools perform and how our schools are the best performing schools in the country. This hasn’t always rung true with our experiences, however, and these recent reports shed some light on what might be going on – while averages look good, when we look at similar schools the picture is not as rosy.

Canberrans are rightly proud of our education system. Those of us who are engaged in the school system see every day how hard our teachers and administrative staff work to provide a great educational experience for our children and young people. For many children, they thrive in an environment that is stimulating, diverse and challenging. It seems however, for a growing number of our children, the system is letting them down. For parents who have struggled to get the testing and information required to pinpoint the support needed for a child needing assistance, or tried to find additional resources to help once an issue is identified, it is hoped that this deeper analysis can drive policy change and improve education experiences for all of our children.

Drawing on the results of NAPLAN testing, the study found that when ACT schools in higher socio-economic areas are compared to similar schools in other jurisdictions, these schools have tended to perform more poorly than similar schools. Disturbingly, this performance also seems to be declining over time.

The report reflects in reasons for the findings, and while identifying a range of potential factors, the discussion focuses particularly on two of these. The first of these is questioning on definitions and issues with the way schools are grouped, and issues that are not factored in with these definitional groupings. The second factor is more controversial and suggests that teaching methods are having an impact – encouraging higher use of direct teaching methods. It also highlights the very wide variation of resourcing of particular schools – up to $6,000 per student in different government schools and $10,000 per student in the private sector.

The Education Union has responded sharply to a questioning of teaching methods. The Education Directorate has responded that this provides similar information to that provided in the Auditor General’s report and the recently announced The Future of Education process will improve the situation. This process aims to create a platform for a community conversation to drive a blueprint for the education system into the future. The Australia Institute suggests a public inquiry is warranted to better understand what is going on.

As a parent who is always in awe of the great job my local school does, I still think these reports are raising important questions regarding how well our education system is performing. What do you think should be done to improve our school system?

What’s Your opinion?


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17 Responses to
How well are ACT schools performing?
Alice MacDonald 8:23 am 29 Jul 17

Garfield said :

Hearing things like modern teaching methods in the ACT don’t include phonics sounds like a big problem, as do things like “its more about kids expressing themselves than getting the spelling and grammar right”. … Then there’s also the matter of lack of discipline with verbal and even physical attacks on teachers being handled in house with what seems like a softly-softly approach. If a kid assaults a teacher, the police need to be involved to scare the hell out of the kid and their parents. I think we have fundamental problems with the underlying methodology used in our schools and the fault there lies entirely with the government.

There is a tendency in Canberra, as in other places, to embrace fads and crazes in teaching. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the obsession with whole language, group learning, and Montessori and Reggio Emilia etc. All this stuff works great for self-motivated, middle class kids who pick up the basics through osmosis, but it is disastrous for many others who can’t get the necessary support from parents, family or peers.

As for discipline …. I don’t think anyone would deny that there are problems in Canberra schools. Sure, we don’t have gang warfare, but we do have a problem with constant, low-level interruption and disobedience by children who do not want to learn, and who are determined to stop others from doing so. Behaviour such as watching ipads in class, turning up late, not sitting down, failing to participate in group activities, and generally just being disruptive. Criticism of such behaviour by the teacher is responded to by the student giving a declaration of their rights, and defiance such as “what will you do if I don’t?” What indeed? We do nothing. The result is that much teacher time is taken up with managing these little annoyances –time that should be spent teaching. It is this problem, more than anything to do with facilities or perceived prestige or ‘values’, that drives kids into private schools.

That said, it is easy for me to whinge about the problem, and less easy to identify a solution. We can hardly deny kids an education because they are immature teeangers. The current education system isn’t really serving us very well. It was designed to be a time-progressive, tiered system, for a time when kids progressively dropped out to pursue other options. Times have changed. The educational system probably needs catch up.

Garfield 7:00 am 29 Jul 17

I am a Rabbit™ said :

This isn’t really limited to the ACT alone… The entirety of Australia has been dropping on international educational rankings. Our educational system is broken, and the root issue is stemming from our decision to copy the American education system in the 1960’s by selling our children for profit to the private education lobby.

Garfield said :

However those sort of large differences really call into question the efficiency and effectiveness of the ACT government education system.

The issue is more nuanced than this. It’s not that private schools are more efficient and/or effective than their public-peers, but rather that parents who pay for private schools generally care more about properly raising their children. This has caused a domino effect where only children with behaviour issues and/or those from lower-socioeconomic families attend public schools, leaving the higher achieving students within the private schools.

This leads to significant equality gaps within standardized testing results such as NAPLAN, which further inflates the issue. If you look at the results through the average of the school, I can understand why you think public schools have poor teaching outcomes. With that said, it’s important to remember that academic results are largely derived from the home environment, and not that of the school.

Garfield said :

But I have noticed schools on the southside are more crowded than they used to be, and that’s got to have an impact on academic results.

Not really. Every single school in Tuggeranong is running at under 30% of its maximum student capacity. It gets better near Woden, but numbers are generally still well below the max capacity. If you want to see crowded schools, look at the ones near the lake/north – there are some schools running OVER their maximum capacity.

Continued …

Hearing things like modern teaching methods in the ACT don’t include phonics sounds like a big problem, as do things like “its more about kids expressing themselves than getting the spelling and grammar right”. Try telling that to an employer when a job application is riddled with errors. Then there’s also the matter of lack of discipline with verbal and even physical attacks on teachers being handled in house with what seems like a softly-softly approach. If a kid assaults a teacher, the police need to be involved to scare the hell out of the kid and their parents. I think we have fundamental problems with the underlying methodology used in our schools and the fault there lies entirely with the government.

In regards to under utilisation of government schools in Tuggeranong, that was bj_ACT not me. I however addressed it in regards to poor government policy in things like first home owner concessions forcing many younger people out of Tuggeranong. Maybe that exit of younger and probably better educated and paid parents is skewing the demographics in Tuggeranong and contributing to falling government school performance in the region.

Garfield 6:47 am 29 Jul 17

I am a Rabbit™ said :

This isn’t really limited to the ACT alone… The entirety of Australia has been dropping on international educational rankings. Our educational system is broken, and the root issue is stemming from our decision to copy the American education system in the 1960’s by selling our children for profit to the private education lobby.

Garfield said :

However those sort of large differences really call into question the efficiency and effectiveness of the ACT government education system.

The issue is more nuanced than this. It’s not that private schools are more efficient and/or effective than their public-peers, but rather that parents who pay for private schools generally care more about properly raising their children. This has caused a domino effect where only children with behaviour issues and/or those from lower-socioeconomic families attend public schools, leaving the higher achieving students within the private schools.

This leads to significant equality gaps within standardized testing results such as NAPLAN, which further inflates the issue. If you look at the results through the average of the school, I can understand why you think public schools have poor teaching outcomes. With that said, it’s important to remember that academic results are largely derived from the home environment, and not that of the school.

Garfield said :

But I have noticed schools on the southside are more crowded than they used to be, and that’s got to have an impact on academic results.

Not really. Every single school in Tuggeranong is running at under 30% of its maximum student capacity. It gets better near Woden, but numbers are generally still well below the max capacity. If you want to see crowded schools, look at the ones near the lake/north – there are some schools running OVER their maximum capacity.

Even though education standards in Australia are slipping overall, the ACT is slipping backwards in comparison to other parts of the country meaning we’re doing it worse than everyone else.

The catholic school system educates the majority of non-government kids and they’re not for profit. The goings on with the Islamic School of Canberra illustrate what happens when questions are raised about a non-government school potentially using funds for purposes other than education – they get funding withdrawn. I think you’re completely off base suggesting that we’re selling our kids for profit.

Are you seriously trying to blame the failures with public education on the parents? I find it hard to believe that there would be a vast difference in the involvement of parents of the same socio economic group in their kids education. There certainly shouldn’t be much variance in the ability of parents within the same group to contribute. I accept that high SES parents are likely to have a greater education level themselves than low SES parents and so should be able to help their kids more at home, but that’s something for which NAPLAN provides information. The My Schools data showed very little difference in the ICSEA scores for the 2 Gowrie schools yet there’s a massive difference in results even though the public school is receiving almost twice as much recurrent funding per student. With so many fewer students per teacher, each government school kid should be getting much more 1 on 1 time which should be manifesting in better results. TBC …

Alice MacDonald 6:42 am 29 Jul 17

I love the idea of naplan, but I don’t think the naplan comparisons work very well in Canberra.

The socio-economic ratings for Canberra schools seem to be completely out of whack. The naplan results for my daughter’s school are a sea of green against “all schools”, and red against “like schools”. However, the “like” schools are a combination of highly selective high schools and exclusive academies for the daughters of the North Shore elite. I am sorry, demographers, but in no way are these schools actually “like” my daughter’s school (or any school outside of Canberra’s Inner South – if even there).

Also, in Canberra, the salt and pepper approach to public housing and planned design means that disadvantage is spread across the community. My local school serves several very different suburbs. It has the children of surgeons and CEOs, building magnates, tradesmen, all ranks of public servant, labourers, and the intergenerational unemployed. Again, looking at the “like” schools, most are comparatively homogenous. None of them are likely to have even two or three kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, let alone the usual half a dozen that my local school has. NAPLAN works on averages, so even a couple of kids who are significantly below average can pull the school’s scores down. It would be interesting to look at medians as well as averages and see if there is much of a difference.

Garfield 12:14 pm 28 Jul 17

bj_ACT said :

It’s interesting to see some posters anecdotally confirm the evidence based analysis from NAPLAN and PISA about poorly performing Tuggeranong schools and the lack of focus and investment by ACT Government.

Many Tuggeranong Government schools are still experiencing reduced pupil numbers, so the call for overcrowding is not necessarily relevant to all the schools in the area.

What this does tell us however:

Is that families are increasing sending their kids to Private Schools in the Tuggeranong region because the Government schools are performing so badly and are so poorly resourced and maintained by successive Labor Education Ministers.

The ACT Government has not properly managed the implications, causes and effects of the school closures they made in Tuggeranong since they won government.

Interestingly a number of Government Schools that won a last minute reprieve from closures (such as Mt Rogers and Giralang) are now bursting at the seams with high pupil numbers. This highlights that if you close schools in an area, young families will stop moving to that suburb. Further declining the need for schools and continuing a viscous cycle of reduced education opportunities in Tuggeranong.

Instead of trying to save money by closing 3 Primary Schools, 2 pre Schools and a High School in Kambah alone, John Stanhope and Andrew Barr as Education Minister should have looked at ways to encourage more young families to move into the suburb by updating community facilities (particular for under 17s), improving the schools and funding new programs to get the best teachers into Kambah and creating an area and environment to encourage better student outcomes.

ACT Government has dismally failed the students of Tuggeranong as evidenced in declining school quality, declining performance testing results, declining numbers moving onto University study and declining educational outcomes.

You only need to look as far as the government’s stamp duty concessions for first home buyers for some of the problems. The concessions are only available for people buying newly constructed properties, meaning many young couples must have moved from the south to Gungahlin. As such the government is under pressure to provide adequate infrastructure for the boom in young kids up north while existing infrastructure down south is neglected because its under utilised. Its a fundamental failure in town planning.

I am a Rabbit™ 12:04 pm 28 Jul 17

This isn’t really limited to the ACT alone… The entirety of Australia has been dropping on international educational rankings. Our educational system is broken, and the root issue is stemming from our decision to copy the American education system in the 1960’s by selling our children for profit to the private education lobby.

Garfield said :

However those sort of large differences really call into question the efficiency and effectiveness of the ACT government education system.

The issue is more nuanced than this. It’s not that private schools are more efficient and/or effective than their public-peers, but rather that parents who pay for private schools generally care more about properly raising their children. This has caused a domino effect where only children with behaviour issues and/or those from lower-socioeconomic families attend public schools, leaving the higher achieving students within the private schools.

This leads to significant equality gaps within standardized testing results such as NAPLAN, which further inflates the issue. If you look at the results through the average of the school, I can understand why you think public schools have poor teaching outcomes. With that said, it’s important to remember that academic results are largely derived from the home environment, and not that of the school.

Garfield said :

But I have noticed schools on the southside are more crowded than they used to be, and that’s got to have an impact on academic results.

Not really. Every single school in Tuggeranong is running at under 30% of its maximum student capacity. It gets better near Woden, but numbers are generally still well below the max capacity. If you want to see crowded schools, look at the ones near the lake/north – there are some schools running OVER their maximum capacity.

bj_ACT 11:35 am 28 Jul 17

It’s interesting to see some posters anecdotally confirm the evidence based analysis from NAPLAN and PISA about poorly performing Tuggeranong schools and the lack of focus and investment by ACT Government.

Many Tuggeranong Government schools are still experiencing reduced pupil numbers, so the call for overcrowding is not necessarily relevant to all the schools in the area.

What this does tell us however:

Is that families are increasing sending their kids to Private Schools in the Tuggeranong region because the Government schools are performing so badly and are so poorly resourced and maintained by successive Labor Education Ministers.

The ACT Government has not properly managed the implications, causes and effects of the school closures they made in Tuggeranong since they won government.

Interestingly a number of Government Schools that won a last minute reprieve from closures (such as Mt Rogers and Giralang) are now bursting at the seams with high pupil numbers. This highlights that if you close schools in an area, young families will stop moving to that suburb. Further declining the need for schools and continuing a viscous cycle of reduced education opportunities in Tuggeranong.

Instead of trying to save money by closing 3 Primary Schools, 2 pre Schools and a High School in Kambah alone, John Stanhope and Andrew Barr as Education Minister should have looked at ways to encourage more young families to move into the suburb by updating community facilities (particular for under 17s), improving the schools and funding new programs to get the best teachers into Kambah and creating an area and environment to encourage better student outcomes.

ACT Government has dismally failed the students of Tuggeranong as evidenced in declining school quality, declining performance testing results, declining numbers moving onto University study and declining educational outcomes.

house_husband 6:46 am 28 Jul 17

Both my children went to a middle of the pack Catholic primary school according to NAPLAN. My youngest once received a half page written assignment question with at least a dozen spelling and grammar errors in it. So what hope do the kids have?

miz 9:09 pm 27 Jul 17

Just to add (word limit, lol!), I did a phonics course at Woy Woy South and because my daughter was not learning to read at school I bought resources and taught my daughter to read myself based on that course. She is my best reader and a book lover.

miz 9:05 pm 27 Jul 17

I agree that the averages hide poor experiences. The following is my family’s experience – please note that this occurred in the 2000s so I would say the ACT has been cruising on averages for a long time.
When I brought my three children back to Canberra in mid 1999 I had two at primary school. They had previously been attending Woy Woy South PS in regional NSW. I was shocked at how poorly the Canberra primary school compared, from little but key things like the inability for children to play before school, to an ineffective ‘have a guess’ reading method. There also did not appear to be the same kind of behavioural boundaries – it was generally noisy and chaotic. My son, despite being clearly musical, did not get into band because someone considered that he ‘might not work well in a group’. That decision had a really negative impact on him. I found transitioning to high school very stressful as a parent – apparently one should not necessarily be satisfied with the local school so one must attend open nights and pick one. Only one of my three bright children finished Year 12 and the College system with its extra transitional step did not do them any favours.
In all I feel the ACT school system failed my children. I cannot help but feel that this government is encouraging divisiveness by not strictly enforcing zoning, particularly as the ACT is probably the most SES equitable place in Australia where it should work beautifully.

emd 8:24 pm 27 Jul 17

I have noticed the NAPLAN comparison between my kids’ Canberra public school and schools with similar socio-economic areas, and it does look like something is not working. I didn’t take much notice as I don’t think NAPLAN is a good way to decide if a school will be suitable for an individual kid. But I have noticed schools on the southside are more crowded than they used to be, and that’s got to have an impact on academic results. I can’t help but think that perhaps the ACT Govt decision to close 22 schools for P-6 kids in 2006 was short-sighted.

I know the Department are doing their Future of Education consultation, but it seems like the way they want the public to participate is read the discussion paper (which is brief and doesn’t give much depth to the background on what we currently do, why, or what the results are) and then email the Department with feedback. A way for parents to have a genuine conversation (you know, where we can ask questions and discuss ideas) would be a more productive way to consult.

Garfield 5:16 pm 27 Jul 17

Rebecca Vassarotti said :

A_Cog said :

Let’s be very clear that Rebecca Vassarotti was a Greens candidate, and Rattenbury is currently education minister. So this post should not muddy the issue of blame, and not be afraid to criticise Rattenbury’s performance.

But I also recognise that Joy Burch was education minister for nearly 4 years, so any systemic issues were not resolved by her.

I’ve served on the board of a high profile (allegedly) high-performing school, and I am beyond dismayed by the lack of integrity that teachers and administrative staff generally (almost uniformly) have. They are employees of a government department, so enforce government policy whether it is bad or not (FYI, it’s bad). The (ALP-aligned) Education Union is complicit in the rubbish ACT education policy. Government policy in the ACT is shockingly slack – this is the point the Australia Institute was making.

What do I think should be done? Simple. Dump the Minister, change the government, strangle the union, fire the senior exec staff who have fostered a culture of national-worst-practice slackness, gut public funding for private schools, introduce the true Gonski, jettison existing teaching methods (really, we DON’T use phonics to teach reading in the ACT?)…

But most fundamentally, purge the dangerous (and convenient) belief that parents should be “supporting their child’s learning journey”. You’ve got my kids in your care for 40 hours a week, and I pay you handsomely for it. If you can’t get it right, well, you gots ta go.

I share your frustration that parents who can’t get the support their need have to go elsewhere to get it rather than hold schools accountable for learning outcomes but also recognise that many schools don’t have adequate resources to do so. I certainly think we need to support public schools but wholeheartedly agree that a true needs based system would make a huge difference.

I think the problems must run much deeper than throwing more money at government schools through “needs based funding”. I looked up the 2 primary schools in Gowrie. In 2015, the last year for which financial information is currently on the My School website, the government school received $18,647 in recurrent funding per student while the catholic school received $9,831 including money from parents. The catholic school operated with 62% more children per teacher and 4 times as many kids per non teaching staff member. The catholic school had 78% of kids above the national average results while the government school had 56%. These are 2 primary schools drawing their students from the same area, but somehow the school with significantly less funding is significantly out performing the other school. Looking at result trends, the government school has gone backwards since 2008 while the catholic school has improved.

I selected Gowrie because I know there are 2 primary schools in the same suburb. I don’t know how representative it is of overall private vs government schooling in the ACT. However those sort of large differences really call into question the efficiency and effectiveness of the ACT government education system.

Just throwing it out there, but we might be able to get better results for kids and lower taxes on residents by having the ACT government pay the private sector to run its schools, although I’d want to see if a change of government could start to turn things around before anything that radical happened.

Rebecca Vassarotti 2:38 pm 27 Jul 17

A_Cog said :

Let’s be very clear that Rebecca Vassarotti was a Greens candidate, and Rattenbury is currently education minister. So this post should not muddy the issue of blame, and not be afraid to criticise Rattenbury’s performance.

But I also recognise that Joy Burch was education minister for nearly 4 years, so any systemic issues were not resolved by her.

I’ve served on the board of a high profile (allegedly) high-performing school, and I am beyond dismayed by the lack of integrity that teachers and administrative staff generally (almost uniformly) have. They are employees of a government department, so enforce government policy whether it is bad or not (FYI, it’s bad). The (ALP-aligned) Education Union is complicit in the rubbish ACT education policy. Government policy in the ACT is shockingly slack – this is the point the Australia Institute was making.

What do I think should be done? Simple. Dump the Minister, change the government, strangle the union, fire the senior exec staff who have fostered a culture of national-worst-practice slackness, gut public funding for private schools, introduce the true Gonski, jettison existing teaching methods (really, we DON’T use phonics to teach reading in the ACT?)…

But most fundamentally, purge the dangerous (and convenient) belief that parents should be “supporting their child’s learning journey”. You’ve got my kids in your care for 40 hours a week, and I pay you handsomely for it. If you can’t get it right, well, you gots ta go.

Hi there. You are absolutely right that I am an ACT Green’s member and ran as a candidate in the last election. This is on my profile which you can get here: https://the-riotact.com/author/rebeccavassarotti. Just for the sake of accuracy, Shane Rattenbury is not Education Minister – he was for the period of Jan to October 2016 but the portfolio is currently held by Yvette Berry.

Your perspectives as a member of a school board are really important to share. I share your frustration that parents who can’t get the support their need have to go elsewhere to get it rather than hold schools accountable for learning outcomes but also recognise that many schools don’t have adequate resources to do so. I certainly think we need to support public schools but wholeheartedly agree that a true needs based system would make a huge difference.

bj_ACT 12:15 pm 27 Jul 17

The decade long slide in performances of Tuggeranong Government Schools in particular is atrocious. The ACT Government has to one day accept a lot of the blame for not properly funding the schools in Suburbs of need and the blame for closing schools in Suburbs without addressing the long-term repercussions of the closures.

The excellent ‘Your School’ analysis of NAPLAN results by The Australian newspaper, shows just how increasingly badly Tuggeranong schools have performed of late.

At Primary level, 8 of the bottom 9 performing schools are in Tuggeranong. At High school level, all 5 Government High Schools in Tuggeranong fill the bottom 6 places. But the ACT Government has done nothing to address this and try to distract from the poor results. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/in-depth/schools/interactive#browse

The low Socio Economic funding model used by Government, caused by how bottom 25% SEIFA Disadvantage is calculated, just doesn’t work for ACT schools. Only a very small number of students qualify under this model in Canberra, which effectively means kids from Forrest get the same Government Education funding as a kid from Monash or Calwell.

Tuggeranong Schools are an outlier for bad performance when compared with similar schools across Australia. Successive ACT Education Ministers have preferred to focus money and attention on removing junk food in Canteens, extra psychologists and improved recess play spaces. Yes these are important issues that can’t be ignored, but the Education minister shouldn’t be prioritising these things above giving kids in the outer suburbs the opportunity for a better basic education.

Finally some of these issues around ACT education are starting to get some media traction, but my guess is that ACT Labor will again target education funding towards areas that will help get them re-elected. They will not target funding and effort on the Suburbs that need it.

A_Cog 10:35 am 27 Jul 17

Let’s be very clear that Rebecca Vassarotti was a Greens candidate, and Rattenbury is currently education minister. So this post should not muddy the issue of blame, and not be afraid to criticise Rattenbury’s performance.

But I also recognise that Joy Burch was education minister for nearly 4 years, so any systemic issues were not resolved by her.

I’ve served on the board of a high profile (allegedly) high-performing school, and I am beyond dismayed by the lack of integrity that teachers and administrative staff generally (almost uniformly) have. They are employees of a government department, so enforce government policy whether it is bad or not (FYI, it’s bad). The (ALP-aligned) Education Union is complicit in the rubbish ACT education policy. Government policy in the ACT is shockingly slack – this is the point the Australia Institute was making.

What do I think should be done? Simple. Dump the Minister, change the government, strangle the union, fire the senior exec staff who have fostered a culture of national-worst-practice slackness, gut public funding for private schools, introduce the true Gonski, jettison existing teaching methods (really, we DON’T use phonics to teach reading in the ACT?)…

But most fundamentally, purge the dangerous (and convenient) belief that parents should be “supporting their child’s learning journey”. You’ve got my kids in your care for 40 hours a week, and I pay you handsomely for it. If you can’t get it right, well, you gots ta go.

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