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SOS jump the shark

By johnboy - 9 October 2006 27

As usual in ACT politics the wicked and the witless are dominating both sides of the argument over school closures leaving sanity sitting hapless by the wayside.

On the one hand the 20-20 program of school closures is manifestly incompetent, the consultation process is a sham, and the implementation is astonishingly botched.

For all that there are many schools that certainly should close.

On the other hand the “Save Our Schools” campaign is being utterly unscrupulous and at times downright dishonest obviously having decided that their ends justify their means (they never do).

Case in point a story on the ABC this morning in which SOS rolls out american research showing that small class sizes produce better outcomes for poor students (or “students with a low socio-economic status” if you’re a wanker).

They then make the inference that small schools provide small classes when in fact the reverse is often true.

UPDATED: It appears it is the ABC that has brought class sizes into the argument and the SOS media release only considers school sizes. However I remain dubious as to the value of US research as they tend to have independent school boards and their median school sizes are MUCH bigger than anything we’re used to.

What’s Your opinion?


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27 Responses to
SOS jump the shark
aidan 4:58 pm 09 Oct 06

GuruJ,

I’m not saying that depreciation should be ignored, but they are not even planning to save this money in the budget papers, yet they included this amount in the costs per student that were splashed all over the media.

I did some other analysis of the schools based on their Salary+SBM (Schools Based Management) costs which shows that many of the schools scheduled for closing are not expensive to run. The Govt targeted the three most expensive, based on this measure, but after that it is a crap shoot. Noone knows why they are planning to close schools because they won’t say. It is a very annoying.

My point is that the whole system should have been looked at, rather than just picking off a few smaller schools and saying “job done”.

I’d have liked them to approach schools they had concerns about and help them to increase their numbers. In the interim they could have head-sharing arrangements to reduce their salary costs. Nah … just close `em.

There have been no estimates of flow on costs to the community of these closures. Fewer kids walking to school, childhood obesity anyone? Traffic safety measures for those that can walk but now have to cross major roads. Loss of amenity to the suburb, community facilities and social cohesion.

I know that last one sounds wishy washy, but as a parent of small children in an affected suburb (Giralang) I know how devastating this will be for my family and especially my wife. Through the local school she has met heaps of local people (as have I) and we’ve started to make links in the community. Invaluable stuff I reckon.

GuruJ 3:40 pm 09 Oct 06

aidan,

Agree with the arguments paras 1 & 2. It’s worth noting that the final list of schools being closed hasn’t been finalized, so it will be interesting to see if the Gov’t takes your arguments into account there.

Para 3: “There is nothing inherently inefficient about small schools, they just have fewer students over which to spread their fixed costs.”

This is the inherent inefficiency. Depreciation is a cost regardless of its origin. After all, depreciation is just a fancy way of saying that buildings eventually become unsuitable/unusable and need to be replaced.

Back on the education quality issue, the SOS report seems to be rather selective in its use of the research. For example, the Abbott et al report from 2002 concludes:

“Certainly, the multi-level findings of our study argue against (my emphasis) the simplistic conclusion that reducing school and/or district size will automatically improve student achievement, or be more equitable.”

In fact, several reports find that larger schools are advantageous to outcomes in affluent communities. But what is “affluent”? Where is the cut-over point?

Socioeconomic disadvantage is, by its very nature, a relative phenomenon. Poverty in the USA tends to be more extreme and so “poor” people in Australia may not experience the disadvantages cited in these reports. Without Australian studies to back up the USA research, I can’t place too much weight on these results.

aidan 3:15 pm 09 Oct 06

GuruJ,

Yes and no.

The factory analogy doesn’t really apply as the Government is in the business of providing a comprehensive public education system. It cannot decide to centralise all it’s activities into one central point, it has to maintain a broad geographic spread of schools.

They have failed to acknowledge this, and have proposed to close two adjacent schools – Flynn and Mt Rogers. They plan to close Giralang Primary, leaving almost the entire suburb without the option of walking to school, and ditto for Weston Primary. If they have to reduce the number of school sites then no school should have been off limits. The criteria for closing a school should have been derived from maintaining a viable level of service for all kids.

The Government rhetoric was all about “inefficient” small schools being “subsidised” by big schools. There is nothing inherently inefficient about small schools, they just have fewer students over which to spread their fixed costs. Those fixed costs include depreciation. Yet the Department of Education is designed to run at a loss which exactly equals the cost of the depreciation of their buildings. So it isn’t clear to me that this is a cost at all, more of an accounting standard.

By focusing on the cost per student other details are lost. Like, for example, the exhorbitant cost of Gold Creek school. If Gold Creek cost the same as other schools of it’s size it would save the ACT tax payer $1.5M a year. That is about the same amount they plan to save by closing Giralang, Tharwa, Rivett and Melrose Primary Schools combined.

emd 3:05 pm 09 Oct 06

Getting back on the topic of quality of education (not cost), I agree with aidan that it’s quite OK to respond to US-based policy from the ACT Government with US-based research showing that they are targeting some of the wrong schools for closure.

Surely there’s a place in our public education system for mega-schools (for those that want a smorgasbord of educational programs) and small schools (for those that want a holistic, individual approach)?

GuruJ 2:04 pm 09 Oct 06

aidan,

I just looked at your figures, and you show that costs are roughly proportional to the number of students … excluding fixed costs.

But isn’t that the whole point? That larger schools allow the fixed costs to be spread across more students, thus achieving economies of scale?

It’s like saying that it’s just as cheap to produce 10 cars as 10,000 as long as you ignore the pesky costs of building the factory in the first place.

Mr Evil 1:56 pm 09 Oct 06

So size is important, but not always?

ghughes 12:42 pm 09 Oct 06

The media release seems to say that poor people need small schools. Rich people need big schools.

So I guess aspirational voters (nouveau riche or CUBS) will demand large schools as a symbol of their wealth – see Dara, marist or Radford for example.

aidan 11:43 am 09 Oct 06

Sorry JB, only just noticed the update to the original post.

I agree with the US research thing, except that is pretty much where the bulk of the education research seems to come from. The Govt website lists mostly US research, so it is ok to quote it against their proposal I reckon.

seepi 11:35 am 09 Oct 06

I don’t know that it’s wrong to right fire with fire anyway. The govt have thrown around plenty of hyperbole and wierd statements. Like Andrew Barr’s claim that closing the only college inteh inner north and making the only high school a 7-12 model offerred ‘more choice’ to local families.

aidan 11:16 am 09 Oct 06

Johnboy,

You seem to be missing the point. Class size, whilst important, is not the thing the research looked at. It was small schools. They provide an enormous advantage for poor kids.

Read the SOS press release. It doesn’t mention class size at all.

The other side of the debate is cost, and the Government has been banging on about how much more expensive small schools are. They are not more expensive (look at the plots I have done if you don’t believe me).

It is true that the more school sites the Government operates the more expensive it is. But the Towards 2020 proposal hasn’t addressed this issue, it has just targetted some schools with low enrolments, and not others.

This process is pretty much guaranteed to result in the worst possible outcome for the ACT.

johnboy 10:53 am 09 Oct 06

At the end of the day the flexibility of a bigger faculty staff is always going to make it cheaper to teach smaller classes in bigger schools.

Assuming of course that it’s a priority for the school’s management.

emd 10:39 am 09 Oct 06

While it’s true that not all small schools have small class sizes, it is true that small schools are better for children from low income families.

This column from the US talks about how small schools can better support disadvantaged children because they have a more personal relationship with individual students. It doesn’t talk about class size – it talks about school size.

This is not news to the ACT Legislative Assembly. Hansard quotes from 1991 show that at least some members acknowledged that larger schools tend towards “teaching the subject” rather than “teaching the student”. To get better results for disadvantaged students requires a holistic approach that is harder to achieve in a mega-school where nobody knows your name.

In addition, it should be noted that some of the schools proposed for closure are small schools with small class sizes. Melrose Primary in Chifley is one such school.

The Towards 2020 proposal claims to be about reversing the move away from public education by offering parents CHOICE. Independent schools like Canberra Montessori, Blue Gum, Emmaus etc are popular partly because they are small enough to accommodate individual needs. Closing public schools that offer this choice will only increase the public education exodus.

aidan 10:05 am 09 Oct 06

I think you’ll find that the ABC have not done a good job of reporting this story. The SOS press release makes no mention of class size. The relevant research that SOS quotes makes no claim about class size either. Small schools, irrespective of class size, are better for poor students.

Amazing eh?

The other nifty thing is that small schools are not more expensive as is somtimes claimed by the Government.

jr 9:37 am 09 Oct 06

Through work I get to see a lot of schools (I sell ICT into the education sector).

The mark of a good school is not whether it is small or large, government or private – rather it is simply a function of the management team (the principal and deputy) and whether they have a good team of teachers behind them.

bonfire 9:29 am 09 Oct 06

I listened to one of these SOS softheads at a belco communist council meeting a few months back.

his main agenda was anti-private school, more than saving govt schools.

he prefaced his rant by saying that children who go to private schools are less prepared for ‘real life’ than children that go to govt schools.

This did not go down well with some sectors of his audience… who naturally objected to this idiots generalisation. The convenor of the meeting had to call for calm so the meeting coudl continue.

real issue – saving govt schools. message he put out – private schools are evil. result – alientae people who will ignore your message.

jane ? gorrie was there.

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