This clipping is from the January 28 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit

Trailing, can do better: report needs answers
SMH – Saturday, 28 Jan 2012 – Page 35

High-performing countries recruit high-calibre teachers.

When Julia Gillard was in Sydney this week to announce extra schools funding for students with disabilities, she stressed the need for Australia to win the ‘‘ education race’ ’ against its Asian neighbours.

The call followed the lament by her Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett, over disappointing results from last year’s national literacy and numeracy tests. There has been no marked improvement, and performance of top students is going backwards.

Tests from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the equivalent to the local tests, show a consistent downward slide in the performance of Australia’s 15-year-olds over the past decade.

The Prime Minister’s remarks were setting the tone for the government’s response to the national review of schools funding it commissioned from Sydney businessman David Gonski, which is about to be released. She expressed a vision for a ‘‘ highwage , high-skilled society’ ’ amid rapid economic growth in Asia.

‘‘ We can win as a nation in this century but, in order to do that, we’ve got to win the education race,’’ she said. ‘‘ Our competitors are continuing to invest and improve the quality of their school systems, and four out of the five top performing school systems in the world now are in countries in our region.’’

A separate report commissioned by Gonski notes schools in Shanghai,

Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan

are beating Australia in OECD


Student performance has fallen behind in absolute terms in reading, writing and arithmetic. It falls behind compared to other countries in the numbers completing year 12. The tail end of student performance is falling and the top students are also lagging, raising questions about the quality of curriculum and teaching standards, and entrenched inequity.

Government policies have offered parents greater choice in schools and schools a greater choice in selecting students.

Australia invests 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product in education , compared with the OECD average of 4.2 per cent, and stands relatively alone in the level of public funding it provides private schools – more than $27 billion over four years. The brightest and most socioeconomically advantaged children are concentrated in independent and public selective schools; the disadvantaged and poorest academic performers are in the public system. For 10 years under the Howard government, Australia suppressed data comparing the performance of independent and public schools.

Sue Thomson, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, says the latest OECD snapshot revealed, for the first time, no significant differences in test scores from public and private schools after they were adjusted for the socio-economic background of students and their school peers. This confirmed the performance of Australian students is linked to the family background of students and their peers – not the school they attend.

The data, collected from 15,000 students, had never been reported because Australia refused to provide it to the OECD for the 2000, 2003 and 2006 reporting periods.

Data from other OECD countries consistently showed public schools performed as well or better than independent schools after socioeconomic factors were accounted for. The Australian private schools lobby rejects the research as flawed.

Professor Richard Sweet, from Melbourne University’s graduate school of education, helped compile a report commissioned by the Gonski review. The Nous Group review is a blunt assessment of government policies that provided greater choice for families and schools.

Sweet, an OECD education analyst until 2005, said greater choice was associated with lower performance because it resulted in a concentration of weaker students in disadvantaged schools.

‘‘ Any supposed performance advantage from going to a private school is entirely due to the fact they come from advantaged backgrounds and are concentrated together.’’

Sweet said that if the Gonski review did not tackle the issue of school choice, ‘‘ then the only avenue available to it is a resourcing one. You have to spend a lot more money on the weaker kids.’’

But money will not solve all the problems. High-performing countries recruit high-calibre teachers with masters degrees. They do not focus on standardised testing and ‘‘ teaching to the test’’ , which teachers complain of in Australia.

‘‘ What goes on in Chinese classrooms , for example, is a process of teaching kids to think and not a process of just drumming in facts,’’ Sweet said.

Barry McGaw, who heads the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, is concerned schools are not stretching the top students.

He believes there has been too much focus on developing basic skills to meet minimum standards.

The authority looked at maths curriculums in Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland to shape its national curriculum. ‘‘ We have upped the ante in mathematics,’’ he said.

He found students in south-west Sydney were studying lower levels of mathematics and English than those in northern Sydney, despite being of similar ability, because ‘‘ southwestern Sydney schools weren’t offering the higher level courses’’ .

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald