This article is from the April 9 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

PAUL SHEEHAN

To not care about lifting up the poor schools is to not care about egalitarianism.

On January 8, 1997, The Daily Telegraph splashed a frontpage story under the headline ‘‘ The class we failed’’ . The story was accompanied by the 1996 year 12 class photo at Mount Druitt High School. This class, the story said, had the lowest combined university entrance result in the state. Not one student had scored a tertiary entrance rank as high as 45 out of a possible 100.

This story proved traumatic for all involved, not least the Telegraph. Even the name Mount Druitt High School would disappear. The school is now called Chifley College Mount Druitt campus. Although the story portrayed the students as let down by the education system, they did not see it that way. They sued the newspaper for defamation. And won.

The Telegraph published an apology . The state government passed legislation to prohibit such stories from being published.

A decade later, the wound had not healed when a teacher from the Mount Druitt campus, Dianne Pyne, who was a NSW Teachers Federation representative, wrote a submission to the Senate inquiry into the proposed National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing. She warned against publishing schools’ test results, using the Telegraph controversy as an example:

‘‘ The reporting of the results in no way reflected the difficulties this community faced in terms of dysfunctional households, single parent households, low incomes, the high number of learning disabilities and the high number of students with English as their second language . Nor did it reflect the high proportion of indigenous students with the high levels of learning difficulties that they face.

‘‘ Finally, it did not reflect the ‘drainoff ’ of talented students to neighbouring selective schools and the newly created St Marys Senior High School. Instead, compared to other schools in the state we were branded as failures. This simply reinforced the insecurities and sense of inferiority that students in Mount Druitt already felt. This stigma remains and any public publishing of league tables will continue to reinforce that felt stigma and so the cycle will continue.’’

In two paragraphs she had summed up many problems. But she and her union lost this battle. The Gillard government pressed ahead with the NAPLAN tests and publishes the results on the My School website. The mass of data merely confirms the iron link between socio-economic context and academic performance.

The 10 schools that ranked lowest on the My School socio-economic index in 2011 are a world away from the top schools: Wilcannia Central, Boggabilla Central, Goodooga Central , Brewarrina Central, Walgett Community College, Collarenebri Central, Mungindi Central, Menindee Central, Chifley College Bidwill campus and Coonamble High.

All are mostly Aboriginal schools, with one exception: Bidwill, whose students are 10 per cent Aboriginal, 30 per cent Pacific Islander and 35 per cent from non-Englishspeaking households. A classic western Sydney melting pot.

Some of these schools are not even ranked. There are 16 schools in NSW with a socio-economic index on My School of below 800, and it is not worth ranking or comparing them with other schools because their circumstances are too arduous.

Of the schools with a socioeconomic rating above 800, the 10 lowest-ranked NSW high schools in NAPLAN tests were: Granville South Creative and Performing Arts High, Chifley College Dunheved campus, Airds High, Lurnea High, Chifley College Shalvey campus, Chifley College Mount Druitt campus, Granville Boys High, Bundarra Central , Matraville Sports High and Portland Central High.

All of these schools are melting pots. Seven are in Sydney’s west. Two schools, Lurnea and Granville Boys, have much higher socio-economic scores than the others but they are dominated by students from non-English-speaking households (94 per cent in the case of Granville). Granville South Creative is 87 per cent non-English-speaking background. Airds High is majority Pacific Islander or Aboriginal. The three Chifley College campuses, and Matraville Sports, have a majority of students either from non-English-speaking , Aboriginal or Pacific Islander households.

Teachers like Dianne Pyne, and her union, regard the information available to the public and media on the My School website as invidious because it is open to misuse, or misinterpretation , or simplistic comparisons . But the point of drawing attention to these schools is to remind the schools and the public that they are not forgotten, that they cannot be left behind by a system increasingly stratified by government policies and private trends.

To not care about lifting up the poor schools is to not care about the Australian ethos of egalitarianism.

In these schools teachers routinely have to do heroic work to overcome the in-built disadvantages, and the biggest disadvantage is often the parents – or their absence.

A friend of mine, a retired school principal, wrote to me after reading a recent column about our stratifying school system: ‘‘ From my own experience of years in the private system and my 40 years in the public system, including 20 years as a high school principal, the real X-factor which is rarely prominently discussed – the elephant in the room – is not mainly money or autonomy. It is parents.

‘‘ Whilst private schools and selective schools can separate their students from the undisciplined, the unmotivated, the dysfunctional, the irresponsible, the handicapped – the kids whose parents can’t or won’t exercise any control on them – we will continue to have a class system in our schools.

‘‘ Until classroom teachers and state school executives have the power to set and enforce codes of conduct, discipline and application comparable to the powers taken for granted in private schools we will continue to have one system for the bright, ambitious and/or wealthy and one for the rest.’’

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald