Private schooling is clearly better

Randwick Boys High and Randwick Girls High are next door to each other yet separated by a wide divide in academic performance. The boys school ranks 458 on the MySchool website while the girls school ranks 231. So close yet so far apart. Just how distracted are the boys for them to lag so behind the girls in performance?

According to data on the MySchool website, the schools have very similar socio-economic catchment areas, as expected, while Randwick Boys received $1220 more per student than Randwick Girls last year. So why was there such a gap in overall results as measured by the federal government's National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) scores?

I hadn't realised the difference between the aptitude and attention spans of girls was so much greater than boys of comparable social background. Unless there is more to the story. There is. Randwick Boys High is not unusual. It is emblematic of a broad divergence in performances when like-for-like comparisons are made via the MySchool data base and its socio-economic index known as ICSEA.

The disparity is stark when public and private high schools with comparable scores on the ICSEA socio-economic index are compared.

Just down the street from Randwick Boys is the Catholic boys school Marcellin College. Again, the schools are close in every way except academic ranking. They are close on the ICSEA index. Randwick Boys also received $614 more per student than Marcellin College last year.

Yet in the overall NAPLAN scores, Marcellin ranks 122, far ahead of Randwick Boys at 458. Marcellin's ranking is also more than 100 places ahead of Randwick Girls, which wipes out the female superiority factor. Another nearby Catholic boys schools, Waverley College, also ranks much higher than both Randwick Boys and Randwick Girls, at 165.

It's not just about money. Although Waverley rated higher than Marcellin in the ICSEA index, and received almost 30 per cent more income per student, Marcellin delivered more bang for the buck, outranking its Catholic rival by 43 places.

Overall, the MySchool is telling us that private schools are producing a better education than public comprehensive schools even when they have similar resources and similar socio-economic catchment areas. The disparity in performance does not change when the comparison is shifted to girls schools.

Again, the distance between Randwick Girls High and a nearby Catholic girls school, Brigidine College, is not great except in academic rankings. The two schools are a couple of streets apart. They are very close on the ICSEA socio-economic index, with a slight advantage to Brigidine. Financially, they are almost identical. Brigidine received $11,337 per student last year and Randwick Girls received slightly more, $11,444 (both below the state average of $12,539).

Brigidine used its similar modest resources to excel, ranking 120 on MySchool, more than 100 places ahead of Randwick Girls. Another nearby Catholic girls school, St Clare's, Waverley, again with a socio-economic index similar to Randwick Girls, also ranks much higher at 152.

An even more striking gap exists between Randwick Girls and St Catherine's, an Anglican girls school in Waverley. They are only 2.7 kilometres apart and there is not a great socio-economic distance, with St Catherine's ranking 10 per cent higher (wealthier?) on the ICSEA index.

The similarities end there. St Catherine's ranks 52, an elite performance among the state's 783 secondary schools. It also received $21,020 per student, almost $10,000 more than Randwick Girls. That explains a lot.

The difference in incomes came from the pockets of parents, who paid a stiff premium in the expectation of their daughters receiving a markedly superior education than they would at a comprehensive public school. Parents of Brigidine and St Clare's girls also received superior performances for their investment, which usually involves financial strain. These are not rich schools.

Obviously, it is only fair to acknowledge that comprehensive schools are being strip-mined of their best and most motivated students (and parents) by selective public schools and private schools, which now have 40 per cent of the student population.

It is also important to note a wide discrepancy in the percentage of students who come from non-English-speaking backgrounds in the seven schools mentioned here: Randwick Boys 75 per cent, Randwick Girls 55, Brigidine 28, Marcellin 23, St Clare's 21, St Catherine's 13 and Waverley College 7.

The high percentage of non-English-speaking-background students at Randwick Boys would appear to account for the drag in the school's relative performance. But this in itself is not a marker of disadvantage. Many of the best schools in the state have very high percentages of such students.

The top academic school in NSW, James Ruse Agricultural High, has 96 per cent of its students from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

The MySchool data offers an overall conclusion: when private schools and public schools are handed a similar cohort of students and income, most private schools produce clearly better results.

For those with reservations about the MySchool rankings, I share those reservations. However, this is transparency at work.

This is a Julia Gillard-driven initiative that is designed to drive improvements in performances. Soon, the NSW government will introduce a momentous change, giving independence to public school principals.

Headmasters will have to spend a lot more time on management and budgets than they do now. But they will be largely liberated from the NSW Education Department. They will have the flexibility enjoyed by private school principals, and resources can be shifted from the bloated central bureaucracy to front-line schooling.


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