Greens defeat league tables legislation

The threat of the publication of damaging school league tables in New South Wales has been averted for the moment.

The government introduced legislation to NSW parliament on June 18 that would have lifted the state's 12-year ban on league tables.

However, on June 24, the Greens moved an amendment, which passed, preventing NSW newspapers from publishing comparisons of schools without their consent.

The ban was introduced after a newspaper branded the 1996 HSC students at Mount Druitt High School the "class we failed" in 1997. None of the students achieved a Tertiary Entrance Rank above 45.

The legislation banned the publication of student results "in a way that ranks or otherwise compares the results of particular schools". League tables do exactly this, ranking the performance of students in schools (and hence the schools themselves) in a simplistic fashion like tables reporting the ranking of football teams.

Wherever league tables have been published (Britain, for instance) they have led to the destruction of school communities, because these crude comparisons fail to take into account the context of schools.

It is completely unrealistic to compare the performance of students in middle-class suburbs where the population is of a mainly English-speaking background with that of students in schools in lower socio-economic status areas with large numbers of people from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

League tables take a "name and shame" approach to schools experiencing poor levels of student results, under the guise of the agendas of "accountability" and "choice". They imply that teachers, principals and schools should be accountable for the results of their students (regardless of the socio-economic and cultural context of their school communities) and that parents should be given the choice to send their students to schools that are "performing".

But the "choice" to send a child to a so-called "high performing" school is usually not open to poorer parents because of a lack of money: choice exists only for those who can afford it.

It also fails to recognise that teachers working in so-called "under-performing" schools are working in schools that are chronically under-funded by government. Unlike the "performing" schools in middle-class areas, do not have parents who can afford to donate extra funds for resources and equipment that the education funding system fails to provide.

The real solution to the problem of so-called "under-performing" schools is to provide the equitable and necessary
funding they need.

Greens state MP and education spokesperson John Kaye told Green Left Weekly that such schools need more support, resources and acknowledgement for the work that they do.

"We want to see the celebration of education, not the naming and shaming of league tables", he said.

Federal and state ALP governments do not agree.

A Council of Australian Governments meeting in November 2008 agreed that states would provide data for national reporting and comparison of the performance of individual schools in return for extra federal funding.

This is why the state government tried to overturn the ban, which protected school communities from such damaging comparisons.

The government had claimed that its legislation meant that the data provided to the federal government would not be used to create league tables, and that third parties, such as newspapers, would be unable to obtain raw exam results.

But the results are to be published on the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website for the information of parents. This would have been all the data newspapers needed to create and publish league tables.

The Greens' amendment now ensures that newspapers that violate the ban and use the ACARA data to publish league tables will face fines of $55,000.

This defeat of the attempt to impose league tables on NSW schools is a significant victory for public education.

But there are still many other attacks on public education taking place in NSW and Australia-wide. Education minister Julia Gillard is enamoured with the so-called "New York model" of education, which is basically educational neo-liberalism: league tables, performance pay for teachers and devolution of schools are all aspects of this agenda currently now pushed.

The fight must continue!

[Pat Donohoe is a councillor of the NSW Teachers Federation, secretary of Canterbury-Bankstown Teachers Association and a Socialist Alliance activist.]