As students across Australia sat the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests last week, the media reported NSW government plans to introduce league tables, comparing student performance across schools.
The May 6 Sydney Morning Herald reported state education minister Verity Firth was willing to agree to the collection of comparative data from schools in NSW.
But this is not new. The states agreed to introduce league tables last November. The term "league table" was avoided, but proposed performance data comparison is exactly that.
It was part of the Council Of Australian Governments' National Education Agreement and National Partnerships on Education, linking federal funding for schools with introducing league tables.
The agreement unambiguously says state and federal governments will "commit to national reporting on the performance of individual schools … The publication of this information will allow comparison of like schools (that is, schools with similar student populations across the nation) and comparison of a school with other schools in their local community."
This is a description of league tables.
Firth has indicated the government was prepared to overturn 1997 legislation preventing the publication of student results "in a way that ranks or otherwise compares the results of particular schools", said the May 11 SMH.
This legislation was introduced for good reasons. The Mount Druitt High School community was devastated in 1997 after the media branded the school's 1996 HSC students as the "class we failed", after the entire year group achieved tertiary entrance ranks below 45.
Experiences of using league tables around the world prove they harm school communities, unfairly ranking and comparing student performance in different schools without consideration of socioeconomic status or high numbers of students from non-English speaking backgrounds.
There is no fair comparison of performance of students from a school in a well-off, middle-class, predominantly English-speaking area, with students in a low socioeconomic, largely non-English speaking community.
The introduction of league tables without consideration of the context leads to communities losing confidence in their schools and students, student disillusionment and the vicious circle of schools being perceived as "failing".
Yet federal education minister Julia Gillard has openly praised the so-called "New York" model of education, where the schools were graded on a scale of A, B, C, D or F, according to the performance of students.
The argument says it is all about "choice" — providing parents with data that informs their choice of school. But this seemingly reasonable argument is the same neoliberal ideology that was behind the previous Liberal/National government's introduction of Work Choices — also supposedly about giving workers more "choices".
Of course, it was really about giving employers the power to more effectively exploit workers by not having to deal with their unions.
In the case of schools, this ideology is connected with the NSW government's agenda to devolve schools. It wants to transform them from parts of a complete system into individual, isolated schools run and operated like businesses.
While using the language of increasing choice, it is really about taking away the choices, rights and conditions of teachers, students and parents.
The New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF) and the NSW Public Education Alliance have written to Firth, urging her to support the introduction of federal legislation prohibiting the publication of league tables.
The federation has said it will take political and industrial action opposing league tables if the NAPLAN results are used to create them.
[Pat Donohoe is a NSWTF councillor, secretary of Canterbury-Bankstown Teachers Association and a Socialist Alliance activist.]