Thursday, January 28, 2010

Australia's new My School web site goes live - more or less

Well, the Australian Government's much anticipated My School web site went live last night. One should say, perhaps, more or less live because it keeps crashing. Most frustrating.

For the benefit of readers outside Australia, the web site provides information on school performance across Australia in certain test areas, along with comparative data for statistically similar schools based on the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) and the overall national average. The site also includes a statement by each school, along with statistical data about the school including number of students, proportion of indigenous students and the schools ICSEA ranking.

I was able to do some preliminary searches before the search function crashed. Like any curious person, I started with my daughters' old school. Then I searched on Armidale by school name and then post code, giving me a list of all schools in that post code. I chose Armidale because I knew the schools as well as the city's socio-economic structure and thus was able to look at patterns in a small geographically contained area with a significant number of schools across school types.

The site crashed before I had done more that half a dozen searches. Still, I was at least able to form a preliminary view.

To begin with, the information provided was fascinating from the viewpoint of the social analyst. In the Armidale case, there was far greater variation in ICSEA ranking even between schools of the same type than I would have expected. To a degree, this appears to link directly to the proportion of Indigenous students.

Armidale has quite a high Aboriginal population, but there is great variation in the proportion of Indigenous students between the schools.  Among the schools I was able to check, the range was from 1% at TAS, one of my old schools, to 52% in the case of Drummond Memorial Primary School, the school named after my grandfather. This affects the ICSEA ranking.

There also appeared to be greater performance variations between schools than I would have expected, again almost certainly linked to the varying ICSEA rankings.

Parents aren't dumb. All the Armidale schools are within a few kilometres of each other, so parents with cars and cash who don't mind their kids not walking to school have wide choice. In our case with Helen, eldest, we school shopped before settling on Newling Public School.

We can see the parent choice effect in existing variations between the city's primary schools. The new data will certainly further affect choice between private and public and between the different schools in each sector.

Armidale is an unusual case, because the city's role as an educational centre means that it has an unusually large number of schools in a small area. The type of local effect that I am talking about is likely to be somewhat muted in other areas, but will still certainly occur.

In considering this, it is important to realise that the key comparison that parents will use is not the school's performance compared to schools with a comparable ICSEA ranking, but the relative performance of those schools open to them.

The new ranking system is going to have broader political and public policy effects.

For the first time, we have a quantifiable public measure that allows relative disadvantage at school level to be plotted in geographic terms. We may have known it, but we couldn't easily measure it. With people like me digging around, let alone those at official level, it won't be long before all this starts affecting political debate and school funding decisions.

If you look at Neil's Education: wrong path, Ms Gillard?, you will get a feel for the issues that have dominated debate about the new measurement system. Those issues are important. However, I for one had not realised the full dynamic effects of the new changes. I needed to see the new site and play with it a bit to start getting a feel.

Which leads me to wonder just how long My School will survive in its present form.

As I write now, the world has woken and the air waves are full of discussion about the site. It is one thing to mount an argument based on parent choice, a second to manage a broader debate that drives to the heart of education policy and the allocation of funds determined by that policy. I wonder if Minister Gillard realised this?

No comments: