Wednesday, April 12, 2017
I figure the best ways to get to know people in your suburb is to own a dog – you get to talk to other dog-owners as you stand around in the local park – and send your kids to the local school. You can't help getting to know the other parents in your kids' classes.
But all that was some years ago, and times change. The local school isn't the institution it used to be.
Perhaps it won't surprise you to be told that, over the years, our capital cities have become more stratified, with a greater tendency for better-off people to live in better-off suburbs – the ones with water and views and, these days, those closest to the centre – and for the less well-off to live in less well-off suburbs far from the centre.
This is most true of Sydney, then Melbourne – which is catching up with Sydney in size – but less true of the other capitals.
But maybe this will surprise: something similar is happening to our schools, particularly secondary schools.
We have a widening divide between the schools attended by the offspring of better-educated, better-off parents, and those attended by, well, the not so well educated and paid.
This is happening partly in consequence of the increasing stratification of suburbs, but also because of the education policies pursued by federal and state governments.
Unlike almost all other rich economies, Australia runs three school systems rather than one.
This array has tempted us to treat school as though it was a market, where government, Catholic and independent schools compete for youthful customers, thus providing parents with greater choice and obliging government schools to lift their game.
John Howard was big on choice. Julia Gillard left Howard's pro-choice funding arrangements running until Labor's last year, while emphasising competition between schools.
She introduced the NAPLAN testing of literacy and numeracy and, to ensure parents were well-informed before making their choice, she introduced the My School website, loaded with detailed information about every school.
We got a lot of choice, but no improvement in measured performance. Moral: schools aren't a market.
One benefit, however, is that researchers can collate the My School data to give us a much clearer picture of what's happening to our schools. Leaders in this research are two retired high school principals, Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd.
Everyone knows there's been a decades-long drift of students from government to non-government schools.
What our not-so-retired principals have discovered, however, is that this has masked a big shift from schools with low socio-educational advantage to those with high socio-educational advantage. (A school's socio-educational advantage is rated largely according to the socio-economic status of its students.)
My School shows that, over the five years to 2015, average enrolments at all schools grew by more than five students a year. But enrolments at schools with high socio-educational advantage grew by an average of 11 students a year, whereas enrolments at disadvantaged schools grew by just more than one student a year.
When choosing schools, many of us think of a hierarchy of excellence – in teaching and results – running from government to Catholic to independent. But that's just what you see on the packet. (Echoed by the prices of the packets.)
Studies estimate that 78 per cent of the variance in the performance of schools is explained by differences in their socio-educational advantage – that is, by the socio-economic status of their students.
Independent schools tend to get good exam results because most of their students come from well-educated families. Catholic schools get better results than you might expect because the days when their classrooms were full of working class kids are long gone.
You'd expect this to mean public schools increasingly full of disadvantaged kids getting poor results. True, but they retain a higher proportion of advantaged students than you'd expect.
Why? Partly because public schools in posh suburbs still have lots of smart kids, but mainly because – particularly in Sydney and, to a lesser extent, Melbourne – state authorities have responded to the demand for greater "choice" by creating more selective schools.
But this means greater stratification on the basis of socio-economic status even within the government system, coming at the expense of disadvantaged government schools.
Choice, however, isn't available to all parents. To have a choice you need either brains or money (which usually comes with brains attached).
The vogue for choice has also allowed greater stratification of students on the basis of religion. These days, Jewish kids go to Jewish schools, Muslim kids go to Muslim schools and Baptist and Pentecostal kids go to "Christian" schools.
Trouble is, high socio-educational advantage schools aren't always located in high-status suburbs. So these days, a lot more traffic congestion is caused by a lot more students and parents travelling longer distances to and from school.
Leading to the decline of the local school. Less than a third of schools now have an enrolment that resembles the people in their local area.
Sounds a great way to reduce the nation's social cohesion.
What did the rich kid say to the poor kid? Nothing. They never met.