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  • The MySchool Website:  Some Issues for Schools 

    February, 2010

    There have been very few educational issues in recent years that have caused as much media interest as the launch of the Australian Government’s new “MySchool” website.

    As most would know, this is a new facility managed by the Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) on behalf of the Australian Government.  It presents to the public data on student performance in national testing by comparing each school with a number of others deemed to be like it.

    The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, the Honourable Julia Gillard, clearly is deeply committed to the concept.  She continually reminds the public that it is in the interests of transparency, allowing parents to have ever more comprehensive information about school performance.  She tells us, at the same time, that the publication of these results will encourage schools continually to find ways to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

    It is of course very difficult to argue against providing parents with increasing information and no one would disagree that we need always to improve the quality of what schools do.

    However, it is equally arguable that the publication of school performance on these national tests is not the way to achieve either of these objectives.  On one level the data that is presented is comprehensive (in a way) but it is also confusing.  In part, it needs to be that way to prevent the publication of potentially damaging league tables.  It does make direct comparisons quite difficult.

    On the other hand we need always to remember that, while literacy and numeracy are critical things that form an important part of the core of every schools work, they are not all that schools are about – nor should they be. 

    Schools are also places where young people learn to be part of their social world; they are places where young people can grow to be full human beings, places to learn and exercise creativity, to appreciate beauty, to develop healthy curiosity, to develop the ability to understand, analyse and criticize what they see around them and experience.  And schools are also places that should provide opportunities for the most challenging and the most disadvantaged children.  The Catholic school is also a place where students are invited to learn to know and to love God.

    The Church puts it clearly when it says that the goal of the Catholic school is the development of the human person.  By that we mean more, far more, than a collection of literacy and numeracy skills.  In the view of our Catholic schools the human person is one who is Christ like, who is fully human fully human and able to respond to human situations in a loving, generous and compassionate way.

    No test can report on these things.  The danger is that the publication of mere test results may lead to their being overvalued at the expense of all these other important functions of the school.

    Equally worrying is that our political leaders seem to be firmly wedded to this approach, although all the evidence from the US and the UK (where such results have been published for many years) is that it does not work.  It makes little positive difference to students or their learning.  Indeed, so strong is this evidence that systems both in the US and the UK are moving firmly away from it even as we in Australia are moving towards it.  Strange indeed.  To further complicate matters, the nations that perform best in international testing (mostly in Scandinavia) do not use any form of national testing.  Yet, we continue down that problematic path.

    However, it is clear that this system will be with us for some time to come.  It should not be of concern if we have good schools – and we do.  In this diocese we know our schools are fundamentally sound.  We know, at the same time that there are areas in which schools can and should improve. The “MySchool” website may provide a good direction, to enable schools to identify areas that need further development.  From that point of view, it can be of great benefit to schools – and to each and every student in them.

    But we cannot put too much importance on these published results.  They are very limited in their scope and, in fact, can be negative and dangerous particularly when they lead to schools being unfairly ranked and  labelled.  They do not, by any means, represent the whole of school life. 

    Each teacher, each school community needs always to be attentive to the opportunity to use such educational measurement to improve what they do.  At the same time, though, our society needs to avoid the mistake of valuing only what we can measure.

    Literacy and numeracy are, as said above, critically important.  Despite their importance, they form only a part of what good Catholic schools do.  The danger is that by reporting so comprehensively on them we will cease to value all those other achievements and the hard work that goes into making them.

    Our Catholic schools – like any school that does its job well - have no need to fear such things as the MySchool website.  They do have the opportunity to benefit from such tools as long as they are kept in proper perspective.