Academic achievement of a school is important when trying to choose the right school for your child, but as Rev Alex Koch of St Catherine’s School in Sydney writes, there is also much more to consider.
School choice is a hot topic these days. Cyberspace is full of ideological discussion and empirical findings about the benefits of one school system over another, of one school over another. It has become a competitive marketplace with schools jostling for position, each eager to boast why choosing them is the best thing they could do for their children. This is particularly true for schools in the independent sector, where schools sink or swim on the back of enrolment numbers. And so the temptation is firmly cast: to place the academic reputation of the school as paramount.
The academic achievement of a school is an important thing to consider. But it can become problematic if it becomes the ultimate thing. The true test of a school’s values is when student needs and maintaining an academic reputation appear to be at odds. Sadly, the current school testing environment makes this an all-too-real scenario.
Every school gets nervous in December. That’s when HSC results are released. And that’s when The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) publishes its school ranking table. It doesn’t take long before conversations on the kids’ birthday party circuit turn to the ‘who’s up’ and ‘who’s down’ list of schools in the area. Many parents use the SMH leader table as a significant deciding factor in their final choice for their children’s schools. The cold reality for schools is that enrolments will change depending on what rung of the SMH ladder a school sits. And so the temptation is for schools to do all they can to push up their ranking as high as possible.
Competition is not always a bad thing. It’s the very thing that gives rise to the amazing feats of athleticism we admire on the sports field. The problem with competitiveness in our current school environment is that the game schools are playing (and parents are spectating) is just a terrible game. There is no shortage of space in the press given to criticism of NAPLAN and the MySchool website. But for the life of me, I can’t work out why similar criticism is not levelled at the SMH rankings. In my opinion, the educational value of NAPLAN data (problematic though it may be) is several orders of magnitude more useful than the SMH rankings.
While we all know that a good education is about much more than an ATAR, unfortunately the SMH calculations bear no relationship to the ATAR students receive. To be fair, it’s not really their fault. The only information they have available to them is what is publicly available. But current privacy concerns have led the education authorities to release only limited information. Even schools are not given information about their students’ ATARs. Did you catch that? Schools are not told the ATARs of their students. Any school analysis relies on students voluntarily disclosing their ATAR to the school.
So what information is available to the SMH? It is the number of courses for which a school’s HSC candidates received a ‘Band 6’, and how many courses those candidates sat. The SMH takes this data and gives the schools a score based on the following calculation: the number of courses with a Band 6 result divided by the number of course taken by all candidates at the school.
This score is then used to rank schools. So there are two ways a school can improve its score:
- Increase the number of students achieving courses with Band 6 results.
- Decrease the total number of courses taken by all students.
In my years at St Catherine’s I have seen academic policies that have done exactly the opposite. St Catherine’s has promoted policies that would place downward pressure on the SMH ranking. We encourage students to complete the most challenging courses that they can competently do; and we challenge our students to do more than the minimum 10 units of study. Choosing a more challenging course may result in a decreased likelihood of achieving a Band 6 (even though that subject may still lead to an improved ATAR contribution).
And taking on more than 10 units of study, even though it will increase the denominator in the rank calculation which may result in a lower proportion of Band 6 results for the school ranking, is in many cases still in the best interest of the student. Apart from broadening their range of subjects and their education in general, it gives the student a buffer in case they have a ‘bad’ exam in one of their chosen subjects.
But surely that seems like a crazy thing for a school to do, right? But this so-called rank-diminishing approach has been put in place because of a firm commitment to do what is best for individual students, even if it means a risk to the school’s academic reputation. And it’s this kind of thing that makes me proud to work at St Catherine’s.