First published June 12
In July 2016 the Tasmanian Government commissioned the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to undertake an independent review of Years 9 to 12. It can be downloaded from the Department of Education website ( HERE ) here, and our full critique is HERE .
If the Review is the best case that can be made to defend the ancien regime of Tasmanian public senior secondary schooling, bring on the revolution. So it is surprising that the AEU – or at least those representing college teachers – are using it to claim all is well with education beyond Year10.
The major problem with the Review is that it never asks the most obvious and important questions about secondary education in Tasmania: (1) what proportion of young people gain a qualification from school? and (2) how does this statistic compare to other states, regions, islands, or whatever communities it is thought would be a reasonable benchmark for us?
Rather the Review asks seven questions, confusingly similar to the first one they should have asked, and in every case fails to draw the obvious conclusion from the data presented. So it is hardly surprising that they get the answer to the second question wrong as well.
First, it asks how many young people continue their schooling from Year 7 to until Year12, by looking at data on apparent retention rates. This shows Tasmania in 2015 at 71.7%, with Australia as a whole at 84.4%. Clearly, we should conclude that this is a problem, and the Review does note that Tasmania is below all other jurisdictions on this measure, save the NT. But rather than draw any conclusion from this national comparison, the Review focuses inwards instead, to look at the increase and decrease in the rate over time within Tasmania. The only further reference to things happening elsewhere is the comment that the increase in Tasmania’s apparent retention rate from 2014 to 2015 was greater than any other jurisdiction’s. Fail one.
Second, it asks what proportion of 15-19 year olds are enrolled in school, and notes that in 2015 Tasmania’s figure (61%) is above the national figure of 57%.
What are we to conclude from this? While the Review notes that jurisdictional differences in starting and leaving ages impact on school participation rates, it does not inform the reader that Tasmania has the oldest school starting age in Australia, which might increase this rate. Nor question how the low apparent retention rate already noted and that higher school participation rate might otherwise be reconciled. Rather it simply asserts that Tasmania performs well on the school participation rate. Fail two.
Third, the Review asks how many young people in Tasmania say they have completed Year12 or a VET equivalent by age 19. They report (using work of the Mitchell Institute) that, as at 2015, 74% of Australian young people surveyed said they had Year12 or the agreed VET equivalent, while for Tasmania the figure was 60%. The source of this data is the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census of Population and Housing. This data will be as reliable as the populations’ understanding of what counts as ‘completing’ Year12. Since, as the Review notes elsewhere, ‘the most important and misunderstood concept is ‘completion of Year 12’…[which] can sometimes also be conflated with ‘staying on’ and ‘finishing school,’’ there is good reason to doubt the value of this data. Nevertheless if we decide to give it credibility, the Mitchell Institute tells us that Tasmania is positioned midway between WA and the NT. Again, that would seem to be a problem. But rather than acknowledging this, the Review highlights that attainment is lower in regional and more remote areas, without noticing that at 60% Tasmania is below ‘outer regional’ areas in the whole of Australia, at 62%. Fail three.
Fourth the Review asks, using data from the ABS Survey of Education and Work, whether 20-24 year olds think they completed Year 12, or a Certificate III or above. The 2016 survey puts Tasmania’s result for this age group at 77.1%, compared to the national figure of 89.2%. Again, putting aside the issue of the reliability of self-reports on qualifications, this would seem to be a problem. But from this the Review draws the conclusion that ‘there are indications that the attainment of a Year 12 or equivalent certificate is increasing,’ and leaves the matter there. However, a cursory inspection of the data suggests other conclusions. Most importantly, Tasmania’s figure for 2016 (77.1%) is just 4% above 2007, while the whole of Australia improved 7% in the same time - from 82.3% to 89.2%. So on this measure, we are both improving relative to ourselves, and falling further behind Australia as a whole. It is incredibly inward looking to notice the former, but not the latter. Moreover, if we took 2015 as the end year, as for the other evidence the Review uses, on this data Tasmania would have gone backwards from 73.1% in 2007 to 68.5% in 2015. Fail four.
Fifth, the Review asks how many of those who turned 15 in 2009 believe they have attained a Year12 certificate or a VET Certificate III, using the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) to provide the answer. LSAY reported that by 2015, 82% of the Tasmanian sample say they had reached this goal, compared to 91% in NSW and up to 98% in Queensland. Again, and once more putting aside concerns with self-reporting, this too would seem to be a problem, but the Review does not draw this conclusion. Rather they claim the data shows that while Tasmanian students start behind - by 2012, 51 per cent of Tasmanian participants had obtained a Year 12 certificate or VET Certificate III, while in all other jurisdictions that figure was more than 73 per cent - the gap between Tasmania and the other jurisdictions ‘closed’ by 2014. But again, this is not the obvious conclusion from the data. Rather, it shows that many fewer of this cohort of young Tasmanians entered adulthood with a qualification than in the next jurisdiction, by a margin of over 20%, and despite continuing education or training (presumably mostly after leaving school, and thus at their own expense) they never attain the level of qualifications enjoyed by their peers, even in the NT. Fail five.
Sixth, the Review asks what percentage of 15-19 year old full-time students are studying VET in school, and finds that Tasmania (25.5%) is in the middle of the pack. But it does not provide any clues about what this means. Should we be more like Queensland (56.0%) or South Australia (18.8%)? What does this data tell us? The Review is silent. Fail six.
Seventh, the Review asks of those who do remain at school and receive their senior secondary certificate (the TCE or its equivalent elsewhere), how does Tasmania compare to other jurisdictions in the percentage of these students awarded an ATAR, and finds there is little difference between Tasmania and other jurisdictions. This is an actual count of qualifications, so there is no problem with the reliability of the data here. But nonetheless this bizarre statistic is worthless, placing the NT above the ACT (and Tasmania between the two)! Had they looked instead at what percentage of the age cohort gained an ATAR, which is the relevant statistic, they would have found that Tasmania at 33% was not much above the NT at 28%, while the ACT is at 60% and the whole of Australia is 53%. Fail Seven.
That is all the evidence the Review presents to answer our question: what proportion of young people gain a qualification from school, and how does this statistic compare to other jurisdictions? And here is their answer: ‘the data reviewed here indicate that Tasmanian education is doing well by comparison with other States and Territories of Australia.’
So not only did the Review ask the wrong questions, they got the wrong answer – unless you think that, as their data shows, attainment gaps between Tasmania and the rest of Australia of around 15% of the age cohort is ‘doing well’. The Tasmanian age cohort for Year12 in 2015 was 6,719 persons. So, on the data the Review presents, our 15% gap is 1,008 students. This is the number of young Tasmanians who missed out on gaining a qualification from school compared to what they would have achieved in other jurisdictions - if we take the data the Review presents at face value. Perhaps by ‘doing well’ the ACER team meant ‘doing as well as we could expect of Tasmanians’?
It is surprising that the Review did not consider the most obvious source of authoritative data on educational performance – the count of qualifications awarded according to the relevant government authority in each jurisdiction, presented in the Productivity Commission‘s annual Report on Government Services (ROGS). After all, the very purpose of these reports is to assist each of Australia’s governments to have a look at how they compare to the others in providing services to their populations. Not that such comparisons are simple, since not all authorities report exactly the same data – no more than comparing different cars is simple. But we seem to manage that OK, using comparisons to pose questions which lead to a decision on which to buy. Let’s see how we go with the latest ROGS data on the completion of Year12 or the nationally accepted VET equivalent.
Custom table extracted from Productivity Commission, Report on Government Services 2017, Volume b Chapter 4 attachment xlsx, Table 4A.108. The notes to the table tell us that SA’s figures are not comparable due to their reporting all students who qualify for a statement of SACE results at Year12.
Now, apart from the SA issue, there may be some more things we need to clarify about this data before we say the numbers are all measuring the same thing. But nevertheless we clearly need to take notice of the big differences and ask the obvious questions:
1. Why is Tasmania’s rate of Year 12 or equivalent certificates so low, especially for low SES students where there is a 24% gap to the Australian average? The gap narrows to 15% for high SES students - although our high SES students are still 5% below the Australian average for low SES students. How can this be? Tasmania being a relatively poor state, and lacking a large capital city, does not explain this away.
2. And why is the gap between the attainment of low and high SES students in Tasmania (19%) almost twice that of any of the other jurisdictions (SA, ACT and NT put to one side as they are, respectively, not comparable, or have no low, or no high SES students in this data)? The figure for Australia as a whole is just 10%. Attributing this huge inequity to some indefinable ‘peculiarity of Tasmania’ compared to the rest of Australia is not possible, because the comparison is internal to Tasmania as it is to each of the other jurisdictions.
Surely this data just screams at us that while there is more to do, as Gonski showed, the rest of Australia is doing reasonably well in making sure that the circumstances of a child’s birth do not determine the outcome of their education. But not Tasmania. Our schooling system is systematically reproducing disadvantage to an extent that is just not happening elsewhere. Why aren’t the AEU out on the streets in protest? Why isn’t the ALP castigating the Government for this betrayal of working class kids?
This ROGS data for senior secondary education in Tasmania is worse than their similar health data comparison across the states and territories – for example, emergency department waiting times. Yet we regularly see health professionals and their unions in the media warning the public about what they see as the inadequacies of our health system. Why isn’t this happening with education?
Could it be because the usual response to such education data is to blame the victims, to say (some) Tasmanians don’t value education? One of the most valuable findings of the Review has ensured the cremation of that particular myth, that the ‘Tasmanian problem’ is a lack of aspiration on the part of students. The Review surveyed students in 52 of Tasmania’s 108 schools that offer years 9 and above, with a response rate around 20% in total and higher in the earlier years – about one third of students in Year 10 in government schools. They found that
• 90% of Year 9 and 10 respondents intended to go on to year 11, and of these
• more than 95% of students, male and female, intended to complete Year 12, and
• 39.5% of the Year 10s intended to go to university.
How well does our senior secondary schooling provision support these intentions?
Again the Review fails to answer this fundamental question, but we have direct continuation data from TASC ( the Tasmanian Office of Assessment, Standards and Certification, HERE ) that does so, not just for the State as a whole, but school by school ( HERE ), and across all schooling sectors. At the state level, for the 2013 Year 10 full-time cohort (noting that adding part-timers would not change this much) by 2015.
• 41.8% of Year10s in government schools had achieved the TCE, and 21.8% an ATAR
• 69.0% of Year10s in Catholic schools had achieved the TCE, and 49.1% an ATAR
• 75.4% of Year10s in Independent schools had achieved the TCE, and 68.2% an ATAR
This is data we might have expected the Review to address, and in particular to put this together with their student survey data to reach the obvious conclusion that our students’ aspirations are simply not being met by their experience of and outcomes from senior secondary schooling. Not in any sector, but to the greatest degree – indeed, to a shocking degree – for students in our government schools, the substantial majority of whom are not completing Year12 despite their aspiration to do so. And the school by school data shows that the problem is concentrated in working class city schools even more than rural schools.
These are stark facts which must form the basis for any consideration of the issue of Year12 attainment in Tasmania, and what reforms to the ‘design and delivery’ of our current system of Yrs 9-12 education might more adequately meet our young people’s currently frustrated hopes and expectations.
But instead of providing the Tasmanian Government and community with insights and recommendations about how to dramatically improve the ‘design and delivery’ of our current system, informed by best practice elsewhere, the Review suggests a stratagem to protect the status quo: that Tasmania should create networked, multi-campus schools, comprising colleges and high schools, with the kids being bussed from one to another to access the curriculum. The Minister has ruled this out, but the ALP seems to favour it.
What does the Review provide to show why bus-networked schools might be an effective approach to providing Years 11 and 12 in Tasmanian high schools, when they have not been found necessary nor indeed desirable in any other jurisdiction? They give a list of multi-campus schools in other states, purportedly as precedents, but none provide an example of what is proposed – that students should have to study on more than one school campus to complete their senior secondary education. For all of these multi-campus schools, as can be checked from their web sites, offer complete and comprehensive programs for years 11 and 12 on a single campus.
Nor does the Review ask the obvious question as to why Tasmania, alone of all Australian jurisdictions, should should find it necessary to bus students from school to school – or even have them board away from home – to access a senior secondary education of the quality available to students in even small rural communities in other states. Just pick a remote town you know of and Google its high school’s annual report to see what is possible. Try Balranald and Bourke. Throw in Charleville and Cleve for good measure.
We expected the Review to look outwards, to choose a statistic that accurately captures senior secondary attainment, and then use that measure to compare the outcomes for students from Tasmanian schools with those from a whole range of different kinds of schools in other states, matching the diversity of our schools. Likewise, we expected them to look at the different kinds of senior secondary schools in Tasmania, and find examples of best practice. If they had done so, they would surely have found exciting schools here and elsewhere that are delivering better outcomes for students than our system achieves as a whole. We might then have learned from successful educators how to design a system around the interests of our young people and their futures.
*Professor Eleanor Ramsay and *Professor Michael Rowan …
Education Ambassadors Tasmania
University of Tasmania