That’s the silver lining on the grey cloud of data contained in the 2016 PISA report.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a global education benchmark conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Every three years, 15-year-olds throughout the OECD and partner countries are tested on their skills and knowledge in Mathematics, Science and Reading. PISA collates the results to evaluate education standards around the world with a view to guiding education policy.
This year’s report was released on December 6 and reflects the educational attainment of students in 72 countries and economic regions (Hong Kong and Macau are assessed separately to mainland China) who sat the tests last year.
While Australia’s students overall achieved results that were just slightly above the OECD average, a breakdown of the data by sector, shows that students attending the nation’s independent schools did spectacularly well on the exams, with results placing them in the top five in every category.
In fact, Australia’s independent schools boast the world’s best readers, with the sector outperforming every other education system in terms of Reading and Literacy test scores. Independent schools achieved the second-highest Science score and came fifth in Maths.
These are unequivocally excellent results. Moreover, the differential between independent school sector test scores and those achieved by students at state schools — approximately 60 points — is equivalent to two years of schooling, according to the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).
Many readers may assume that socio-economic advantage underlies the success of Australia’s independent schools; however, the sector is competitive, if not the best, when compared to equivalent schools internationally, so it’s a matter of more than money. Our private schools are doing something right — the question is what?
Theories abound but research points to several factors that academically high-achieving schools throughout the world share.
A Macquarie University study released this year, School Discipline, School Uniforms and Academic Performance, analysed OECD data measuring several aspects of school discipline: students listening well, noise levels, teacher waiting time, students working well and class start time. Unsurprisingly, the researchers concluded that: “Students peak perform when teachers create a disciplined atmosphere where students listen to teachers, where noise levels in the classroom are low and they do not have to wait to start class and teach. Good discipline allows students to work well and this ultimately leads to better academic performance.”
“Teacher quality is without question the greatest school-related influence on student outcomes,” writes Dr Gary Marks of Australian Catholic University in his study, Academic Achievement in NSW Independent Schools. “Teachers who show an interest in each student’s learning, provide personal support, hold high expectations for all, work with enthusiasm and take pride in their school have better results.”
A school’s ambience, peer group culture and the social composition of its student population correlates closely with its academic outcomes. The 2004 report School Performance in Australia determined that “social and cultural factors are strong influences on school performance.”
“Important in helping schools perform at high levels is the academic climate schools create reflected in the behaviour of students, broad aspiration levels, student views on teachers and school, and engagement in school life. Schools that do well in achievement terms adopt policies facilitating student engagement, through the provision of programs, extra-curricular programs and student support,” the report concluded.
The extent to which these characteristics are found in Australian independent schools is seen in student outcomes and parental satisfaction, says Dr Geoff Newcombe, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of NSW.
“Parents choose an independent school for a wide variety of reasons including its values and ethos, focus on pastoral care and extracurricular options, as well as academic rigour,” Dr Newcombe says.
“The strong enrolment growth we see in the sector is testament to the fact that independent schools are meeting parents’ expectations by providing high-quality teaching and learning.”
PISA 2015: Compare Your Country
How Australia’s Independent Schools Sector Rated in PISA 2015 – Australian Heads of Independent Schools Association (AHISA), December 7, 2016
PISA 2015: a first look at Australia’s results – Sue Thomson, Lisa De Bortoli, Catherine Underwood, Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), 2016
School Discipline, School Uniforms and Academic Performance – Chris Baumann and Hana Krskova, International Journal of Educational Management, 2016
School Performance in Australia: results from analyses of school effectiveness – Stephen Lamb, Ross Rumberger, David Jesson, Richard Teese, Report for the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, August 2004