Thursday, 8 January 2009

Ripping apart education numbers

The Tele, presumably egged on by Maralyn Parker, has been running more stories about an apparent flight from private schools to state schools in NSW. According to Maralyn, this is the beginning of the end for the private system, and further economic hardship will only accelerate the destruction of private schools.

According to the Tele, public schools are now under a great deal of pressure from high enrolments – bursting at the seams is how she is making it sound. If you ask me, this is a load of crap.

Stories like this are usually shopped around to the media by government departments seeking an increase in their budget. Be on the lookout for special pleading any time now. If the Department can convince people that it is struggling to squeeze students into schools, it should get a cash injection from the Treasury. This is an old, old tactic. Fiddle the numbers to create a sob story in order to get more money.

The Education Department, seeking to prove the comeback in state education is using Hunters Hill High School as evidence of strong growth in enrolments, saying that enrolments increased by 60% or more between 2003 and 2008.

“Figures from the NSW Department of Education show eight state high schools, including Hunters Hill High School, Tempe High School and Braidwood Central School had enrolments increase by 60 per cent or more between 2003 and 2008.”

If you type the words “closure hunters hill high school” into Google, you’ll get over 11,000 hits. Here’s a typical one from 2002, from the SMH:

“Hunters Hill High School is under threat, with the government intending to close the school at the end of the year. A parliamentary inquiry into the proposed closure and restructuring of schools in Inner Sydney, particularly Hunters Hill, is currently in progress.”

And this from Hansard in 2002:

“Mr AQUILINA: I listened to you in silence. You can listen to me in silence. You want to state everything except the facts. The facts are these. The submission in relation to Building the Future was advanced by the department because Hunters Hill High School was regarded as having no future viability because its local enrolment was basically non-existent. Most of the students come from outside the area. That is the fact of the matter. Hunters Hill High School is taking students from Balmain, Leichhardt and Ryde. It is taking them from virtually everywhere except Hunters Hill because there are no local students.

”The demographic study about which the Leader of the Opposition talked so much, and which was undertaken by people from Hunters Hill High School, was flawed. An independent study done by a professor at Macquarie University showed how flawed it was. In fact, it was so flawed that it took into account male students who were resident at boarding schools within the local area; they were counted as potential students to be enrolled at Hunters Hill. That is the kind of factual misrepresentation in that demographic study.”

Enrolments at Hunters Hill have come off a very low base from 2001. Back then, the state government tried to close the school and sell the land for development – it was valued at $60 million. Parents were told of the closure, so enrolments ceased and parents of existing kids started sending them elsewhere. I think numbers dropped to around 100 (I could be totally wrong with that number) until the parents got together and convinced the government to keep the school open.

Numbers have rebuilt since then, but the school is still nowhere near capacity. Many of the local kids go to private schools, so kids are bussed in from suburbs far, far away – the same situation in fact that’s described in Hansard in 2002.

Increasing numbers at Hunters Hill is therefore a special case, and should not be seen as an indicator of growth in the entire state system.

Since Tempe High School is also mentioned, I googled it as well, and found this in Hansard from 2004:

Ms LEE RHIANNON [9.33 p.m.]: A war of attrition is being waged against public education in the Port Jackson district of the Department of Education and Training. Participation rates in public education are below 40 per cent, and the attrition rate from primary to secondary education is above 40 per cent. The most vulnerable schools in the district are located between Parramatta Road and the Cooks River and fall mostly within the electorate of Marrickville, which, ironically—or perhaps not—is represented by the Minister for Education and Training, Dr Refshauge. The exact figures are not available but estimates put the participation rate for secondary schools in that locality at between 20 per cent and 30 per cent. That means that between two-thirds and four-fifths of students who could choose to enrol at Alexandra Park Community School, Tempe High Languages School, Marrickville High School and Dulwich High School are going elsewhere.

Public education participation rates at those schools would need to triple before they reached the State average participation rate for all public schools of around 70 per cent—which is itself an indictment of education policy under both Coalition and Labor governments. It is an appalling situation and the fact that it is tolerated in the Minister's electorate suggests that there is no political will to do anything about it. To the contrary, it suggests that the Government is covertly continuing to pursue the notorious and discredited Building the Future strategy of 2001. The major goals of that strategy were to close Marrickville High School and a number of primary schools in the Redfern-Waterloo-Erskineville area and, in an associated move, to exclude local students from Newtown High School of the Performing Arts by making enrolment in that school by audition only. This would have effectively removed two of the five high schools from the local community, which in turn would have contributed to driving students away from their local primary schools. Why would parents send their children to local State primary schools when there are no satisfactory secondary options?

I grabbed this because it suggests to me that Tempe enrolments were run down some years ago, and may now be rebuilding because of different government policies.

But then I found this at the Dept of Immigration:

“A knowledge of the local area is needed to understand our innovations over the past eight years. Tempe is an older part of Sydney and is similar to many inner-city suburbs of major cities throughout the world. The area is traditionally working-class, industrial. It provides cheap accommodation, is near the airport, built on narrow, busy roads and next to three major rail lines linking most of suburban Sydney. The community suffers high unemployment and has more refuge accommodation than any other part of Sydney. The level of family income is in the bottom 16% of the country and this has led to the school's classification as "disadvantaged". We receive assistance through the Disadvantaged Schools Component (DSC) of the National Equity Program.

“The area has suffered for many years from an image problem and is known for many social ills. Over the past two years, confrontations between police and drag racers, river pollution, airport noise pollution, street gangs, the threats of freeway (M5) extensions, a possible garbage transfer station and a new rail link taking out scarce park land have been well publicised. These issues along with the low socioeconomic status and language mix of the population offer schools special challenges.”

Migrants and refugees have long used Tempe as a staging area during settlement into their new country. The population changes in the district are obvious in the shopping centres and the use of traditional English churches for mosques and other religions.”

Gee, that sounds like your classic profile of potential private school students!

We now know that the area has large numbers of refugees and migrants. Who usually has lots of kids? Migrants and refugees! Perhaps that might be the underlying driver of enrolment increases?

But nowhere are we given raw figures on a school by school basis to work with. The Department of Education does not release numbers for individual state schools – it aggregates them into districts.

The Department has put out a media release showing schools with significant enrolment increases in 2003-2008:

Again, this does not include any actual numbers of students – it deals solely in percentages.

For instance, Hunters Hill is shown as having enrolment growth of 60% between 2003 and 2008. However, I have already noted that enrolments collapsed before 2003 due to the school being slated for closure.

Let’s assume that school has a capacity of 800 students, and also assume that in 2002, as it was about to close, enrolments fell to 100 (I am making up numbers here for demonstration purposes).

In 2004, the school is saved – hurrah! As the news sinks in, parents start to think about sending their kids there. Enrolments start to come in. By 2008, let’s assume the school has 400 kids – a “massive increase” from the 100 in 2002. But the school is still operating at only 50% capacity. It’s not “bursting at the seams”. Parents who have their kids at nearby private schools have not decided to switch from private to state – what happens is that parents who are sending their kids to jam-packed, overcrowded state schools in Chatswood decide that they would prefer to bus their kids to the lovely, uncrowded campus at Hunters Hill.

Any attempt to use increasing enrolments at Hunters Hill as a hook to get more money from Treasury is simply fraudulent. Any bureaucrat caught doing that should be fired for lying.

I hereby accuse the Department of Education of playing with the numbers to shed the best possible light on the state school system, and call on them to release year-by-year numbers on a school-by-school basis. I also call on them to show the capacity of each school. I also call on them to release the demographic information for each school area.

That call will fall on deaf ears, but someone might as well say it.

For instance, Kellyville High School is also shows as having increased enrolments by 60% or more between 2003 and 2008.

Well, duh! A massive housing development has been occurring in that area over the last 10 years! It is one of the fastest growing family areas in Sydney! A bloke I work with moved up there a few years back, and him and his wife now have twins. Do you think that maybe demographic changes (ie, baby booms) in some areas might be driving massive increases in state school enrolments, as opposed to a “flight” from the private sector?

Our area is currently being overrun with prams. If you go to Rhodes shopping centre, you’ll find that management has overhauled the look and feel of the centre to cater for young mums – the entire focus is on families with kids under the age of 5, because that is where the market is today. In 5 years time, they will probably have changed the focus to that of families with kids in the 5-10 year old range. In 10 years time, the place will have been taken over by teenagers, and it will be a disaster area.

So, reading my crystal ball, I predict that before long, school enrolments in the Rhodes area are going to explode! If you want to know why, drive around and have a look at the enormous new apartment blocks that now dot the landscape (assuming those families don’t move further out to a house on a bigger block as the kids get older).

Interestingly, the Dept of Education has not seen fit to tell us about state schools where enrolments are falling. There are over 2,000 state schools – enrolments have to be falling in some of them. Think about small country towns, like Bogan Gate for instance. Did enrolments rise or fall this year? What about suburbs where the baby boom has been and gone, and the population is now ageing, and the numbers of kids are falling? In order to get the complete picture, we should be told about shrinking schools, as well as growing schools.

If you want to see what is happening with school demographics, visit the Australian Bureau of Statistics here:

Here’s a list of total school numbers since 1997 for NSW:


1997 – 2186
2002 – 2191
2005 – 2194
2006 – 2187
2007 – 2190


1997 – 882
2002 – 904
2005 – 912
2006 – 912
2007 – 917

Then there are student numbers, since 1997:


1997 – 762,917
2002 – 753,700
2005 – 740,439
2006 – 739,307
2007 – 737,637


1997 – 311,303
2002 – 351,081
2005 – 367,247
2006 – 369,640
2007 – 371,566

State enrolments fell by 25,280 since 1997, whilst private school enrolments grew by 60,263. Obviously, there was a big leap between 1997 and 2002, and another big leap from 2002 to 2005, and then growth has slowed right down. Those changes might be caused by the fact that 20 new private schools opened between 1997 and 2002, but only 5 between 2005 and 2007.

It will be interesting to revisit these numbers later on to see what happened in 2008 and 2009.

I will finish with a set of numbers showing the number of kids in each year group, broken down into private and state schools. For instance, last year, there were 87,944 male kids enrolled in year 8 in state schools, and 54,040 enrolled in year 12. If we leave demographic changes out of the picture, that means 39% of males leave the state system between years 8 and 12.

In the private system, 30% leave between years 8 and 12. This graph shows the numbers (males only).

I will leave this open for another day.

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