Is James Ruse the best school in Australia?

“We select about 50 per cent of our staff and 50 per cent as we’re directed by the department. Our staff are intrinsically motivated. They’re incredibly committed. But they’re not paid any differently to other state teachers.”

“We don’t have a swimming pool. Nothing like that. It took us 17 years to raise funds for a new gym. We have one oval. We have one basketball court. We’re really the same as everyone else.”

Value for money

December brings end of school exam results and attempts by taxpayers and parents – who can pay up to $39,300 a year to send their kids to a school which does have a pool – to work out if they are getting value for money for the funds they invest in their children’s education.

In Victoria, the second biggest educational system in the country, Bialik College, a Jewish community school in Hawthorn East, topped the 2018 Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). In Victoria where subjects are marked out of 50 Bialik had a median study score of 38 (with 40.2 per cent of study scores at 40 or above).

Principal Jeremy Stowe-Lindner said his focus is balance in activities whether they are academic, sport or the school play, but there is no “golden nugget”.

“If anything we are focused on critical thinking. But there is no prototype for a successful student.”

In a federal system it is hard to measure across jurisdictions. Victoria’s VCE and New South Wales’s HSC do not have a lot in common when it comes to ranking results.

Private education-ranking companies pool data from admission tables to universities. These put James Ruse top of the ladder. James Ruse not only does well on the state-based HSC. It also outranks all other schools on university admissions.

The Centre for Indpendent Studies’ Jennifer Buckingham says if anything recent NAPLAN results show most government primary schools are doing just as well as most non-government primary schools and this may be flowing through to secondary school. Brendan Esposito

But Australian Tertiary Admission Rank results can only be obtained voluntarily from students which makes pooling the data unreliable at best. The Universities Admissions Centre, which produces ATARs, deliberately doesn’t rank schools itself.

Senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, Jennifer Buckingham, says it is almost impossible to judge schools nationally and rank them one to 10. What’s best for one student is not necessarily best for another and schools range across: government, independent, religious, community, single sex and co-ed.

“James Ruse is outstanding. But we don’t really know what the ‘value add’ is. It takes in the brightest kids and it churns out the brightest kids,” Buckingham says.

“There is a minium standard. A school has to be safe. If it’s based somewhere hot it should be air-conditioned. It needs decent toilet blocks and students need good access to teachers. All that other stuff, swimming pools, rifle ranges. They’re just not that important.

 

“But what is valuable is to get a measure of growth.”

Measuring growth

Growth is where the often-criticised NAPLAN comes into its own. The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy tests students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 every year. The objective is to show individual students, or their parents, how they’re going.

Critics says the improvement focus of NAPLAN has been hijacked by the My School website because parents use it to compare schools instead of looking at individual children. The strength of NAPLAN is in comparing performance in successive tests, which allows users to note the rate of improvement, the greatest of which is in the “above average gain” category.

“Growth is the only way we can measure learning in a verifiable way,” says Dr Buckingham.

A school in a remote community with a low interest in education which gets attendance to 95 per cent is doing really well, professor Piccoli says. Louie Douvis

“There is a huge amount of agreement on NAPLAN. You can see the growth in years 3-5 and 7-9 over time. And that is real growth in literacy and numeracy”

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority which manages NAPLAN puts out a table of the eight schools where there has been “substantial above-average gain in student reading and numeracy” from year 3 to year 5 and year 7 to year 9, every year for the past 4 years.

The schools named on this list might reasonably be described as the best in Australia.

ACARA chief executive Robert Randall is another education expert who does not like rankings but believes his above-average-gains table is significant and the schools listed worthy of acknowledgement.

It shows an even spread of improvement across the country and in all sectors, from Emmaus Christian School in the ACT to Canley Vale High School in NSW.

“If a school focuses on improving and gaining in literacy and numeracy, that’s an indicator of a good school,” said Mr Randall.

“We’re interested in two things, actual improvement and change over time. Of course NAPLAN is only a snapshot of one slice. If you want to know what’s going on in a school go and look at the school.”

But the former education minister, deputy leader of the Nationals in NSW and now director of the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales, Adrian Piccoli claims not even NAPLAN is going to help you find the best school in Australia.

 

A school in a remote community with a low interest in education which gets attendance to 95 per cent is doing really well, professor Piccoli says.

“Hillvue Public School in Tamworth has a high Indigenous enrolment. It has done remarkable things in attendance. They’re below average on NAPLAN but they got more enrolments, more attendance and more ‘improvement’ results.”

Canley Vale High School in south-western Sydney is in a low SES community with a large migrant intake. Despite this it stands out for strong NAPLAN results.

“Does Riverview (an independent Catholic boys school in Sydney) produce more lawyers than Canley Vale High School? Yes, probably. But it is a very subjective measure. One of the weaknesss of our schools system is it concentrates advantage. Private schools concentrate wealthy high-SES kids from educated families. But I’d be reluctant to say these are the best schools.

“The best schools are the ones that pick up kids who don’t have the good background and elevate them despite the challenges,” he says.

Private schools not always the best

Private school parents might be feeling a bit shocked that prominent and conservative education analysts such as Dr Buckingham and professor Piccoli are dismissive of fee-paying schools when looking for the best school in Australia.

Dr Buckingham says if anything recent NAPLAN results show most government primary schools are doing just as well as most non-government primary schools and this is flowing through to secondary school.

The value of private schools is to give parents choice and introduce competition into the system, which is what what rankings ultimately feed on.

The co-founder and CEO of Crimson, an education company that facilitate school students in Australia and New Zealand to get to ivy-league universities in the US and Europe, Jamie Beaton, is a fan of ranking. Rankings hold schools to a high standard and they allow parents to compare schools in an abstract way. Eli Zaturanski

Dr Buckingham says a healthy non-government sector is more nimble. It allows more experimentation and it’s not captured by the orthodoxy of departments of education.

“I’m not a fan of the idea that parents are told ‘this is the school your child should attend’. Parents should be able to choose.”

Her criteria for judging the best school include:

– reading, writing and numeracy at primary level and ATAR results at secondary level

– behaviour policies that encourage good behaviour and character

– extra-curricular activities that include all students, not just elite performers

– value and respect

– fit for purpose facilities.

“We don’t have a swimming pool. Nothing like that. It took us 17 years to raise funds for a new gym. We have one oval. We have one basketball court. But we’re really the same as everyone else.” Megan Connors, principal, James Ruse High School (centre) Louise Kennerley

Top three

The co-founder and CEO of Crimson Education, a company that facilitates school students in Australia and New Zealand to get to ivy-league universities in the US and Europe, Jamie Beaton, is a fan of ranking. Rankings hold schools to a high standard and they allow parents to compare schools in an abstract way.

ATARs are a concrete way of judging which schools are good. But he likes non-academic criteria too, such as how many extra-curricular activities are on offer.

“Look at the absolute number of extra-curricular activities and at how many have recently been created. If there are more that are recent it’s a sign of an entrepreneurial school.”

“Look at the average experience of the teachers. Ten years or more having left teaching college is a proxy for high experience.

“And look for international experience. How many people on the board have international exposure?”

Mr Beaton thinks the best school in the world is Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

“It has a very good endowment, so if you’re low SES you can get full tuition, and that means there is international competition. There are applicants from around the world. About 20 per cent of this school is international based.”

“Plus it has teachers who have Phds and it makes placements at universities around the world. Most Australian Schools just aren’t that competitive.”

Mr Beaton’s pick of top three schools in New South Wales are James Ruse Agricultural High School, Sydney Grammar and Pymble Ladies College.

“These schools are academic, they are holistic, they compete in different sports and they send kids to Harvard, Wharton and Yale. These schools look for balance. Not just on ATAR which can crowd out other things like sport.

“In Melbourne I like Caulfield Grammar. And Lauriston Girls’ School and Methodist Ladies’ College.”

Competition, not connections

James Ruse Agricultural High School might miss out on the international connections. But its principal is focused on competition. Apart from professional learning for teachers Connors is raising academic standards by working on students who typically get results in band 5 of HSC, that is the 80 per cent mark, lifting them into band 6, the 90 per cent range.

“Things like exam literacy – knowing how to answer the question, helping them to show off their knowledge in a particular way. That sort of thing. Maybe a particularly gifted student doesn’t do well at multiple choice. It’s difficult for them because they see there is more than one answer. We show them how to drill down on questions like that.”

And the school re-worked its curriculum to let high achievers do HSC level work earlier, leaving space for new subjects in their last year.

“The HSC is very limited and narrowing. I want kids to follow their passions. So I let some finish their HSC in certain subjects early and bring forward new choices before they finish in year 12.”

James Ruse gets a tick from Jamie Beaton owing to its range of more than 50 extra curricular activities. These include Olympiads in biology, chemistry, maths and informatics, cadets, Duke of Edinburgh, and even a poultry club.

“They’re all about organisation, time management, leadership, social responsibility skills and so on.”

“Our parents want to see our students achieve their best. There is an ATAR focus. That’s from the students as well as the parents. But also thinking skills and soft skills because they know their kids will need these to gain work.”

Ms Connors finishes her tenure at James Ruse on January 28 after 13 and a half years at the school. She takes up a new post at North Sydney Girls High, another selective school, in February.

“It will be a good thing for my career and a good thing for James Ruse. To have someone else come in and look at things with fresh eyes.”

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