The School Report project: a balanced view

JOHN HARTEVELT, POLITICAL REPORTER, FAIRFAX POLITICAL BUREAU
Last updated 15:53 24/09/2012

Our new School Report site went live early on Saturday. Within hours, the criticism started: Stuff and its newspaper partners had published shonky National Standards data; Stuff was peddling "toxic journalism"; Stuff was publishing damaging ''league tables''.

We anticipated the criticism and we accept that School Report is polarising. We'll never convince some critics that there is any merit in what we've done. But we'd at least ask people to consider the project in its entirety.
 
Much emphasis has gone on the ''compare'' page of the site. When users search, for example, Hokitika, they can see a lineup of seven schools. They can pick out the schools they want to see in more detail and move on to the compare page.

This is where the complaints arise. The proportion of pupils at, above, below and well below each of the National Standards in reading, writing and maths can be seen simultaneously across a number of schools. They're not ranked in any way, but you can compare.

People are worried - even though we haven't done it - that ranking will happen anyway and that those schools with lower proportions of kids above the standards and higher proportions below will be unfairly viewed in a dim light.

Why might that be unfair? There are a number of reasons. First, the standards are not formally moderated, so one school's ''well below'' may be another's ''above''. Second, the standards can mask any number of challenges a school may face in educating its pupils - things like the amount of early childhood education kids got before arriving at school, the amount and quality of food their pupils are getting at home, the number of special-needs pupils on the roll and the rates of transience among pupils at the school.

There are many other things that schools grapple with daily to get their kids learning. That means a school that has been able to drive up a swag of its pupils from well below to below - in spite of so many other challenges - may be doing an even better job than another school with lesser challenges that has a chunk of its kids treading water at or above the standards. So how do you mediate against those issues when reporting the National Standards results?
 
The first thing we did is visible when you click on a specific school from the compare page. There, we've entered as much contextual information as we reasonably can about each school. That includes decile, roll, breakdown by ethnicity, funding and - importantly - a link to the school's latest ERO report. National Standards results can also be viewed, where they've been provided by the school, by gender and by ethnicity.

Then there is the reporting effort by Fairfax's journalists around the country. This has hardly been noted by those attacking the project, but the 20-plus stories from different schools all around the country have been popular with readers. As we noted when launching School Report at weekend, these stories - told in video, photographs and text - help show that there is more to those schools than the numbers you see on this site.

We've also objectively reported, as our readers would expect, on the facts about National Standards and concerns about their usefulness.
 
People who have managed to get beyond that compare page will have discovered plenty of context about National Standards. They will also have discovered the advice of Dr Jenny Poskitt, an education expert who says: ''Nothing beats going into a school and meeting a principal, walking around the playground and getting a sense for the way of life at that school.''

That seems pretty sound advice to us - especially where parents are visiting prospective schools or discussing the direction of their existing school suitably armed with a bit of an understanding about where there may be strengths or weaknesses in aspects of reading, writing and maths. They might, for instance, ask why a school is showing 75 per cent at and above in reading and writing but only 40 per cent at and above in maths. Are there strategies in reading and writing that aren't being used in maths? Or is there some issue that the standards data hasn't revealed? It can't hurt to ask, can it?

It may well hurt a school to be judged solely on its National Standards results, but we doubt parents who care about their child's education would be that naive. We also doubt schools that have their parents and communities engaged would allow it. And we've gone out of our way to discourage it.

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