This weekend’s Australian ran a 16 page lift-out guide to the best performing schools across the nation as measured by the National Literacy and Numeracy test, NAPLAN. Schools consistently at the top of the list are the wealthy independent schools.

As Natasha Bita rightly highlighted in her article, “Performance may come at a cost”, there is a correlation between money spent and educational achievement. However, the delivery and quality assurance of an education is far more complex then just money, socio-economic background (ISCEA scores) and individual school ‘performance’.

The 20-21 June 2015 Australian headlines stated that “Coorabell State School soared up the charts”. What a great news story. Coorabell’s NAPLAN results have shown remarkable improvement this year and all credit should go to them.

But have a look at the list of the top 100 primary schools. What do you notice when you compare a school’s ranking from 2013 and 2014? You would expect some sort of consistency but there isn’t. Brandon Park Primary jumped from 813th place to 65th place last year. Remarkable, they really must be doing something right. But then Gordon West Public fell from 36th place to 93. What’s going on there? I bet if you expanded the list you would find plenty of so called ‘high performing schools in 2013 falling from grace in 2014.

A single year’s NAPLAN results is not a reliable measure of how good a school is for your child. A school cannot make such remarkable progress in one year so as to go from 813th place to be number 65, unless they spend their whole time teaching to the test, while another school falls 57 places. There is far more going on here than meets the eye. The data would suggest that it is more to do with the cohort of students than the school itself.

I am not sure if you managed to catch last week’s Foreign Correspondent on the ABC, but it reported on South Korea’s outstanding rise in the OECD educational rankings. The world is looking to them to see how they have improved their educational institutions. And the secret: get your child to start school at 7:30am, and then send them to a ‘cram school’ until 11:00pm and do that seven days a week.

A child’s success at school, including his/her ability to read, write and add up, is influenced by a complex recipe of ingredients. One is the quality of the school and the teaching, but research is showing that this is not the most significant factor, or predictor of a child’s ability to to learn.

As Bita points out, there is a correlation between the dollars spent and the educational outcomes. A family’s socio-economic background is also a predictor, as is whether or not they read to their children before bed time, or eat dinner together each night to cultivate vocabulary. So is the school’s culture, its leadership and levels of trust.

More recent scientific research has also found that trauma, or the presence of stress in a young person’s life when his/her brain is undergoing development, is perhaps a far greater predictor of their success into adult life.

“Children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school. When you’re overwhelmed and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn” (Tough, 2012, p.17).

Anyone who watched ABC’s documentary “Struggle Street” will appreciate the uphill battle the schools of Western Sydney face.

Our society has changed in the last decades. Divorce rates have risen, there has been an increase in families where both parents have to work to make ends meet, rates of childhood anxiety and diagnosis of depression have increased. The notion of ‘helicopter parenting’ is having a significant, unintended negative impact on a person’s wellbeing.

The road to school and educational improvement is so intertwined with what is happening in our society. Wellbeing and happiness, and their impact on learning, is affected by the deluge social issues and problems we have in our so called modern society. The educational outcome story is complex, it just isn’t fair to judge a school’s, or teacher’s performance on the basis of a score in a test taken at a point in time.

The better use of the data is for parents to ask themselves, “can my child read, write and add up?” And if he/she can’t, like other children at their age, why not? What can I as a parent do in cooperation with his/her teacher and school to ensure that he/she has these vital skills under his/her belt? Perhaps the problem is not my child’s school, but the circumstances my child finds him/herself in. Therein lies the benefit of a holistic approach to education.


Tough, P. (2912). How Children Succeed. NY: Mariner Books.

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