A letter to the Editor we wrote in May last year stirred up a hornets’ nest. We used data from MySchool to compare the VET outcomes from the Tasmanian senior secondary colleges with high schools in other states, claiming that in 2014 the colleges achieved just 54 completions at Certificate ll or above, while 86 students at Rooty Hill High School in Sydney’s western suburbs achieved this goal.
Fifty four VET graduates from all of the colleges did look hard to believe, but the importance of MySchool as a source of information for the community made it harder to believe that the number was wrong. Especially as it was consistent with a declining trend in the numbers reported right back to 2010. Surely such a mistake would have been noticed and corrected immediately it was published. But it turns out it was wrong, and the data for the last few years was corrected late last year. For the record, a total of 1,392 VET certificates at level ll or above were completed by college students in 2014, and 1,199 in 2015.
That is worth celebrating for the many hundreds of students, and their families and teachers, whose achievements are now accurately recorded by MySchool.
But viewed from a wider perspective, this story raises serious questions.
How it is that this incorrect data was not picked up for years? MySchool is a data dashboard which gives vital information about how our schools are travelling. It provides evidence to test the stories we tell ourselves about our own and other’s achievements. For that reason alone we should be concerned that a major mistake on MySchool was not noticed for years.
Now let’s see what might be learned from the corrected data. If we want students at the colleges to complete VET certificates, is 1,199 a good number? MySchool tells us this is 38% of the colleges’ total 2015 Year12/13 class. The same statistic for Rooty Hill High is 45%, while for the set of 25 interstate public schools similar to Rooty Hill the average was 77%. Now 1,199 does not look like a number to celebrate after all, since double that would place us just below average performance in equipping our senior secondary students with VET qualifications.
What about the Year12 certificate? Do the colleges do better here? MySchool tells us that 2,190 students at our colleges gained their TCE in 2015, 70% of the Year12/13 class. That looks better. But the same figure for Rooty Hill is 100%, and for the 25 similar schools it is 94%. Our colleges would need another 750 TCE graduates to be just average on this measure.
That really matters, as our schools’ core mission is to provide young Tasmanians with the knowledge and skills they need to make their way in their future world. Even in today’s world, that means getting at least a Year12 or VET certificate. That’s what schools elsewhere are aiming for and getting closer to achieving. We are making progress too, but change is still resisted and the need for it denied by advocates for the status quo. MySchool shows just how wrongheaded that is.
Some have argued that MySchool comparisons are not fair. Not comparing ‘apples with apples’ they say. This won’t work for VET qualifications, which are nationally consistent, but might it be the explanation for the missing 750 plus TCE graduates? Have we set the bar for the TCE too high? Let’s run the measuring stick over that myth.
Our Year 12 authority, the TASC, says that in 2015 just 50.4% of the young people who could have been doing year 12 got their TCE, while only 222 students, some 3% of the cohort, completed the equivalent of years 11 and 12 without gaining their certificate. Clearly the problem is not that we have set the TCE bar too high, but that that almost half our young people do not complete their run up.
Is that what happens elsewhere in communities like ours?
Let’s look again at Rooty Hill. It’s in the western Sydney electorate of Mt Druitt, held by Labor since its creation in 1971. Around half of Rooty Hill’s students come from non-English speaking backgrounds, and 60% are below or well below the NSW grade average when they enrol. It has the same Index of Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA – a measure which predicts NAPLAN performance based mainly on parents’ education and employment), as Burnie, Devonport, Kings Meadows and Queechy High Schools. New Town, Ogilvie and Rose Bay are higher. So Rooty Hill is hardly an unfair comparison for our colleges. But as MySchool shows, they are leaving us way behind with retention from year 10 to year 12 above their state average and 100% of their year 12s gaining the HSC.
Not that they are satisfied with that, as you can see online from their Annual Report. Their goal is to have 90% of their Year12s go on to further education and training, including 40% to uni, because that’s what students at Rooty Hill need for future success. And that’s what young Tasmanians need too.
So yes, MySchool’s data dashboard did give the wrong reading on the ‘VET certificates completed gauge’, causing quite a stir. But what should we learn from this? Not to trust data? That MySchool is not important? Or that our educational leaders should be more outward looking, using MySchool regularly to benchmark our schools against other schools that might provide models for improvement? Clearly, that has not been occurring. Hopefully the kerfuffle about this VET data will encourage more attention to published performance data in the future.