When the Rudd government, under the banner of its "education revolution" (remember that?), first published the NAPLAN test results for every school through the MySchool website, I was one of the 1.5 million Australians who accessed the site in its first few hours and sent it crashing. Such was the hunger for knowledge and transparency about school performance among the country's increasingly anxious middle-class parents.
Five years later I suspect many parents take a more measured view of the reform. Most would concede that while transparency is a good thing, crude results on a website tell an incomplete story about a school's educational ethos. And I suspect there's enough collective experience to suggest that the education union's claims of teachers being made to drill students for the tests, at the expense of a broader curriculum, aren't entirely exaggerated.
When MySchool was introduced, the education union boycotted the national tests, claiming the published results would be misused as league tables and unfairly stigmatise underperforming schools.
Still, with all NAPLAN's limitations in mind, the results can be illuminating, even startling, when set against the mythologies and pure falsehoods that cloud our debates about education. This week a Fairfax Media analysis based on results from the 2014 NAPLAN tests showed primary students in private schools performing only slightly better than students in public schools. (In secondary schools the picture is far gloomier – and we'll get to that.) It is certainly the case with numeracy; the negligible difference between the average scores for students in the two sectors is reportedly less than 1 per cent.
On the persuasive writing test, however, the gap jumped to nearly 7 per cent. Perhaps that's to do with the higher concentration of kids from non-English speaking backgrounds in public schools. Or perhaps private school students are more practised and encouraged in the art of persuasion.
In any event there's been a series of studies finding little difference in the results of students from government and private schools once social disadvantage is taken into account.
In April a Queensland University study of four waves of primary school-aged children born since March 1999 found that birth weight, the amount of time a mother spends with her child, and the education level of both parents will have more impact on the child's progress than whether they attend a private or public school. And these conclusions tallied with similar findings in US and British studies.
Now for the aspirational parent who braves their local primary school, these studies bring smug satisfaction. For the parent bleeding money on private school fees on the assumption this buys their child a competitive advantage, it raises the prospect of a con. Unless the latter parents aren't so much interested in giving their kids the competitive advantage of high marks, but the anti-competitive privileges invested in the old school tie. In other words, perhaps the mania for private schools is less about the perceived quality of education and more about ensuring children muck in with a certain kind of peer group.
But whichever way they're viewed, the NAPLAN analysis and similar findings are depressing for anyone who wants to believe in the power of education to lift individuals beyond their station. It's disheartening to think the main indicator of academic success is still what a child's parents do for a crust, and not what their teacher does in the classroom.
Here, we can only learn from the exceptions to the rule. Schools such as Dandenong North Primary School, which beat the state average on spelling (and performed strongly overall) despite being socially disadvantaged – the result is both a credit to them and a gentle rebuke to the similarly disadvantaged schools that conform to our low expectations of their cohort. A few years ago I tutored a year 12 student from a neighbouring school to Dandenong. He was an intelligent teenager, but came from a migrant background and somehow managed to get to year 12 without knowing that sentences must start with a capital letter. Yes, that's year 12. The school has since been closed.
And it's the gulf between private and public school results at secondary level that's the real indictment on our education system. By year 9, private school students begin to eclipse their public counterparts and by year 12 – well, we've seen those league tables and they're testament to the gross inequity that threatens this country's economic future.
At secondary level we see the "multiplier effect" in action: private schools with a high concentration of rich kids, cherry-picked smart kids, resources and supposedly premium teachers become incubators of academic success. In residual state schools it's the same thing in reverse: concentrated disadvantage, insufficient resources and complacent attitudes drag everyone down.
Independent Schools Victoria chief executive Michelle Green warns that schools should not be compared on NAPLAN data alone as the test does not measure all aspects of student learning.
True. Perhaps on that basis private schools might refrain from boasting their year 12 results. And once we measure "all aspects of student learning" perhaps our political leaders might pull our taxpayer dollars from the kind of schools that recruit cashed-up overseas students and instead start funding educational opportunities for all Australians.
Julie Szego is an Age columnist, author and freelance journalist.
Some data that might be of help when choosing a school can be found on the MySchool website