Behind media sensationalism on bullying

A Fairfax media report today plucked statistics from the HILDA survey to attack public education. 

The article, by Fairfax Education Reporter, Eryk Bagshaw, sits under the heading ‘Public school students twice as likely to be bullied as private school pupils’.

Over at the Canberra Times homepage, they shouted ‘the problem with public schools’. 

The article drew on findings from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey (HILDA) which annually asks a panel of Australians a catalogue of questions about their lives.

Bagshaw picked up on a finding about the percentage of parents or guardians who reported their children being bullied at school.

11.1 % of parents with children in independent schools reported bullying; 15.2% in Catholic schools and 21.7% in public schools.

Any bullying occurring in schools is deeply troubling. It’s important it’s brought to light. It’s essential everything is done to stop it. Great initiatives like the Safe Schools Coalition are aimed at exactly that.

However, precisely because the issue of children being bullied is so important it needs to be discussed in a manner that is thoughtful, nuanced and comprehensive. Bagshaw and Fairfax have succeeded in getting plenty of attention for themselves but to actually positively address this issue, we need more than simplistic headlines and selective use of statistics.

The real picture

Bagshaw doesn’t explain that the statistics he cites have a relative standard error of 25%.

As the HILDA authors do helpfully explain, their statistics come with the caveat that ‘there is a greater than 95% probability the true quantity lies within 50% of the estimated value’ (p.92). There’s a nearly 5% possibility that the true value is even further out. So even just on the basis of the HILDA survey’s findings, it could be that reported bullying is higher in Catholic schools than public schools.

Bagshaw omits to mention primary schools completely. There, 19.1 % of parents with children in independent schools reported bullying; 23.8% in Catholic schools and 27.4% in public schools. With relatively minor differences and such a high standard error, perhaps it was felt too difficult to frame these numbers in terms of tendentious public vs private school comparisons.

The real cause

The strong implication of course – in the headline and the selective reporting – is that school type is what makes the big difference when it comes to bullying.

However, the HILDA report points out something Bagshaw doesn’t. The statistical comparison is not only between students in different school sectors but between students from relatively privileged backgrounds and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As the report states:

“Substantial differences in students’ family characteristics are evident across the three school types. The mean SEIFA decile [Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas], mean equivalised income and proportions with parents holding university degrees are all highest for students of other non-government schools and lowest for students of government schools. The proportion living in a lone-parent household is also lowest for children in other nongovernment schools and highest for children in government schools. In all cases, differences across school types are more pronounced for high-school students than primary school students.” (p.18)

Of the families interviewed in the survey and whose children attend public schools, 27.4% of fathers had a university degree. The equivalent figure for fathers of children in Catholic schools is 40.8% and 60.8% for independent schools (p.19).

Whereas the mean household equivalised income for public school students was $42,176 it was $59,276 for families with children at independent schools.

So, perhaps what’s really being compared is schools with disadvantaged student populations and schools with privileged student populations.

The fact, omitted by Bagshaw, that the difference between sectors diminishes at the primary school level, which is less segregated, only gives credence to this suggestion.

The only bit of data on how parents perceive how schools operate in relation to behaviour management indicates that public schools contact parents more than Catholic and independent schools, at both primary and secondary levels (p.20).

Meaningfully addressing disadvantage

Figures presented to Senate Estimates by the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority show that between 2009 and 2013:

“Total government (federal & state/territory) funding for public schools in Australia fell by 1.9 per cent ($224) per student between 2009 and 2013 while funding for Catholic schools increased by 8.1 per cent ($716) per student and by 8 per cent ($574) per Independent school student.”

As a result, in 2013 the total income from all sources for Independent schools was $18,590 per student compared to $13,118 per student in Catholic schools and $12,576 in public schools.

There are considerable additional challenges in educating students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including in relation to behaviour management. To address those challenges, resourcing needs to be prioritised to the public schools that educate the vast majority of disadvantaged students.

It’s also long past time that non-government schools, all of which receive significant taxpayer support, were required to transparently report critical incidents that occur in their schools. This objective information about bullying and other incidents will enhance our ability to address it. 

Further reading

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Survey: Selected Findings From Waves 1 - 12, University of Melbourne

New Figures Show that Government Funding for Public Schools is Down, but Up for Private Schools, Trevor Cobbold

Public school students twice as likely to be bullied as private school pupils, Eryk Bagshaw 

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