Monday, March 19, 2012

Private schooling is clearly better

Randwick Boys High and Randwick Girls High are next door to each other yet separated by a wide divide in academic performance. The boys school ranks 458 on the MySchool website while the girls school ranks 231. So close yet so far apart. Just how distracted are the boys for them to lag so behind the girls in performance?

According to data on the MySchool website, the schools have very similar socio-economic catchment areas, as expected, while Randwick Boys received $1220 more per student than Randwick Girls last year. So why was there such a gap in overall results as measured by the federal government's National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) scores?

I hadn't realised the difference between the aptitude and attention spans of girls was so much greater than boys of comparable social background. Unless there is more to the story. There is. Randwick Boys High is not unusual. It is emblematic of a broad divergence in performances when like-for-like comparisons are made via the MySchool data base and its socio-economic index known as ICSEA.

The disparity is stark when public and private high schools with comparable scores on the ICSEA socio-economic index are compared.

Just down the street from Randwick Boys is the Catholic boys school Marcellin College. Again, the schools are close in every way except academic ranking. They are close on the ICSEA index. Randwick Boys also received $614 more per student than Marcellin College last year.

Yet in the overall NAPLAN scores, Marcellin ranks 122, far ahead of Randwick Boys at 458. Marcellin's ranking is also more than 100 places ahead of Randwick Girls, which wipes out the female superiority factor. Another nearby Catholic boys schools, Waverley College, also ranks much higher than both Randwick Boys and Randwick Girls, at 165.

It's not just about money. Although Waverley rated higher than Marcellin in the ICSEA index, and received almost 30 per cent more income per student, Marcellin delivered more bang for the buck, outranking its Catholic rival by 43 places.

Overall, the MySchool is telling us that private schools are producing a better education than public comprehensive schools even when they have similar resources and similar socio-economic catchment areas. The disparity in performance does not change when the comparison is shifted to girls schools.

Again, the distance between Randwick Girls High and a nearby Catholic girls school, Brigidine College, is not great except in academic rankings. The two schools are a couple of streets apart. They are very close on the ICSEA socio-economic index, with a slight advantage to Brigidine. Financially, they are almost identical. Brigidine received $11,337 per student last year and Randwick Girls received slightly more, $11,444 (both below the state average of $12,539).

Brigidine used its similar modest resources to excel, ranking 120 on MySchool, more than 100 places ahead of Randwick Girls. Another nearby Catholic girls school, St Clare's, Waverley, again with a socio-economic index similar to Randwick Girls, also ranks much higher at 152.

An even more striking gap exists between Randwick Girls and St Catherine's, an Anglican girls school in Waverley. They are only 2.7 kilometres apart and there is not a great socio-economic distance, with St Catherine's ranking 10 per cent higher (wealthier?) on the ICSEA index.

The similarities end there. St Catherine's ranks 52, an elite performance among the state's 783 secondary schools. It also received $21,020 per student, almost $10,000 more than Randwick Girls. That explains a lot.

The difference in incomes came from the pockets of parents, who paid a stiff premium in the expectation of their daughters receiving a markedly superior education than they would at a comprehensive public school. Parents of Brigidine and St Clare's girls also received superior performances for their investment, which usually involves financial strain. These are not rich schools.

Obviously, it is only fair to acknowledge that comprehensive schools are being strip-mined of their best and most motivated students (and parents) by selective public schools and private schools, which now have 40 per cent of the student population.

It is also important to note a wide discrepancy in the percentage of students who come from non-English-speaking backgrounds in the seven schools mentioned here: Randwick Boys 75 per cent, Randwick Girls 55, Brigidine 28, Marcellin 23, St Clare's 21, St Catherine's 13 and Waverley College 7.

The high percentage of non-English-speaking-background students at Randwick Boys would appear to account for the drag in the school's relative performance. But this in itself is not a marker of disadvantage. Many of the best schools in the state have very high percentages of such students.

The top academic school in NSW, James Ruse Agricultural High, has 96 per cent of its students from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

The MySchool data offers an overall conclusion: when private schools and public schools are handed a similar cohort of students and income, most private schools produce clearly better results.

For those with reservations about the MySchool rankings, I share those reservations. However, this is transparency at work.

This is a Julia Gillard-driven initiative that is designed to drive improvements in performances. Soon, the NSW government will introduce a momentous change, giving independence to public school principals.

Headmasters will have to spend a lot more time on management and budgets than they do now. But they will be largely liberated from the NSW Education Department. They will have the flexibility enjoyed by private school principals, and resources can be shifted from the bloated central bureaucracy to front-line schooling.


Alternative medicine crackdown

What's required for scientific medicine should be required "a fortiori" for quack medicine too

Homeopaths are facing a fight to defend their practice in Australia after the National Health and Medical Research Council flagged it might declare their work baseless and unethical.

A draft public statement seen by The Age concluded it was "unethical for health practitioners to treat patients using homeopathy, for the reason that homeopathy (as a medicine or procedure) has been shown not to be efficacious".

The confidential statement, which was not meant to be distributed, is based on a 2010 evaluation of homeopathy by the British House of Commons science and technology committee, which declared it was no more efficacious than a placebo.

Homeopathy is based on the principles of "like-cures-like" and "ultra-dilutions". The first says substances that can cause symptoms can be used in diluted form to treat the same symptom in an illness, and the second says the more dilute a substance is, the more potent it is.

While homeopathy continues to enjoy the support of Britain's royal family and is funded through the UK's National Health Service, the House of Commons report found its principles were "theoretically weak" and "scientifically implausible".

The draft statement by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council said that although homeopathy was not harmful in its own right, it might pose a risk to patients if safe and efficacious conventional treatments were delayed in favour of homeopathic treatments.

It said homeopathy, which uses a large range of animal, plant and mineral products, should not be confused with herbal remedies.

A council spokesman would not comment on the draft, but said it was reviewing the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines, including homeopathy, and would release its findings in due course.

Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton backed the council's draft statement. He said he hoped it would force health insurers to reconsider their funding of homeopathy, as well as other "questionable" therapies such as iridology and reflexology.

"I think it will put them in a very difficult situation … If the NHMRC looks at the evidence and says this doesn't work, we can't support it, you'd have to ask the insurers if they will continue to fund something that a very reputable body disagrees with," he said.

The Australian Association of Professional Homeopaths Inc says 47 health insurers, including Medibank Private and NIB, cover homeopathic consultations and medicines.

Australian Homeopathic Association president Greg Cope said there was strong evidence to support the practice, including clinical trials that were now being submitted to the NHMRC for consideration.

He said there were about 700 registered homeopaths in Australia under a self-governed registration model, and they worked to a code of conduct. Consultations typically cost $50 to $100, with medicines usually costing a further $10.

Mr Cope said he had been lobbying Canberra to set up a formal registration scheme, similar to those for doctors and nurses. He said health insurers were wise to fund homeopathy, which was used by thousands of Australians. "It's a very popular therapy and I imagine it would reduce their expenses because it attracts people using low-cost healthcare," he said.

Writing in the Journal of Law and Medicine this week, Melbourne barrister Ian Freckleton, SC, said several recent deaths involving homeopaths highlighted the dangers involved when they steered people away from conventional medicine.

Dr Freckleton cited the case of Perth woman Penelope Dingle, who died from bowel cancer in 2005 after spending about $30,000 on unsuccessful homeopathic treatments, including extracts from the venus flytrap plant.

He also cited the death in 2009 of Gloria Thomas, age nine months, after her parents favoured homeopathy over conventional medicine for severe eczema.

Dr Freckleton said although many aspects of Western medicine had not been able to stand up to full scientific analysis of their underpinnings over time, there was an "urgent need" for the health sector, consumer protection authorities and policymakers to protect the community from dangerous homeopathic practices.

He said homeopaths had used crushed-up pieces of the Berlin Wall to treat depression.

And in the latest edition of the journal Spectrum of Homeopathy, the authors detailed the use of wolf's milk for eczema and bulimia, cheetah's blood for multiple sclerosis and tiger's blood for depression. "It's quite remarkable," he said.


Public hospital delays kill a little girl

The distraught mother of a preschooler who died in a Sydney hospital has broken down after a coroner found there were no failings in her daughter's medical care. "I lost my daughter, I lost my home, I lost my marriage, I lost everything," Angela Costa said through her tears outside the Coroner's Court in Glebe today.

Her former husband, Stephen Costa, warned parents to take their sick youngsters to a children's hospital rather than to other emergency departments. "Save yourself six or seven hours of politics," he said. "For no reason ... our daughter may still be here today had we taken that decision."

Four-year-old Chanel Costa died at Sydney Children's Hospital at Randwick on July 18, 2008. She was taken to Nepean Hospital after running a temperature of 39.5 degrees and suffering seizures.

Her condition deteriorated and she was transferred to the Randwick hospital after no intensive care beds were available at Westmead Children's Hospital.

Deputy State Coroner Carmel Forbes found Chanel died of cerebral oedema, or swelling of the brain, which was the result of natural causes. Experts gave evidence that Chanel probably suffered from a rare condition, Reye's disease. "In all the circumstances, I am of the view the management of Chanel's condition could not be criticised or said to have caused her rapid cerebral oedema," the coroner concluded.

Her family raised a number of concerns at the inquest, including the six hours NETS (Newborn and Paediatric Emergency Transport Service) took to transfer Chanel to the Randwick hospital.

The coroner said she was satisfied that public health and safety was ensured through changes made or about to be made by NETS.



Three current articles below

Australia not very Green

That fact is spun below as a bad thing but considering how well-off Australia is when compared with the financial crises in "Greener" countries, it can be seen as something associated with GOOD policy

AUSTRALIA'S economy is less equipped to deal with a low carbon emissions world than it was nearly two decades ago, an international study has found.

The study, backed by think tank the Climate Institute and multinational GE, found that since 1995, Australia's dependence on polluting activities had grown relative to almost every other major economy.

The study ranked Australia 16th out of 19 countries in being ready to deal with a low-carbon world — ahead of just India, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

The rankings are based on 19 measures, including emissions growth, energy generation, export industries, transport and investment in clean technology.

A retrospective analysis found Australia ranked 12th in 1995 on a "low-carbon competitiveness index", but had since been overtaken by Turkey, Mexico, Russia and South Africa. The list was headed by France, Japan, Britain, South Korea and Germany.

Climate Institute deputy chief executive Erwin Jackson said relative to other countries Australia's economy had become more dependent on pollution, not less.

"Among other things our energy sector is dominated by coal, our use of oil is inefficient, we have high rates of deforestation and our export industries are based on low-value-added resources and not high-value-add technologies," he said.

The study, using an index created by British consultants Vivid Economics, does not factor in Australia's carbon price scheme and associated clean energy funding as the laws do not take effect until July 1.

It is based on an assumption that, while the global economy is volatile, there is an underlying "mega-trend" towards low emissions goods.

The authors cite evidence that more than 100 countries have policies to support clean energy, leading to a record $US260 billion spending in the area last year, and that major emitters have agreed to work on a climate pact to be signed by 2015 and take effect by 2020.


$5 carbon price to halt innovation as clean energy plan at risk

INTERNATIONAL carbon prices are predicted to be as low as $5 by 2020, undermining the ability of Australia's carbon package to force technological changes to cut emissions, one of the world's leading emissions pricing forecasters has told big business.

The research emerged as the energy sector warned that crackdowns on drilling for coal-seam gas also pose a threat to a key plank of the clean-energy package forcing power stations to switch from coal to gas because a regulatory blitz could force up gas prices and reduce the competitive advantage the carbon price was designed to give it over coal.

The $5 carbon price forecast has been produced by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which last week briefed the nation's largest emitters at an Australian Industry Greenhouse Network meeting.

The imminent introduction of Australia's $23 a tonne price from July 1 has sparked concerns from major business groups in the wake of the collapse in the EU emissions trading price to about $10 and a corresponding slump in the value of the UN's Clean Development Mechanism Certified Emissions Reduction units.

Some peak industry bodies are this week expected to discuss a renewed push for a rear-guard effort calling on the government to either drop the $23 carbon price to $10 or delay the scheme altogether, as anxiety about the impending introduction of the scheme mounts.

Trade and Competitiveness Minister Craig Emerson told Sky News's Australian Agenda yesterday the government would "press ahead" with the current scheme.

He said compensation measures in the package included "large offerings" of free permits

of up to 95 per cent, "which means for those most emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries, the average carbon price is $1.30 per tonne not $23 but $1.30 per tonne".

"Now what we need to do is put in place a sensible carbon pricing mechanism that will actually achieve behaviour change, and calls to put it in at $5 or $10 would not achieve their stated objectives of reducing our emissions," Dr Emerson said.

The government's argument will today be backed by research from the Climate Institute and international energy giant GE, which defends the $23 starting price.

The report warns that Australia is falling behind the rest of the world in its efforts to cut emissions and that many other countries, including Britain ($24-$30), Sweden ($130), Switzerland ($30-$60), Norway ($53) and Ireland ($24-$37) have higher prices than Australia's $23 starting price.

Bloomberg's prediction of a E4 to E5 price for CERs by 2020 is based on an expected oversupply of emissions offsets programs over the course of the decade as big emitters such as the US stay out of the international carbon market.

CERs have broadly followed the trajectory of the EU emissions trading price but have traded at a discount. Bloomberg predicts that the EU price will decouple from the CER price over the course of the decade as tighter European caps and an economic recovery drive the EU price to more than $40.

CERs are likely to remain depressed because Europe will buy less of them because of limits on purchasing offshore units in the EU scheme, and the US is not expected to enter international trading markets, based on the Bloomberg "base case".

Under the Australian scheme, when the price moves to a floating trading system, Australian firms will be able to access 50 per cent of their carbon emissions liabilities offshore. A floor price of $15 will be introduced from 2015 and remain until 2018.

If the European price rose above $40 but the UN schemes were closer to $5, Australian firms would be likely to purchase their offshore credits from the UN scheme to gain access to the lowest cost abatement.

"The main message we have at the moment for our clients is that the international market does not have a huge amount of price support," Bloomberg New Energy Finance Australian manager Seb Henbest told The Australian.

"You have an interesting situation the carbon price right now is low in the rest of the world but initially high in Australia.

"That is likely to reverse when the European price is expected to get a lot higher. The Australian price will be kept low, partly because of price controls in the market but also because of the natural economic forcing of the CER price as firms buy cheap credits and use them for compliance.

"From an economic perspective, carbon could be pretty cheap in Australia for a period of time to come and we ask ourselves if that is a politically sustainable solution. If you've got a price in 2020 of $5, that is not necessarily reflecting the sort of carbon prices that would be needed in Australia to incentivise broad behavioural change in the energy sector, for example," Mr Henbest said.

Amid the Bloomberg predictions, the Energy Supply Association of Australia whose members include Origin Energy and the Australian arm of International Power-GDF Suez has warned that a regulatory crackdown on CSG could hurt energy security nationwide and efforts to slash greenhouse emissions as the government plans for its carbon price to lead to at least a 200 per cent increase in gas-fired electricity by 2050.

Coal-seam gas is cheaper to produce than gas from some conventional sources such as the new offshore gas fields in Victoria's Gippsland Basin, while in Western Australia there are fears of domestic gas supply shortages as early as 2015 because most supplies are exported as lucrative liquefied natural gas to Asia, the group said.

In a submission to the government's draft energy white paper, the ESAA urged governments to refrain from further regulatory interventions that would spook investors, saying there was an extra $240bn of investment required in the sector by 2030.

Investors were already plagued by uncertainty because of the continued failure of the major parties to reach an agreed position on greenhouse policy, while the failure of most state governments to scrap retail price controls on energy was a further barrier.

On top of this, the $10bn Clean Energy Finance Corporation could crowd out the private sector and small government-mandated climate-change schemes, including the convoluted Renewable Energy Target, were causing price hikes, the group said.

As LNG exports to Asia (including from CSG projects) could put pressure on prices and make it harder for domestic buyers such as power stations to lock in long-term contracts for gas, the ESAA argues in the submission that this makes it important to allow access to the "widest range" of sources.

"The massive rebuild and re-investment required to modernise infrastructure and transform to a lower emissions footing presents Australia's energy sector with an investment challenge bigger than ever before," the submission states.

"Investment of this magnitude will not happen by itself. It requires industry to have the confidence to commit to very large investments. Australia must consequently be an attractive destination if we are to raise the volumes of capital required at the lowest cost."


Western Australia clears the way for fracking

W.A. covers about a third of Australia so this is a big deal

A RECENT decision by the West Australian Environment Minister to allow small-scale hydraulic fracturing in the Perth Basin without the need for environmental assessments could be a sign of things to come for unconventional gas resources, which some have tipped as the next energy frontier for the boom state.

Rising domestic gas prices and the rapid growth of unconventional gas markets overseas have prompted increased scrutiny of WA's onshore Perth Basin. WA Department of Mines and Petroleum figures reveal use of the prominent exploration technique for unconventional gas reserves, hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", has quadrupled in a year.

Unconventional gases differ from conventional forms like liquefied natural gas, because while LNG can be found in relatively easily accessible sandstone rock formations, unconventional gasses are hidden in hard rock like shale, or unporous sandstone, like tight gas, or in coal seams. Environmental concerns have followed the spread of fracking from the coal seams of Queensland, to NSW and now to WA's shale and tight gas reserves.

The Perth Basin's tight gas fields could hold 9 trillion to 12 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, and are located near existing pipelines, according to WA Department of Mines and Petroleum records.

One trillion cubic feet of gas can provide enough energy to power a city of 1 million people for 20 years.

The WA Mines Minister, Norman Moore, said it was too early to know what an unconventional gas industry could mean for exports, although in the US net exports of total petroleum products last year exceeded imports for the first time in 60 years based on shale's contributions.

Alcoa, in partnership, has committed $100 million to exploration and development of the basin's onshore Warro gas field, of which it has a 65 per cent interest. The project's operator, Transerv Energy, through its wholly owned subsidiary Latent Petroleum, holds the remaining 35 per cent. The joint venture hopes to hit first tight gas production from Warro in late 2013.

AWE has received the green light to fracture three wells at the Woodada gas field for tight and shale gas and is expected to start exploring within the year.

Earlier this month the WA Environment Minister, Bill Marmion, backed an Environmental Protection Authority decision not to perform environmental assessments for a group of similar proposals, including AWE's, to fracture the basin for unconventional gas.

"The public advice issued by the EPA states that 'an impermeable barrier of shale separates the hydraulic fracture stimulation zone from the freshwater aquifers in the area providing confidence that there is unlikely to be an impact on freshwater aquifers," he said.

He added that "in contrast to fracking operating in other states, these proposals are significantly deeper and further from aquifers".

The Curtin University head of petroleum engineering, Brian Evans, said there was about 1.5 kilometres of sandstone under West Australians' feet, followed by about one kilometre of shale.

"If we fracked that it wouldn't make any difference to the shallow ground water where problems have existed such as in the eastern states," he said. The WA Basins have the potential to be a far larger energy source than the North-West Shelf, according to Mr Evans.


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