Education policy is failing to fix the biggest problem: inequality

How can ‘disadvantaged’ students engage better in school?

The Conversation is running a series, Class in Australia, to identify, illuminate and debate its many manifestations. Here, John Smyth identifies the failure of government policies to tackle the nation’s greatest educational challenge, inequality.

Last year we experienced an uninspiring election campaign, which gave us no new vision for protracted educational issues and even less inspiration.

The campaign never moved away from the issue of funding, with much deeper issues being avoided in a discussion that was “all about the money”. The most urgent educational issue facing us as a nation is that of inequality. The problem with inequality is that it remains hidden - and nothing that went on in the election campaign did anything to alleviate the underlying problem.

Nobody openly admits to living in a society that deliberately and wilfully sets out to produce inequality. But, as long as we fail to ask questions, then the yawning chasm between groups in our society will continue to grow.

Through our unquestioning acceptance that the current model is the only one available, we finish up arguing that all we need to do is provide a “little more padding at the elbows”. What I question is whether this fabulous multi-coloured dreamcoat is all that it is cracked up to be when applied to education.

Not everyone is able to engage with the institution of schooling in the same way. The kind of explanations offered for the educational success of young people euphemistically labelled “disadvantaged”, “vulnerable” or “at-risk” often ignore the causes or apportion blame.

Explanations include a lack of intelligence; a belief these students are “suited only for hands-on work”; diminished language registers in the family; low aspirations of the young people and their parents; lack of self-esteem; inter-generational material poverty; disruptive neighbourhood cultures; ineffective schools and indifferent teachers; and, segregation within and between schools along academic vocational lines.

The problem with explanations like these - and the policy regimes that follow from them or are embedded in them - is that they are inaccurate and often blatantly wrong.

We have yet to have in Australia the serious debate about alternative explanations, although the direction has been clear enough for some time. The reality is that life is precarious for increasing numbers of young people. This precariousness that follows these young people into their school lives results in them developing a deep sense of disaffection towards schooling.

Coupled to this, teachers are often undervalued or ignored in terms of their knowledge and understanding of the struggles around these young lives. There seems to be a policy deafness to this kind of knowledge.

Often disadvantaged students have greater worries in life than school.

Inadequate justifications are often used to pursue unproven forms of “improvement” with generic one-size-fits-all notions of school effectiveness. Using ranking systems, rating and comparing schools on league tables; punishing schools and teachers through “naming and shaming”, and performance pay systems, doesn’t address the issues at hand.

Out-of-school factors account for 60% of variation in achievement, with the schools themselves only accounting for 20%, so clearly throwing money at the problem is not the solution.

The alternatives use different language, and start by addressing students’ assets and strengths. Improving schools for social justice; shifting the emphasis from discipline to an ethos of respect; fostering an authentic engagement of schools with their communities, and kids being provided with rich teaching and a rigorous curriculum, rather than one that dumbs them down, need to be included in the policy framework.

Schools can never compensate for the disfiguring effects of poverty, but when properly resourced, allowed to exercise their professional judgement, and not be interfered with by political agendas, young people at least have a chance. International “best practice” research tells us that schools need to work in ways that understand the broader sources of poverty and avoid policies and practices that blame the victims for alleged defects.

Possibly the most powerful influence is when children attend schools where there is a social class mix, rather than a residualisation, and the explanation is fairly simple. These schools have a culture committed to success rather than an acceptance of failure.

These ideas are drawn from the author’s jointly authored book Living on the Edge: Rethinking Poverty, Class and Schooling (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2013).

See the other articles in the series Class in Australia here.