The great equity debate: a fair go for Australian schools

We need to take a harder look at Australian education and how we compare internationally. Flickr/marragem

Following the refusal of the federal government to commit to the Gonski Review and the recent announcement in Victoria of further cuts to already disadvantaged schools and students, the issue of equity in education needs close attention.

But equity is just one part of the much bigger picture of Australian education. When comparing our system to those in other countries, there are many characteristics that stand out. Some of these work to our benefit, but many aspects don’t compare favourably.

In order to deliver a better education system for students and teachers, we need to identify what’s working, and what is dragging us back.

Competition and equality

First and foremost, the issue of equity needs to be addressed.

Australia has the most competitive education system in the world – parents with a reasonably high level of disposable income can exercise wide choice. But Australia also has a significant equity issue as schools in communities with low socio-economic status (SES) are the most under-resourced both in facilities and in expert teaching staff. Their students often need targeted assistance and support for those with particular needs.

It has long been established that there is a significant relationship between the socio-economic background of students and their educational performance at school.

Disadvantage in education is a function of both the socio-economic characteristics of students, but also of the average socio-economic characteristics of their schools. Investment in these schools where there is a concentration of disadvantage is urgently needed to prevent a downward spiral.

It may sound self-evident, but disadvantaged students are more likely to be in disadvantaged schools. And this is more likely in Australia than in most other OECD high performing countries. We have a higher proportion of students in schools where the average student’s socio-economic background is below the national average.

This report on the Review of Funding for Schooling finds that the “most serious consequence of this is an intensifying stratification along SES lines that leads to a concentration of disadvantage in certain schools”.

A learning market

Education in Australia is divided into three distinct sectors, all of which have a significant market share (approximately 63% government, 21% Catholic and 16% independent). It is particularly unusual compared to other OECD countries to have such a large private or “independent” sector.

In fact, Australia probably has the largest non-government school sector in the world. OECD education leaders Finland, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore have relatively few private schools which mainly cater for international students.

In this sector, there’s something else Australia is doing that is unique. We subsidise a fee-charging, autonomously-run independent school sector with public funds. This is not found anywhere else across the OECD countries.

In Australia, academic selectivity is also an issue. Although we do not “stream” students as some other systems do, schools that can attract high-performing students do so and thereby drain the social and cultural capital from other schools. Much like in sport where good players are poached from losing teams.

The more things change…

So this is Australia’s education system. But it has not always been this way. It has developed with ever increasing pace in the last 12 years with the adoption of various policies from the United Kingdom and United States.

But what has been constant over time has been the strong relationship between the socio-economic status of a school population and its educational results. In fact the correlation in Australia between SES and academic performance is more marked here than most other leading OECD education performers.

Research shows that the movement of these children from a low SES school to a higher SES school in Australia undermines the “quality” (cultural and social capital) of the remaining student body in the low SES school. Professor Richard Teese has termed these schools as “sinks of disadvantage”.

The argument for school choice has been that the subsidisation of places in higher socio-economic schools or the awarding of more scholarships would reduce this problem. This might be the case for the individual student, but system-wide it makes little or no difference.

A recent analysis of NAPLAN results indicate that these same disadvantaged students are already 3-5 years behind their wealthy private school peers. As Connell wrote in 1993 in Schools and Social Justice: “if a poor child wants to do well in education then they should have chosen richer parents”.

Australia’s education system needs to change. Flickr/hans s

In what has become an educational marketplace the majority of schools – independent, Catholic and a proportion of government schools – can select who they enrol.

In the race for excellence and choice (for some), the core issue of equity (for others) has been ignored by policy makers. This was meant to be addressed by the Gonski Review which instead ended up a missed opportunity.

Indeed the “sky is falling” statements by leaders of both Catholic and Independent school systems before the release of the Gonski Review was only overshadowed by their furious agreement afterwards that his recommendations were fair and reasonable.

Indeed their proposals for a voucher entitlement with added loadings, intended to address disadvantage of various kinds, for each child has been at the core of the Gonski recommendations.

Public first

Public schools, designed to create a stable, educated and prosperous economy and society have been essential to a well-functioning democracy. But can we remain so without a strong public education system, and with a system that does little to address inequality?

Instead we are reproducing existing social arrangements, adding to privilege where it already exists and denying it where it does not.

If a school wants to charge fees then that’s their choice; but then that school needs to be self-sufficient.

Since 1972 Australian education has gone down a slippery slope where we started funding private schools for the first time on the basis of “school choice”. This was based on an ideology where individuals have been expected to take on more and more responsibility for their families’ futures.

But it would be worth noting that at the same time Finland who went the other way is now arguably the leader in world education.

Cycle of disadvantage

Wealthy private schools with millions of dollars in their coffers, in both capital holdings and cash reserves, continue to receive excessive state and federal support. While our most disadvantaged schools struggle to provide a decent education are denied access to proper funding and support.

We know there is a positive correlation between higher levels of education and higher earnings for all ethnic groups, for both men and women. In addition to earning higher wages, tertiary graduates enjoy better health outcomes living longer as well. And the income gap between high school graduates and tertiary graduates has increased significantly over time.

And so we must now ask ourselves in Australian education, where has equity gone?

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