This article was published in the Canberra Times on 10 October 2016
Education disadvantage is the forgotten issue in the ACT election campaign despite its importance to the Territory’s social well-being and economic prosperity.
Education disadvantage has been virtually ignored by the major political parties. It has been ignored by the Labor Government for the last decade or more. The Liberals have no policies for reducing disadvantage in public schools. The Greens have made a minimal attempt to address the issue, but it is far from enough. The major parties need to step up their education policies to address inequity.
Reducing inequity in education should be high priority. High percentages of disadvantaged students are not achieving national minimum standards in literacy and numeracy by the end of high school.
In 2015, over 25 per cent of Year 9 students from low socio-economic status (SES) families did not achieve the writing standard, about 20 per cent did not achieve the spelling and grammar and punctuation standards and 14-15 per cent did not achieve the reading and numeracy standards.
Over 40 per cent of Year 9 Indigenous students did not achieve the writing standard, about 20 per cent did not achieve the spelling and grammar and punctuation standards, 15 per cent did not achieve the numeracy standard, and 13 per cent did not achieve the reading standard.
There are very large achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students. By Year 9, students from low SES families are 2-3 years behind their high SES peers. Indigenous students are 3⅟2-4 years behind.
The relationship between the socio-economic background of students and school outcomes in Canberra is stronger than anywhere else in Australia except the Northern Territory.
These are appalling statistics. Canberra needs to do better.
Low education achievement by a significant proportion of young people has far reaching individual, social and economic costs. It stunts individual lives and it brings higher health, social welfare and crime costs. It also stunts economic growth and prosperity. An underperforming education system means an underperforming economy.
A comprehensive education strategy is desperately needed to reduce education disadvantage.
First, we need to identify where the main problem lies. The large proportion of disadvantaged students in Canberra are in public schools. Nearly 80 per cent of low SES students, 77 per cent of Indigenous students and 73 per cent of disability students are enrolled in public schools.
The burden of education disadvantage in ACT public schools is double that of Catholic schools and over double that of Independent schools. Low SES, Indigenous and disability students together comprise 19 per cent of public school enrolments compared to 9 per cent of Catholic school enrolments and 7 per cent of Independent school enrolments.
Despite this, past funding increases have been largely misdirected. The largest increase in total Australian and ACT government funding per student since 2009 went to the most advantaged school sector with the smallest number of disadvantaged students – Independent schools. Their increase of 9.4 per cent was over double that for public schools at only 4.2 per cent. The increase for Catholic schools was 6.6 per cent.
Independent and Catholic schools have a large resource advantage over public schools when the relative burden of disadvantage is taken into account. The ratio of government funding in private schools and public schools far exceeds the ratio of disadvantaged students.
Funding increases need to be better targeted at disadvantaged students in public schools. A new funding framework for public schools is necessary to provide much larger funding loadings for disadvantaged students than at present. The new funding model being applied in public schools is only marginally structured to address disadvantage.
But, better targeted funding is not the whole answer. It needs to be used effectively. It should be directed at better teaching and learning opportunities for disadvantaged students. This could include low class sizes in schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged students and early intervention programs.
All public schools need adequately resource student welfare programs. These should include multi-disciplinary teams of teachers, psychologists, social workers and health professionals. Disadvantaged schools need more adults to support students at risk.
Another key approach is dedicated support programs in schools and with families to increase parent participation in children’s learning. Home/school liaison officers and family literacy programs have proved successful elsewhere.
Improving equity in education is the fundamental challenge facing the ACT community. It should not be swept under the carpet for the next four years as it has in the past. Political parties need to lift their game on education because it is so critical to Canberra’s future.