Massive Achievement Gaps Revealed

The recent report of the NSW Auditor-General on improving literacy and numeracy in NSW government schools reveals massive achievement gaps between students from rich and poor families and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

It shows that the NSW Government has made little to no progress since 1999 in meeting its commitment under the National Goals for Schooling that learning outcomes of disadvantaged students match those of other students.

The main reason for this policy failure is inadequate funding by governments. The NSW Government, along with other state and territory governments and the Australian Government, continues to allocate only token levels of funding to reducing the achievement gap in schools. The massive achievement gaps revealed in the Auditor-General’s report sets a challenge for all governments, including the Australian Government, to provide adequate funding to reduce social disadvantage in education.

The Auditor-General’s report shows that one or two in every 10 low income students are below minimum standards in literacy and numeracy compared to one or two in every 100 high income students. For example, 11% of Year 3 students in South Western Sydney and 9% in Western Sydney were below minimum literacy and numeracy standards in 2007 compared to 1-2% of students in Northern Sydney. The achievement gap is huge for disadvantaged schools where 20% of students were below the Year 3 minimum standard in literacy and 15% were below the numeracy standard.

The gaps are just as stark for rural regions. For example, 14% of students in Western NSW and 12% of students in New England are below the minimum standards for Year 3.

The achievement gap between students from high income families and Indigenous students is even larger. In 2007, 29% of Indigenous students were below the Year 3 minimum standard in literacy and 22% were below the numeracy standard compared to the 1-2% in Northern Sydney.

The report states that since 1998-99 funding for additional literacy and numeracy programs has increased three-fold from $53 million to $154 million in 2006-07, an overall increase of $101 million. This $154 million in funding consists of $50 million directed towards literacy and numeracy programs and $104 million of equity program funding.

The report notes that despite the increase in funding over the last decade, State tests have shown little change in results for numeracy and literacy, both in terms of the percentages of students in the performance bands and the state average scores. There was virtually no change in the proportion of all students and Indigenous students below minimum literacy and numeracy standards in Years 3 and 5 between 1999 and 2007. There was no significant improvement in state average scores in literacy and numeracy between 2001 and 2007.

The report says that the resources are not being effectively targeted. It found that children that are at risk are not being adequately identified and that resources need to be better targeted to those most in need. It says that there is no systematic assessment of what resources and support are needed and that the support for these students may be too diffuse to make a significant difference, particularly for the lowest performing group. Some students are also missing out on getting support. It also says that the lowest performing group are likely to have the least experienced teachers.

However, the increase in funding for literacy and numeracy and equity programs in NSW government schools over the past decade has also been inadequate to the task faced by government schools in reducing social disadvantage in education. Although the increase seems large in absolute figures, it amounted to a very small increase per student after allowing for inflation.

When adjusted for inflation, the increase between 1998-99 and 2006-07 was $55 million rather than $101 million. This amounts to a real increase of approximately $745 per student for the 10% of students in NSW government schools not achieving expected minimum standards. This is not a large increase for students at risk and goes somewhere in explaining why there has been so little impact on the achievement gaps.

Total literacy and numeracy funding for students not achieving expected standards in NSW in 2006-07 was $1337 per student adjusted for inflation. This is a relatively minor proportion of total real funding as it represents only about 12% of total real funding per student in NSW in 2005-06 ($11279), the latest year for which national funding figures are available.

The increase in funding in NSW has been far less than what is generally accepted as required to support children in learning need and to reduce achievement gaps. For example, several US states provide additional funding for each at-risk student equal to 50 per cent of the average cost per student. Research studies show that the funding required for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve adequate outcomes is two to three times average per student costs. Even more funding would be required to improve the average outcomes of these students so that they match those of well-off students in Northern Sydney, a goal the NSW Government is committed to under the National Goals for Schooling.

In order to match the funding proportions for disadvantaged students in some US states, the NSW Government should be spending about $5600 per student in real terms, more than four times what it is now spending. Its total inflation adjusted expenditure on these students should be of the order of $413 million instead of $99 million at present. In order to match the minimum suggested by research studies the total expenditure should be of the order of $832 million.

Clearly, there is also a huge gap between government expenditure on low achieving students and what is required to ensure adequate outcomes, let alone that needed to support them to achieve at the same average levels as those in the high income northern suburbs of Sydney.

The fact is that the NSW Government, like other governments, provides only a token level of funding to alleviate the effects of socio-economic disadvantage on student achievement. Until governments around Australia drastically increase funding for government schools to reduce the effects of disadvantage we will see little progress in reducing the large achievement gaps that exist in Australia’s schools.

This is also the fundamental test confronting the Rudd Government in education. Will its rhetoric about improving equity be matched by the funding required to make a real difference or will it go the way of the NSW Government and deliver only token funding increases that preclude making any progress?

Trevor Cobbold

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