Australia’s Education System is Nearly the Most Unequal in the Developed World

Australia prides itself on its egalitarian ethos, but it is a myth in education.

Not only do we have one of the most segregated school systems in the OECD and the world, but a report just published by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund shows that Australia’s education system is nearly the most unequal in the developed world. There is a clear link between social segregation and education performance in Australia.

The UNICEF report cites Australia as one of the most unequal education systems amongst 39 developed countries [p. 10]. In fact, Australia is the equal 2nd most unequal education system with Slovakia and only marginally behind New Zealand on a combined ranking of education inequality across pre-school, primary and secondary schooling [Chart 1 below]. Australia is ranked 36th out of 41 countries in inequality in pre-school attendance, 25th out of 29 countries in inequality in primary school reading achievement and 30th out of 38 countries in inequality in secondary school reading achievement.

Finland, Latvia, and Poland have the most equal education systems. It is notable that some of the poorest countries in the comparison, such as Latvia and Lithuania, achieve near-universal access to preschool learning and curb inequality in reading performance among both primary and secondary school students far more successfully than Australia, a much richer country.

The report measured inequality in pre-school education by participation in pre-school in the year before primary school entry. It measured inequality in primary and secondary achievement as the gap in reading scores between the lowest- and highest scoring students at Grade 4 and age 15.

The pre-school enrolment rate in many developed countries is virtually 100 per cent, often reflecting a statutory requirement to enrol a child in preschool in the year before primary school. Countries with enrolment rates of 99-100% include Lithuania, Iceland, France, Switzerland, Latvia, Poland and Austria [Chart 2]. In contrast, Australia’s participation rate is 90.6%. Only Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania, United States and Turkey have lower rates.

The report found that children from low income households are less likely to attend pre-school. In 16 countries out of 29 for which data is available, children from the poorest fifth of households have a lower preschool attendance rate than children from the richest fifth. Countries where there is little difference in enrolment rates between rich and poor included Iceland, Belgium, Estonia, Spain and France. However, this data is not available for Australia.

Australia has the 5th highest gap between the 90th and 10th percentiles in 4th grade reading achievement out of 31 education systems [Chart 3]. Only Bulgaria, Israel, New Zealand and Malta have larger gaps. The Netherlands, Latvia and Finland have the smallest gaps.

Australia also has the 9th highest gap in reading achievement at age 15 out of 38 countries [Chart 4]. Countries with a larger gap include Cyprus, New Zealand, France and Malta. The countries with the smallest gaps are Latvia, Ireland, Spain, Denmark and Estonia.

The report notes that large inequalities in children’s educational progress are linked to family background. These inequalities already exist when children enter preschool and persist at primary and secondary school.

Students in the rich countries of the world are on an unequal footing as they near the end of compulsory schooling. Parental occupation still predicts how well a child will read in secondary school. The segregation of students along social and economic lines contributes to the persistence of inequalities due to family background. [p. 38]

Education policies and practices can serve to reduce or reinforce educational inequalities stemming from family circumstances. The report says that policies relating to school choice and to school transfers and expulsions may reduce the diversity of children within schools, potentially increasing educational inequalities. It also notes that some school practices tend to reinforce inequalities such as grade repetition, streaming and tracking. Where children are sorted into different streams within schools or go to different schools based on their academic performance, children from less privileged families tend to be overrepresented in the lower tracks, with fewer opportunities in the future.

The report compares several school characteristics that influence equity in education. For example, Australia leaves the age at which children are first divided into different types of schools or programmes until senior secondary school whereas children in Austria and Germany are tracked into different schools at age 10.

However, Australia makes greater use of ability grouping within schools compared to other countries. The report shows that 88% of 15-year-old students in Australia are grouped in classes by ability. This is the 6th highest of 41 countries included in the report. The rates were much lower in countries with the smallest gaps in reading achievement at age 15, for example, Latvia (19%), Denmark (25%), Estonia (38%) and Spain (40%). However, while Ireland also had one of the smallest gaps in reading achievement it also had a higher rate of ability grouping than Australia at 96%.

Australia also has one of the highest proportion of enrolments in privately managed schools which can exacerbate inequalities in education, although there is no one-to-one relationship across countries. In Australia, privately managed schools account for 43.7% of enrolments. This is the 5th largest of the 41 countries covered by the report; the other countries with a high proportion of privately managed school enrolments are Chile (63.1%), Ireland (57.3%), Netherlands (60.1%) and the UK (55.8%).

The report found that there are significant differences in approach between countries with a high degree of equity in education and that it is not possible to successfully transfer policies and practices from one country to another because of different economic, social and political context. However, it does draw some general principles and recommendations from its comparisons.

It says that countries should guarantee high-quality, early childhood education and care to all children. All children should be able to access high-quality, age-appropriate, formal, early childhood education and care, including those with disabilities and special needs, and irrespective of their parents’ employment, migration status or income. Australia is one country where improvements should be made, especially in access to pre-school education.

It also says that policy makers should ensure that no students fall so far behind that they lack the skills to participate fully in society. This is a priority for Australia because it has one of the largest gaps. The report says there is no inevitable trade-off between higher overall standards in reading achievement and narrower gaps between the lowest- and highest-performing students. Bringing the lowest achievers up does not necessarily mean bringing the highest achievers down.

Another policy priority is to reduce the extent to which socio-economic background matters to student achievement. While the impact of socio-economic background is an outcome of wider social and economic forces it is also a matter of political priorities and decisions. The report says that through a combination of family allowances and public services, rich countries can ensure that all children have access to a decent breakfast, suitable equipment, and school events and enriching extra-curricular activities, so that they are able to enjoy learning, develop varied interests and achieve their full potential. It says that such policies go beyond education policy into the realm of social policy. Reducing the impact of socio-economic background on student achievement is a major task facing policy makers in Australia.

The extent of education inequality in Australia is a national calamity. To be the 2nd most unequal education system in the developed world is disgraceful and scandalous. It is completely unacceptable for a nation that prides itself on its egalitarian ethos. People are concerned about education inequality, but governments of all persuasions have demonstrably failed to take up that concern. Commonwealth and state government education and funding policies must give much greater priority to reducing inequality.

Trevor Cobbold

Charts on Inequality in Education

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