On the Definition of Equity in Education

The Gonski Institute for Education recently published a valuable paper on equity in education titled Improving Educational Equity in Australian Education. It discusses what is equity, why equity in education matters and makes recommendations for improving equity in education. However, its definition of equity in education is limited and imprecise. The paper should have adopted the equity definition of the original Gonski report because it offers a more effective guide for education policy and funding.

Defining equity in education

The Gonski Institute paper states that “Equity means removing barriers and overcoming background factors as the key determinant of disparity in student outcomes across Australia”. It says that students’ backgrounds should not be a determining factor in their educational performance.

This is a sound principle from which to start. It is consistent with the basic principle adopted by the Gonski Review of School Funding which said that “…equity should ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions” [p. 105].

However, it overlooks further elaboration of this definition in the Gonski report. The report adopted a dual equity objective: it set an equity goal for all students as individuals and as members of different social groups.

First, the report set an equity goal for all students. It said that “…no student in Australia should leave school without the basic skills and competencies needed to participate in the workforce and lead successful and productive lives” [p. xiv]. This meant attainment of Year 12 as a minimum standard of education for all:

Australia’s school system needs to help ensure that the targets for students attaining Year 12 or equivalent qualifications are met and that students leave school with the skills and capacities required to actively participate in society, and contribute to Australia’s prosperity. [p. xxix]

The report also set an equity goal for all students as members of different social groups:

Central to the panel’s definition of equity is the belief that the underlying talents and abilities of students that enable them to succeed in schooling are not distributed differently among children from different socioeconomic status, ethnic or language backgrounds, or according to where they live or go to school. [p. 105]

This social equity objective was a key part of the Gonski review’s concept of equity in education as later explained by one of its panel members:

…the range of achievement, and the mean achievement, of sub-groups of students within the total student cohort should become similar, over time – whether the subgroup be recent arrivals for whom English is not a first language; or children in small and remote central schools; or Aboriginal children; or children of single parents living on benefits; or Moslem children; or children with hearing impairments; or children attending Faith Lutheran School Tanunda, or Melbourne Girls Grammar School, or Dimboola High School, or Marist College Ashgrove, or Newington College, or Moree Christian School, or Cabramatta High School.

…That is what we mean when we say that differences in educational outcomes should not be the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. That is what we mean by talking about a fair go for all young Australians. [Ken Boston, Beyond Politics: Gonski, the national interest, and a fair go for young Australians. Speech to Christian Schools National Policy Forum, Canberra, 21 May 2012, p. 3]

For the record, it should be pointed out that this dual equity objective was recommended to the Gonksi review in a submission by Save Our Schools:

Save Our Schools proposes that equity in education should refer to equity in outcomes and incorporate both an individual and a social aspect.

From an individual perspective, equity in education outcomes should mean that all children receive an adequate education. From a social perspective, equity in education should mean that children from different social groups achieve similar average results. [p. 11]

Equity in education outcomes should be seen as a dual objective incorporating both individual and social equity. Achievement of a minimum threshold level of education (an adequate education) for all students should be a fundamental goal of public education. However, this is not enough to achieve equity in education. Achieving social equity in education should also be a fundamental goal. This means that low SES, Indigenous, ethnic and provincial and remote area students should achieve similar outcomes to students from high SES families. [p. 14]

It was the only submission that systematically addressed what is equity. Others relied upon the concept of “equality of opportunity” which is a meritocratic concept that is a recipe for continuing inequity.

Both aspects of equity matter.

An adequate education for all

Society has a moral obligation to ensure that all children receive an adequate education. Indeed, the moral authority of a society that calls itself a democracy depends in no small part on providing all its citizens with an adequate education. It is a matter of justice and a moral obligation of society that all children should receive a minimum formal education required to make their own way as adults in society and to contribute to society.

It is also in society’s interest to ensure that all children receive an adequate education. Social waste is incurred if some children do not receive an adequate education. It means that human talents that could contribute to society are not fostered. All children have talents that can be realised through education and formal learning. By failing to develop those talents, society incurs lost opportunities for its development and enrichment.

Failure to ensure that all children receive an adequate education also incurs long-term economic and social costs. These include higher unemployment, lower lifetime earnings, lower productivity and economic growth, reduced tax revenues, and higher costs of health care, social security and crime.

In today’s society, an adequate education should mean successful completion of Year 12 or its equivalent. Those who do not complete Year 12 are to a large extent cut off from further education and training and have limited future employment prospects. All students should complete Year 12 to gain the knowledge and skills they require to enter the workforce or to go on to further education in TAFE or university. In order to complete Year 12 or its equivalent, students also need to make adequate progress during their whole school career. Students who fall well behind in earlier years are unlikely to successfully complete Year 12.

Australia has a long way to go in ensuring an adequate education for all children, although it has made improvements over the last decade. In 2017, 21% of the estimated Year 12 population did not complete Year 12 [Report on Government Services 2019, Table 4A.58]. This was down from 32% in 2009. Similarly, 21% of the 20-24 age group in 2017 had not completed Year 12 or its equivalent [ABS, Education and Work, Australia, 2018, Table 29]. This was down from 25% in 2009.

In addition, a significant proportion of students do not make adequate progress through school. The results from PISA 2015 show that nearly 20% of 15-year-old students do not achieve expected international standards in reading and science and over 20% do not achieve the mathematics standard.

Students from different social groups should achieve similar outcomes

The distribution of education outcomes between different social groups has a key bearing on access to occupations and positions of power in society. Even if all young people achieve the minimum threshold required for an adequate education, large inequalities in outcomes above the threshold can still occur between social groups and differentially affect the life chances of individuals according to their membership of social groups.

Some groups of students may continue to obtain a lesser education than more privileged groups because their average results are significantly below those of other groups. For example, average outcomes of students from high socio-economic status (SES) families could still be much higher than for those from low SES families if high SES students continue to comprise a disproportionate number of those achieving at the higher levels of attainment while low SES students are clustered just above the minimum threshold. In these circumstances, high SES students will remain a privileged social group in terms of access to higher education, higher paying occupations and power and status positions in society. Continuing large differences in school results between students from different social groups entrenches inequality in society and is a form of economic and social discrimination

Equity in education therefore should also mean that students from different social groups achieve similar average results as well as the minimum threshold level of attainment expected for all students. There is no reason in principle to consider that innate intelligence and talents of low SES, Indigenous, ethnic and remote area students are somehow less than those of high SES students. No social, racial or geographic group of students is innately more intelligent or talented than others.

This sets a challenging target. It implies that the average results and range of achievement of low SES, Indigenous, remote area and non-English speaking background students should be similar to the highest achieving social group, which is high SES students.

However, as has been documented by many studies, there are large differences in school outcomes in Australia between low SES, Indigenous and remote area students compared to high SES students. The results from PISA 2015 show an achievement gap between high and low SES 15-year-old students equivalent to about three years of learning, a gap of about four years between high SES and Indigenous students and a gap of about three years between high SES and remote area students.

There are also large differences in school completion rates for students from different social groups. The proportion of low SES and remote area students who fail to complete Year 12 is about double that of high SES students. In 2017, 24% of low SES students and 26% of remote area students did not complete Year 12 compared with 13% of high SES students [Report on Government Services 2019, Tables 4A.58 & 4A.59]. A massive 57% of very remote area students did not complete Year 12. Nearly 40% of Indigenous students enrolled in Years 7/8 do not progress through to Year 12 [Table 4A.28].


The equity principle adopted by the Gonski Institute paper is fine as far as it goes. The problem is that without further elaboration it does not provide any guide as to what equity means in practice, how it can be assessed and how progress in improving equity can be measured. As such, it impedes setting clear priorities in education policy and funding and evaluating progress in reducing inequity. The dual equity objective set in the original Gonski report provides a much clearer guide for education policy and funding. It sets clear priorities in the funding and the resourcing of schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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