The massive achievement gap between rich and poor is the biggest challenge facing Australian education today. Australia has amongst the best results in the world, but also a very large achievement gap between rich and poor.
Nearly 25% of 15 year-old students from low socio-economic status (SES) families in Australia do not achieve expected international proficiency standards compared to only 5% of high SES students. In contrast, the proportion of high SES students achieving the highest proficiency levels is about 5 times that of low SES students.
On average, 15 year-old students from low SES families are about two years behind their high SES counterparts. This gap is exacerbated by large differences in the social composition of schools. An average low SES 15 year-old student in a severely disadvantaged school is about 3½ years behind her high SES peer in a school of mostly high income families.
Such inequity in education is a grave social injustice and a massive waste of potential. Our education system discriminates against low income families and compounds privilege. Students from more privileged backgrounds have greater access to higher incomes, higher status occupations and positions of wealth, influence and power in society than students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
The large disparity in school outcomes also indicates a waste of talents, skills and resources. It is, in effect, a measure of the potential to improve workforce skills and productivity. Julia Gillard, and before her, Kevin Rudd, harped on about improving Australia’s productivity. Well, eliminating inequity in education would be a huge boost to productivity. It would also reduce the costs of health care, social security and crime.
The achievement gap is being exacerbated by current policies which promote competition and choice at the expense of equity. More choice and competition will increase social segregation between schools without improving student achievement, just as it has elsewhere in the world. Social segregation in schooling breeds inequity. It increases disparities between schools in learning needs and the resources available to meet those needs.
Government funding policies are also making it worse. The wealthiest private schools in Australia have double or more the resources of government schools, yet they receive government funding of $2000 to $4000 per student. This is 4 to 8 times more than the additional funding provided for disadvantaged students in private or government schools.
The Federal Government’s new funding program for disadvantaged schools will provide only miniscule additional funding. It amounts to a little over $500 per student which is less than a 5% increase on average government school expenditure per student. In contrast, research studies show that the additional funding needed to get low SES student results up to the average for all students is 2 to 3 times average funding levels. They need the kind of resourcing levels now only available to the wealthiest schools in Australia.
A comprehensive education strategy, complemented by economic and social policies is needed to overcome education disadvantage and reduce the achievement gap.
Schools cannot do this alone; inequality and disadvantage are too embedded in our society for the task of alleviating its effects to be left to schools alone. New economic and social policies are needed to increase labour force participation and employment and support the welfare, health, mental health, housing, and nutritional needs of low income families. Early childhood policies also have a critical role to play.
At the school level, we need to improve teaching and learning opportunities for students who have fallen behind. This requires more highly qualified well-paid teachers and more effective early intervention. It should be complemented by more student welfare, behavioural and learning support measures; extensive home/school partnerships; and a better funding system based on student learning needs.
Above all, we need a huge funding effort to transform our high quality, low equity education system into a high quality, high equity system.