Window of Opportunity to Improve Equity in Education

The crucial role of Green and independent support for the new Gillard minority government has created a window of opportunity for a serious effort to close the huge achievement gaps in our schools and improve equity in education. The focus should be to address the large burden of education disadvantage carried by government schools.

The Greens have for some time placed an emphasis on the equity in outcomes, and have been highly critical of the funding policies of both the Howard Government and the previous Rudd-Gillard Government which have delivered huge increases to private schools. Similarly, one of the independents, Rob Oakeshott, has placed a lot of emphasis on regional disadvantage in education.

However, the agreements signed between Labor and the Greens and the independent Andrew Wilkie do not mention education. The agreement with Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott simply quarantines a minimum proportion of the funding for some of Labor’s programs to be allocated to regional areas.

This suggests that the Greens and all the independents need to look deeper at the burden facing government schools, in order to develop policies which will support real improvement in equity in education.

The big challenge facing Australian education is to close the huge achievement gaps between rich and poor, Indigenous and non-Indigenous and remote and metropolitan students in Australia. The central task is to transform a high quality, low equity education system into a high quality, high equity system.

Nearly 25% of 15 year-old students from low socio-economic status (SES) families in Australia do not achieve expected international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science 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 serving largely high income families.

About 40% of 15 year-old Indigenous students do not achieve expected international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to about 12% of all Australian students. On average, 15 year-old Indigenous students are 2½ years of schooling behind non-Indigenous students in reading, mathematics and science.

About 24-28% of 15 year-old students in remote regions of Australia do not achieve expected international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to 12% of metropolitan students. Remote students are, on average, about 18 months of schooling behind their metropolitan counterparts.

These gaps are a grave social injustice and a massive waste of potential. Our education system discriminates against low income families, Indigenous families and those in remote areas. It preserves access to high income, high status occupations and positions of power and influence for the privileged. This has not changed under Labor.

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.

Government schools bear the brunt of the burden of disadvantage. The overall level of disadvantage in government schools is nearly double that of Catholic and Independent schools.

Low income, Indigenous, remote area and disability students constitute a much higher proportion of enrolments in government schools than in private schools. For example, students from low income families comprise 40% of government school enrolments, compared to 25% in Catholic schools and 22% in Independent schools. Indigenous students comprise 6% of government school enrolments compared to 2% in Catholic schools and 1.5% of Independent school enrolments.

Government schools are vastly under-resourced in comparison to private schools in terms of the relative education burden they face. Despite, the much higher proportion of disadvantaged students in government schools, average total expenditure per student in Catholic schools is similar to that of government schools, Independent school expenditure is over 40% higher and average expenditure for all private schools is 15% higher.

Schools serving the wealthiest families in Australia have double or more the resources of government schools. Yet, they still receive government funding of $2000 to $4000 per student despite enrolling negligible numbers of low SES, Indigenous and remote area students. This is 4 to 8 times more than the additional funding provided for disadvantaged students in private or government schools.

A massive funding increase for government schools is the major priority today. Without this, the achievement gaps will only widen further under the Gillard Government’s existing school funding and competition policies.

The Greens and the independents have an unprecedented opportunity to make a far reaching difference to Australian education, indeed, to make a difference to future Australian society. They should seize it.

Trevor Cobbold

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