A High School Plan for the Well-Off

The new plan for Canberra’s government secondary schools will provide a second class education for the less well-off. The well-off get more challenging options and pathways. The disadvantaged get more vocational education and at younger ages – oh, they also get another round of rhetoric about engaging students and parents.

The plan is likely to exacerbate the large achievement gap between rich and poor, which is already about the largest in Australia. It is also a step backwards from comprehensive education in government schools. It is likely lead to greater social segregation of students between schools and within schools.

The plan is largely directed at attracting higher income families back to the government system. It is no accident that the first Key Direction in the report is to improve education provision for students with high academic ability.

While more challenging options and pathways for high achieving students is always welcome, there is no guarantee that it will succeed in its aim to retain more high income families in government schools. Private schools will soon be clamouring for access to the programs. Past experience with the ANU secondary college program suggests that the Government will succumb quickly.

The plan utterly fails to address disadvantage in government schools and the massive achievement gap between rich and poor. Its main solution for the disadvantaged is more vocational courses beginning from Year 5 and yet another framework for dealing with students at risk. These are inadequate and ineffectual responses to the achievement gap.

The report provides no research evidence to support its focus on vocational courses as the way to improve school outcomes for low income students. Indeed, the evidence suggests this is not the way. Vocational courses at young age levels are not appropriate and are likely to be counter-productive.

The Minister for Education is instituting the old British system of providing children from different social backgrounds with different education paths from age 11, except he wants to do it from age 10. The system was originally designed to protect a rigid class hierarchy where everyone knew their place in society. The British got rid of it over 40 years ago because it created a two-tier education system and condemned low income children to a second-class education.

Greater specialisation in vocational programs in high schools with higher proportions of low income students is not the answer either. It makes the future job prospects of these students dependent on schools guessing which skills will be in demand in 10 or 15 years time.

The goal should be to open up horizons and options in primary and high school for low income students, not restrict them. These students should be provided with a challenging and engaging comprehensive curriculum that gives them access to a range of options and pathways to further education and employment opportunities.

The other major initiative for disadvantaged students is another framework to increase student engagement. This is the third or fourth such framework in the last ten years. We have had social plans, vision statements, strategic plans and blueprints for action, none of which had any impact in reducing the achievement gap.

The Labor Government has been good at making plans for the disadvantaged and disengaged students but has failed at implementation. This new framework is a re-packaging of much of these previous plans. It offers no greater prospect of success, unless there is a complete change in approach to implementation and funding.

The Government has to do much more than what is this plan to improve the results of low income students, the great majority of whom attend government schools.

The achievement gap between rich and poor in Canberra is the largest of any state or territory in Australia according to the latest PISA report on international test results for 15 year-olds. Low income high school students in the ACT are doing worse than those in most other states. Their average results are about six months or more of schooling behind low SES students in all other states except Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

The PISA report effectively condemned the ACT Government’s record in meeting the needs of low income students. It said:

….low socioeconomic students in the Australian Capital Territory are not particularly well served by their education system, with average scores for these students only just above those for Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and between 19 and 24 score points lower than students of the same socioeconomic level in the other five states. [p. 281]

The school funding system must be completely overhauled to give much greater weight to funding for disadvantaged students. The current system fails to support government schools for the challenges they face. Schools with higher proportions of low income students should receive much greater funding.

The increased funding should be used to employ more teachers, counsellors and other learning support staff. Improving education outcomes is about building better relationships between adults and students. It is highly labour intensive and can only be achieved by having more well-qualified and experienced adults in schools where they are most needed. More on-line learning as proposed in the new plan is no substitute for this.

Family engagement programs and home school liaison in schools with higher proportions of low income families are fundamental to improving student learning. Parent involvement is more than just better communication between home and school as assumed in the plan. It should include programs to help parents support their children’s learning at home and parent liaison workers to advocate on behalf of parents and their children.

The new plan for Canberra’s government secondary schools delivers exciting new options and pathways for high achieving students, but inappropriate, facile and counter-productive solutions for low achieving students. The Government should re-think and devise a more comprehensive well-funded approach to alleviating the effects of disadvantage in education.

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