Australia Has One of the Most Socially Segregated Schools Systems in the World

A new OECD report shows that Australia has one of the most segregated school systems in the OECD and in the world. It also shows that Australia had the equal largest increase in social segregation in the OECD and the world since 2006. Government education and funding policies are major factors behind the increase in social segregation.

Drawing on data from PISA 2015, the report shows that Australia has the equal 4th most segregated school system in the OECD with 51% of disadvantaged students concentrated in disadvantaged schools [Chart 1 below]. This is only exceeded in Mexico, Hungary and Chile. Across the OECD, 48% of disadvantaged students are in disadvantaged schools while Finland has the least social segregation with 40% of its disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools.

Social segregation in Australian schools is also higher than in most other countries/economies participating in PISA 2015. Only 16 countries/economies out of 73 participating in PISA have a greater concentration of disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools than Australia.

In contrast, advantaged schools in Australia have very few disadvantaged students compared to other OECD countries and many other countries/economies participating in PISA. Only 4.6% of disadvantaged students in Australia are in advantaged schools compared to the OECD average of 6.4% [Chart 2]. Iceland and Norway have the highest percentages of disadvantaged students in advantaged schools – 10.8 and 11.2% respectively. Only five out of 35 OECD countries have a lower percentage than Australia – Chile, Spain, Mexico, Hungary and Luxembourg. Also, 17 other countries/economies have a lower percentage than Australia.

Australia also had the equal largest increase in social segregation in schools in the OECD and of all countries/economies participating in PISA since 2006. Segregation increased by five percentage points compared to a small reduction in segregation across the OECD [Chart 3]. In contrast to Australia, social segregation decreased in 23 out of the 35 OECD countries. The largest decreases were in Luxembourg, Korea and Poland. For the most part, the increases in the other countries were much less than Australia’s.

Social segregation in schools compounds the effect of individual socio-economic background on achievement and exacerbates gaps between rich and poor. There is a “double jeopardy” effect for students from low SES families in that they tend to be disadvantaged because of their circumstances at home, but when they are also segregated into low SES schools they are likely to fare even worse. So, increasing social segregation between schools tends to lead to worse results for low SES students and widen the achievement gap between high SES and low SES students.

The OECD report found that across the OECD, disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools achieved significantly lower results in the PISA science test than disadvantaged students in advantaged schools. As the report states:

Addressing these school disparities with a focus on disadvantaged students is particularly important from the standpoint of equity because disadvantaged students who attend disadvantaged schools face a “double disadvantage”. In addition to the disparities in learning opportunities they already face as a result of their family’s socio-economic status, they are often confronted with more difficult learning environments that tend to be found in schools with a lower socio-economic profile. Such doubly disadvantaged students are particularly likely to perform poorly in school. Equity in education can be compromised as a result. [p.120]

The small proportion of disadvantaged students who attend advantaged schools in Australia scored 86 points on the PISA science scale above their disadvantaged peers in disadvantaged schools. This is equivalent to nearly three years of learning at age 15. The score gap was slightly higher than the average across OECD countries of 78 points.

In Finland, Iceland, Norway and Poland disadvantaged schools serve disadvantaged students as well as advantaged schools. There was no significant difference in the performance of disadvantaged students related to whether they attend advantaged or disadvantaged schools in these countries. However, such students still perform below those of advantaged students because of their individual family circumstances.

A major factor contributing to the much lower results of disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools is that disadvantaged schools generally have inferior teaching resources compared to advantaged schools. As data published in June by the OECD show, disadvantaged schools in Australia have more students per teacher, more teacher shortages, more teacher absenteeism, more poorly qualified teachers, more teachers teaching out-of-field, more inexperienced teachers, more teacher turnover, more novice teachers, and more teachers on short-term contracts than advantaged schools. The gaps rank amongst the largest in the OECD.

The effect of social segregation in schools also has broader implications for society. Social segregation in schools breeds social intolerance in communities and workplaces and undermines social understanding and cohesion. Schools segregated by class make it more difficult for children to develop a real understanding of people of different backgrounds and to break down barriers of social intolerance. As Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, says in the forward to the report “…how we treat the most vulnerable students shows who we are as a society [p. 4].

The new report canvasses factors contributing to social segregation between schools. It says that social segregation in housing and neighbourhoods is an important factor behind school composition. It also says that residential segregation is exacerbated by education policies. It notes that segregation is relatively uncommon in most of the Nordic countries because these countries have long championed social inclusion, cohesion and equality, both in schools and in society as a whole. School systems in these countries have tried to provide equal opportunities to all students by successively breaking down barriers related to geography, socio-economic status, gender and immigrant background.

Many other countries give priority to parent choice and this can increase social segregation.

…some school choice policies may increase school socio-economic segregation as better-educated and more-motivated parents are more likely to take advantage of these policies. This results in the concentration of advantaged students in what are perceived to be the “best” schools. Such segregation may be amplified if schools are allowed to select students on the basis of either academic and/or financial criteria (for instance, through school fees). [p. 125]

Many studies over the past 20 years have shown that more choice leads to greater social segregation in schools. For example, a review of school choice policies in OECD countries conducted by the OECD secretariat concluded:

In the last 25 years, more than two-thirds of OECD countries have increased school choice opportunities for parents. The empirical evidence reviewed here reveals that providing full parental school choice results in further student segregation between schools, by ability, socio-economic and ethnic background, and in greater inequities across education systems. [abstract]

This is the case in Australia where education policies at the federal and state levels have long promoted choice and competition between schools across both the public and private sectors. Government funding policies have fostered the expansion of private schools and have denuded disadvantaged public schools of the resources they need to provide quality learning opportunities and outcomes for their students.

The new OECD report says that countries should target additional resources towards disadvantaged students and schools and reduce the concentration of disadvantaged students in schools.

It is essential that disadvantaged students in all schools have the resources they needed to succeed. This means that funding must be targeted in a way that equalises opportunities for learning and achievement. Schools with larger shares of disadvantaged students therefore will require additional investments in human and material resources, such as improvements to school infrastructure, teacher training and support, language-development programmes for minority students, tutoring and homework-assistance services, extracurricular activities, and customised instructional programmes to address the learning challenges particular to disadvantaged and minority students. [p.42]

Australia fails badly in this regard. While many individual disadvantaged schools implement special programs, overall these schools routinely have fewer teaching resources, fewer educational materials and poorer quality physical infrastructure than advantaged schools, particularly private schools. The gaps are “amongst the largest in the OECD:

Some 95% of disadvantaged schools in Australia are public schools, yet state governments which are primarily responsible for the funding of public schools have cut their real (inflation-adjusted) funding since 2009. State governments must give priority to increasing funding for disadvantaged schools. This is the only way that disadvantaged public schools can acquire the human and material resources necessary to provide high quality learning opportunities for their students.

The Federal Government should also provide more to support to disadvantaged public schools instead of limiting its funding of public schools to the arbitrary limit of 20% of their School Resource Standard while cutting special deals with Catholic and Independent schools worth millions and which are not based on need.

Trevor Cobbold

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