Big Divide Between Haves and Have-Nots in Australian Education

The following is an abridged media release announcing a new report by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC) at Curtin University on inequality in education in Australia.

The BCEC’s latest report, Educate Australia Fair?: Education Inequality in Australia, examines the extent of educational disadvantage across and within Australia’s states and territories and among vulnerable groups.

BCEC Director and report author Professor Alan Duncan said the divide between the most and least disadvantaged areas offered a sobering reminder of the level of inequality that still exists in our society.

“Compared to the most advantaged localities in Australia, children in those fifty areas at greatest educational disadvantage are, on average, half as likely to be enrolled in pre-school at age four, half as likely to attend pre-school for 15 hours or more, and seven times as likely to be vulnerable on two or more developmental domains in their first year of schooling,” Professor Duncan said.

“Our index shows the most disadvantaged areas are located in very remote regions of Australia, spanning the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. But pockets of disadvantage are also evident on the fringes of our state capital cities.

“Our findings also show that the most disadvantaged students are averaging half the NAPLAN scores in reading, writing and numeracy of those in the least disadvantaged areas.”

The report also found that government funding appeared to be reasonably well-targeted relative to need, with those in the most disadvantaged areas receiving greater amounts of funding.

“Schools in areas of greatest educational disadvantage receive income of $24,100 per student, some 50 per cent higher than the average of $16,400 for the top 50 areas,” Professor Duncan said.

“This demonstrates the need for education policies to go beyond funding reform, and address the complex barriers that exist in delivering education to our most vulnerable children.”

Report co-author and BCEC Principal Research Fellow Associate Professor Rebecca Cassells said early participation in education played an important role in outcomes later in life.

“More children are attending pre-school than ever before, however, one in four enrolled children are not accessing at least 15 hours of pre-school each week in their year before starting school,” Associate Professor Cassells said.

“This finding is made more concerning when we see that one in three children living in the lowest SES areas are likely to be developmentally vulnerable in their first year of school, and this likelihood increases by threefold if the child is living in a very remote area.

“At the other end of schooling, we’re seeing that nearly half of young people (49.4 per cent) in the most disadvantaged areas are not studying until they are 17 years old, compared with just 2.5 per cent in the least disadvantaged areas.

“Student attendance rates are also problematic for a number of equity groups and at certain points during the education life-cycle. The gap in student attendance rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students remains constant throughout primary school, averaging around eight percentage points, but deteriorates rapidly once high school commences, reaching 15 percentage points by Year 10.

“The transition from primary school to secondary school is often challenging for young people, but clearly more so for Indigenous students.”

Report co-author and BCEC Principal Research Fellow Associate Professor Michael Dockery said the research found a clear link between the level of parent and child education attainment.

“Almost two-thirds of Australians whose parents achieved a university qualification have also gone on to achieve a tertiary level qualification. This compares with those whose parents achieved year 10 or below, where only 21 per cent were able to gain a tertiary qualification,” Associate Professor Dockery said.

Cassells R, Dockery M, Duncan A, Gao G and Seymore R (2017),
Educate Fair Australia?: Education Inequality in Australia, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, Focus on the States Series, Issue No. 5, June 2017.

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