Fund Disadvantaged Students and Everyone Benefits

The latest national literacy and numeracy results (NAPLAN) show that government education policies have had little to no impact on student achievement in Australia since 2008. There has been virtually no change in overall average results, in the results of disadvantaged students and in the large gaps between the results of disadvantaged and advantaged students. Governments are failing disadvantaged students and their families.

Average results in reading and numeracy have not improved since 2008, apart from an improvement in Year 3 reading and Year 5 numeracy.

The average results for disadvantaged students have mostly not improved either. The average reading and numeracy results of students whose parents did not complete Year 12 have not improved since 2008 for nearly all the Year levels tested. The only statistically significant improvement was in Year 5 numeracy.

Very large achievement gaps between the most advantaged and disadvantaged students remain. In 2011, Year 9 students of parents who had not completed Year 12 were 73 points in reading behind students whose parents had a university degree and 80 points behind in numeracy. These gaps are equivalent to three to four years of schooling. They have increased since 2008.

Year 9 students from lowly educated families achieved much lower scores in reading and numeracy than Year 7 students from highly educated families and only a little above the scores of Year 5 students from these families. For example, the average reading score of Year 9 students from lowly educated families was 544 compared to 579 for Year 7 students from high educated families and 529 for Year 5 students.

High proportions of disadvantaged students did not achieve the national benchmarks for reading and numeracy in 2011. Sixteen per cent of Year 9 students whose parents did not complete Year 12 did not achieve the national reading benchmark and 15 per cent did not achieve the numeracy benchmark. In contrast, only two per cent of students whose parents have a university degree failed to achieve the reading and numeracy benchmarks.

There is also a very large gap between the proportions of disadvantaged and advantaged students achieving in the top band of results. Only one per cent of Year 9 students from low educated families achieved in the top band for reading and two per cent in numeracy. In contrast, 13 per cent of students from highly educated families were in the top reading band and 20 per cent were in the top numeracy band.

Governments have failed disadvantaged students and their families. Inequity in education remains as great as ever. Reducing these large achievement gaps is the biggest challenge facing Australian education.

The gaps are a major social injustice. Low socio-economic status (SES) students are being denied the same educational opportunities as high SES students. Our education system is effectively discriminating against these families by failing to provide their schools with adequate resources to make a difference.

The Australian Government provides about $400 million a year to 80 of the wealthiest private schools in Australia while schools serving the disadvantaged have to do with half the total resources available to students in these highly privileged schools.

As long as governments fail to do more, students from privileged backgrounds will continue to have greater access to higher incomes, higher status occupations and positions of wealth and power in society than students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Failure to address education inequities compounds the privileges of the wealthy and the position of the poor.

The achievement gaps are also a constraint on Australia’s productivity growth. They reflect a waste of talents, skills and resources. The gaps are, in effect, a measure of the potential to improve workforce skills and productivity. Increased knowledge and skills are the primary basis for increased productivity growth. Improving the results of low SES students to match those of high SES students would lift productivity growth dramatically.

Improving the education results of disadvantaged students would also have massive social benefits. Higher education outcomes bring improved health outcomes, reduced crime and reduced dependence on social security. Investment in public expenditure on education brings greater returns in reduced public expenditure on health care, law and order and social security.

The latest NAPLAN results show that governments must change their priorities in education and focus on reducing education disadvantage. Governments must invest much more heavily in government schools because they enrol 80 per cent or more of disadvantaged students. The Gonski review of school funding should provide the catalyst for such a change because it has said repeatedly over the course of the review that its focus is on improving equity in education outcomes.

Trevor Cobbold

This article was originally published in the Canberra Times on 27 January 2012.

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