High Inequality in Learning Outcomes Demands Action

Despite claims by the Coalition spokesman on education, Christopher Pyne, Australia does have an equity problem in education. International comparisons of school results show high inequality in Australia which is strongly linked to student background.

There is a learning gap of six years between the bottom and top 10% of 15 year-old students in Australia. This gap is larger than the average for developed countries and amongst the largest of the top performing countries. In addition, the results of the bottom 10% of students in Australia are amongst the lowest of the other top performing countries, but higher than the average for developed countries.

The learning gap between rich and poor is also high at about three years of learning between the bottom and top 25% of students by socio-economic background. This gap is larger than in nearly all other top performing countries. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are doing much worse in Australia than in most other top performing countries.

Despite Pyne’s claim, SES background has a strong impact on student results in Australia. The impact is larger than in most countries and cities participating in the PISA program. In only four of the other 64 countries participating in PISA is the impact significantly higher than in Australia. Moreover, low SES students in Australia are less likely to perform above that predicted by their background than in nearly all other top performing countries.

Inequality between the bottom and top 10% of students
In reading, the gap between the highest 10% of students and the lowest 10% in Australia is 254 points on the PISA scale [see Chart 1 below]. This is a huge gap which is equivalent to over six years of schooling at age 15. High performing students are about three years above the mean score and low performing students are about three years behind the mean.

The gap is larger than the average for the OECD by 13 points, which represents about one-third of a learning year. Of the 14 highest performing countries (out of 65 participating countries, including the cities of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao), only Belgium and New Zealand have a larger gap between the top and bottom 10% of students.

The gap in Australia is similar to that of the UK and the USA, which are not in the top performing countries but are shown here for comparative purposes because Australia is copying many of the education policies of these countries.

The larger gap in Australia is largely due to higher performance by the top 10% of students. The top 10% of students in Australia achieve at similar or higher levels than most other countries. Only New Zealand, Shanghai and Singapore have significantly higher results in reading for the top 10% students than Australia.

In contrast, the results for Australia’s bottom 10% of students are in the lower half of the top performing countries. Only Belgium and Switzerland have significantly lower scores than Australia. The bottom 10% of students in Australia are about 18 months behind their counterparts in Shanghai, about 15 months behind those in Korea and about 12 months behind those in Finland. However, Australia’s bottom 10% performs significantly better than the average for the OECD, the UK and USA.

In mathematics, the gap between the top and bottom 10% of students in Australia is 242 points, which is slightly larger than the average for the OECD [Chart 2]. Australia’s gap is about in the middle of those for the highest 16 performing countries. The countries with a much lower gap than Australia include Canada, Estonia, Finland, Korea and the Netherlands. Australia’s gap is similar to that of the USA and significantly larger than in the UK.

The bottom 10% of students in Australia has much lower mathematics results than in most other high performing countries. Only Belgium and Germany have significantly lower results than Australia. The bottom 10% in Australia is 21 months behind their counterparts in Shanghai and about one year behind those in Finland, Korea and Hong Kong. However, they are doing better than those in the UK, USA and the OECD as a whole.

There is also a very large gap between the top and bottom 10% of students in science in Australia of 260 points, or about 6½ years of learning. The gap is significantly larger than the average for the OECD at 18 points which is about 6 months of learning. It is larger than for nearly all the other top 15 performing countries in science. Only New Zealand and Singapore have larger gaps. Australia’s gap is slightly larger than in the UK and USA.

The bottom 10% of students in Australia has much lower results in science than in most other top performing countries. Only Germany and Switzerland have significantly lower results than Australia. The bottom 10% in Australia is 21 months behind their counterparts in Shanghai and about one year behind those in Finland, Korea and Hong Kong. However, it is doing better than the bottom 10% in the UK, USA and the OECD average.

Inequality between rich and poor students
The achievement gaps in Australia are strongly linked to student background. The gap in reading between the bottom and top 25% of 15 year-old students by socio-economic status (SES) is 91 points, which is equivalent to nearly three years of schooling [Chart 4]. Only three of the other 13 top performing countries have a significantly larger gap – Belgium (115), New Zealand (102) and Singapore (98). Most top performing countries have a much smaller achievement gap between rich and poor. For example, the gap in Hong Kong is less than 18 months and is about two years in Canada, Estonia, Finland and Korea. Australia’s achievement gap is similar to the average for the OECD and the UK but smaller than in the USA.

In addition, low SES students in Australia are doing worse than their counterparts in most of the other top performing countries. Only two of the other 13 top performing countries have a significantly lower average reading result amongst low SES students than Australia – Belgium and Switzerland (Norway has a slightly lower average than Australia). However, low SES students in Australia are doing much better than the OECD average and in the UK and USA.

The PISA results also show that SES background has a larger impact on student results in Australia than in most countries and cities participating in the PISA program. PISA reports on how much students’ performance changes, on average, with a change of one unit on its SES index (this is termed the “socio-economic gradient”). For Australia, there is an average increase of 46 points on the PISA scale in reading for a one unit increase in the index compared to the average of 38 points for all OECD countries [Chart 5]. This means that a student just within the top 15 percent of the population by socio-economic background would likely score about 46 points higher than an average student which is well over one year of learning on the reading scale for Australia and 92 points higher than a student just within the bottom 15 percent of the population by SES, which is nearly three years of learning.

Amongst the top performing countries in reading, only New Zealand has a larger socio-economic gradient (52 points) than Australia. France is the only other OECD country with a significantly larger gradient than Australia and Colombia and Dubai are the only other countries participating in PISA with a significantly higher gradient than Australia. Thus, only four countries out of 65 participants in PISA have a significantly higher socio-economic gradient than Australia.

The PISA results also show that disadvantaged students in Australia are less likely to perform beyond expectations than in most other top performing countries. Disadvantaged students in 10 of the other 13 top performing countries in reading are more likely to perform at similar levels to their advantaged peers than those in Australia. Only in Belgium, New Zealand and Switzerland are low SES students less likely to perform better than that predicted by their backgrounds.

Reducing inequality in education is the top priority
Australia is one of the top performing countries in education in the world. Only four countries and two Chinese cities out of 65 countries and cities participating in the PISA tests perform significantly better than Australia in average reading and science results while nine countries and three Chinese cities perform better in mathematics. This is a record to be proud of.

However, Australia’s absolute and relative performance on equity in education is not something to be proud of – indeed it could be called shameful, especially for a country that prides itself on an egalitarian ethos. There is a learning gap of at least six years between the bottom and top 10% of students which is amongst the largest of the top performing countries, with most having significantly smaller gaps. In addition, the bottom 10% of students in Australia have much lower results than in nearly all other top performing countries.

This gap is strongly linked to various aspects of student background, with low student outcomes associated with low SES, Indigenous and remote area backgrounds. For example, there is a gap of three years between students in the bottom and top 25% of students ranked by socio-economic status.

Even more shameful is the Coalition’s denial that poor student outcomes are strongly linked to student background. SES background has a larger impact on student results in Australia than in virtually all other countries and cities participating in the PISA program.

This link between school results and socio-economic background is well-established by the large weight of evidence from research studies in Australia and overseas. It has long been recognised by education researchers and institutes in Australia, education commentators and by the recent Gonski review of school funding. Despite this evidence, Pyne has joined Independent schools associations in denying the link; for example, Independent Schools Victoria asserts that “low SES has a minor influence on student performance” and that low SES schools and students should not receive additional government funding.

Their denial of the facts is self-serving. It serves to defend government funding of elite private schools which enrol very few low SES students. If there is no equity problem, there is no imperative to divert the hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding going to wealthy private schools and their families to disadvantaged students. If there is no equity problem, there is no need to increase funding for government schools who enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students.

Denying that student background has anything to do with student outcomes also allows the Coalition to blame teachers for poor outcomes and to continue its campaign against teacher unions.

Ultimately, the Coalition’s denial of the facts about inequity in education serves to defend the education privileges of those most well-off in our society. It serves to restrict access to higher education, higher paying occupations and positions of power and status in society to children of more privileged families. It preserves their privileged position in society.

Clearly, the disadvantaged in education can expect little from a Coalition government, but there is still a window of opportunity for the Gillard government to make a difference despite its long prevarication over the Gonski report on school funding. It should implement the Gonksi recommendation for a $5 billion increase in funding for disadvantaged schools and students. It is time to act before it is too late.

Charts on Inequality in School Outcomes

This is a revised version of the original article. It was updated on 4 August.

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