New OECD Report Calls for Greater Fairness in Education

An OECD report on equity and quality in education to be released this week will add pressure on the Australian Government to come up with a more equitable system of school funding. The report says that students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds are twice as likely to have low results as other students. It recommends that governments should better target funding for disadvantaged students.

Improving equity in education outcomes has been the key issue in the Gonski Review of School Funding. Its chairman, David Gonski, has said repeatedly that increasing equity in education means reducing the impact on student background factors such as family income, education and occupation on student attainment. Despite the Federal Government’s Low SES National Partnership program, targeted funding for disadvantaged students in Australia is only about 10% of average government school expenditure per student.

The new OECD report says that there is a lack of fairness in education systems in OECD countries. About one in five students does not achieve a basic minimum level of skills to function in today’s societies. This results in a high drop-out rate before completing secondary school.

The report says that reducing school failure pays off for both society and individuals as the economic and social costs of school failure and drop-out are high. It can also contribute to economic growth and social development.

Successful completion of secondary education gives individuals better employment and healthier lifestyle prospects resulting in greater contributions to public budgets and investment. More educated people contribute to more democratic societies and sustainable economies, and are less dependent on public aid and less vulnerable to economic downturns. Therefore:

…..investing in early, primary and secondary education for all, and in particular for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, is both fair and economically efficient. [p.9]

The report has particular relevance for Australia. Despite its high overall average results, Australia has a low equity school system with a large proportion of disadvantaged students not achieving minimum standards and a large gap between the results of rich and poor.

The OECD’s PISA 2009 study shows that about 25% of low socio-economic status (SES) and remote area students in Australia do not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to only 4-5% of high SES students. Thirty-five to 40% of Indigenous students do not meet the benchmarks. On average, low SES and remote area secondary students are about three years behind high SES students while Indigenous students are about four years behind.

The latest Report on Government Services shows that 42% of low SES students did not complete Year 12 in 2010. Thirty-nine per cent of remote area students and 65% of very remote area students did not complete Year 12. Sixty-seven per cent of Indigenous students who started Year7/8 in government schools did not complete Year 12.

The OECD report calls on governments to reduce school failure and drop-out. It says that governments should eliminate system level practices that hinder equity and target low performing disadvantaged schools. Education policies also need to be aligned with other government policies, such as housing and welfare, to ensure student success.

The report makes several recommendations to improve equity in education. It says that funding policies should guarantee access to quality early childhood education and care for disadvantaged families and use weighted funding formulas to provide targeted funding for disadvantaged students.

Other system policies recommended to improve equity and benefit disadvantaged students include avoiding streaming of students and grouping by ability until the upper secondary years, eliminating grade repetition, managing school choice schemes to avoid social segregation and consequent increased inequities, and improving the quality of vocational pathways in the upper secondary years.

The report says that schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged students are at greater risk of challenges that can result in low achievement. Low achieving disadvantaged schools often lack the internal capacity or support to improve, as school leaders and teachers and the environments of schools, classrooms and neighbourhoods frequently fail to offer a quality learning experience for the most disadvantaged.

It makes five policy recommendations which have been shown to be effective in supporting the improvement of disadvantaged schools. These are strengthening school leadership, provide a supportive school climate and learning environment, attract and retain high quality teachers, ensure effective classroom learning strategies and prioritise linking schools with parents and communities.

The first stage in improving equity in education is to boost funding to government schools, which enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students in Australia. A funding scheme which is weighted to supporting disadvantaged students is critical. It should be the core of the Government’s response to the Gonski report. It would provide a sound foundation for implementing the other policy recommendations of the OECD report to increase fairness in education.

Trevor Cobbold

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