Educational inequalities in Australia are high compared to the average for developed countries according to a new OECD report Going for Growth 2015. It calls on Australia to improve equity in education, saying that children from disadvantaged backgrounds face severe educational shortfalls.
The report shows that the link between socio-economic background and student achievement in Australia is one of the strongest in the OECD [p.336]. Students from low socio-economic status (SES) families achieve much lower results than students from high SES families. Only eight out of 34 OECD countries have a stronger link between SES and student achievement than Australia.
The report also shows high variation in student results in Australia compared with other OECD countries [p.335]. Only seven other OECD countries have greater variation in student achievement than Australia. It also says that enrolments in pre-school education are relatively low [p.141].
Clearly, Australia is at the bottom end of OECD countries in terms of equality in education outcomes.
Drawing on these findings, the editorial of the report says that providing a broader and more equal access to quality education at the primary and secondary levels is a priority for Australia and several other countries [p.6]. Not only will this reduce social exclusion but also increase potential economic growth: “Increasing the provision and quality of education and training is an example of reforms that contributes both to economic growth and equity” [p.85].
The report states that labour productivity is the key to future economic prosperity. However, labour productivity growth in Australia has slowed since 2000, as it has in many other countries [p.50]. It says that raising the quality and inclusiveness of education systems will underpin the development of the skills and knowledge-based capital needed to increase productivity: “education is a fundamental driver of long-term growth and requires pursued efforts over an extended period of time” [p.51].
The report cites strong research evidence that the social returns to education are high, especially in the earlier stages of education and for disadvantaged students. Consequently:
Increasing the quality of lower-level schooling across broad segments of the population is thus important both for securing improved productivity, but also for achieving rising participation in higher education. High-quality primary and secondary education should be prioritised in public funding because those are a prerequisite for raising skill levels and expanding tertiary education. [p.51]
Particular emphasis should be put on equal access to early, primary and secondary education as well as in evenly-high quality of basic education, in order to prevent the exclusion from labour market of socially or economically disadvantaged groups. [p.85]
The report’s key recommendations for Australia in education are to improve early education and reduce inequality in educational outcomes and opportunities [Table 1.6, p. 52]. Notably, its recommendations do not include increasing school autonomy which is a central plank of the Coalition’s education policy.
The report commends the introduction of the Gonski funding plan for giving greater weight to socio-economic factors in school funding. Given the importance the report attaches to reducing inequality in education, it is surprising it stops short of calling for full implementation of the Gonski funding. It can only be surmised that this was at the behest of the Federal Government which would have had an opportunity to comment on the draft of the report as is the norm for OECD reports involving member countries.
Nevertheless, the new report must be an embarrassment to the Federal Government and the Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, who has consistently said that Australia does not have an equity problem in education. In contrast, the report highlights education inequality in Australia as a priority to address, not only to reduce social injustice but to improve Australia’s long-term economic outlook.
Increasing funding for disadvantaged schools and students is fundamental to reducing education inequality and improving economic growth in Australia. It means much more funding for public schools because they enrol the vast majority of disadvantaged students.
The Federal Government has refused to commit to the final two years of the six year Gonski funding plan. Only small increases in funding are due over the next few years. The real difference for greater education equity will only come from the large funding increases originally planned to flow to public schools in the final two years of the plan. The new OECD report shows that it is imperative that the Government commit to implementing these final two years of funding increases.