OECD Says Targeted Support Is Essential to Improve Results for Disadvantaged Students and Schools

A new report published by the OECD in December highlights once again the large inequity in school results in Australia and the huge disparity in teacher shortages between advantaged and disadvantaged schools. A large proportion of disadvantaged 15 year-old students do not achieve expected standards and the difference in teacher shortages between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia is the largest in the OECD. The report says that targeted support is essential to improve results for disadvantaged students and schools.

Drawing on the results from PISA 2015, the report shows that 29% of Australian students from the lowest socio-economic status (SES) quartile do not achieve the international proficiency benchmark in at least one of the three core subjects that PISA assesses (reading, mathematics and science). While this is lower than the average for the OECD (34%), it is much higher than the proportion in high achieving countries such as Canada (19%), Estonia (14%), Finland (20%), Japan (17%) and Korea (23%).

In addition, the average score difference in science between high and low SES students in Australia is 92 points on the PISA scale. This is equivalent to three years of learning. The gap is slightly larger than the average for the OECD and much higher than that in high performing countries such as Canada (71 points), Estonia (69), Finland (20%), Japan (78) and Korea (80).

The report notes that one would be expect that disadvantaged schools would receive more financial, educational material and human resources than their counterparts who have more advantages. However, it seems that even receiving an equal level of resources has been challenging for disadvantaged schools despite their greater needs.

This is especially the case in Australia where there is a huge difference in shortages of science teachers between advantaged and disadvantaged schools. Disadvantaged schools in Australia experience much more teacher shortages than advantaged schools and the difference is the largest in the OECD and the fourth largest of the 68 countries participating in PISA.

The report says that reducing low student performance ultimately means providing extra financial, material and human resources to disadvantaged schools because they tend to have a disproportionately high number of students who are not achieving expected standards.

The allocation of adequate resources to disadvantaged schools is essential in ensuring that all students receive the high-quality education and training needed to fully participate in society. Providing these schools with additional financial and human resources is essential. [p. 83]

It says that low performers need to be identified early on if they are to receive effective support. This allows teachers and parents to provide early, regular and timely support to those who are at risk of falling behind. Targeted support for low performers, such as customised lessons, language classes for immigrant students, subject-specific extra classes and additional teachers in classes to help those who have trouble catching up need to be provided.

It also says that grade repetition, early tracking and ability grouping can perpetuate educational inequality in schools. Such practices are often costly and ineffective in raising educational outcomes and need to be delayed and avoided entirely to encourage greater equity. Instead, high academic commitment, attitude and behaviour should be expected from all students, regardless of their socio-economic and cultural background, as well as their academic outcomes. In addition, involving parents throughout the school year, especially parents of students who are falling behind, can help improve students’ learning outcomes.

The report says that schools should prioritise spending and investing in high quality human resources, such as school leaders and teachers who play a critical role in reducing educational inequalities. Monetary or professional incentives can also be used to attract high-quality school leaders and teachers to disadvantaged schools. Targeted support should be given to school leaders and teachers in disadvantaged schools, with efforts to connect them to other school leaders and teachers, allowing them to share knowledge and support.

Improving results for disadvantaged students and schools requires both additional resources and their effective use. Australia has some way to go in meeting the first requirement. While governments have introduced funding arrangements that better target disadvantaged students, funding increases over the past decade or more have strongly favoured school sectors that enrol only a small minority of disadvantaged students.

This is set to continue under Gonski 2.0. The Federal Government has washed its hands of ensuring greater equity in education. Instead, it has delivered the best special deal private schools have ever had and will buttress their resource advantage and privileged position in Australian education. Meanwhile, state governments continue to under-fund public schools and over-fund private schools.

A new national agreement that targets additional resources to disadvantaged public schools and integrates federal and state funding to increase equity in education remains the fundamental issue in Australian education policy.

Trevor Cobbold

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