Pyne Denies the Facts on Inequity in Education

Low income, Indigenous and remote area students can expect little support from a Coalition Government. According to the Coalition’s spokesman on education, Christopher Pyne, Australia does not have an equity problem regarding school outcomes despite overwhelming evidence that it is the major challenge facing Australian education.

Pyne went to extraordinary lengths on Lateline last week deny that equity is an issue in Australian schools. He blatantly denied the facts and resorted to a level of dissembling that was surprising even for a politician. In an amazing contortion of language, he said that the lower school results for the bottom 10 per cent of students and the larger achievement gap in Australia than in many other countries is not an “equity problem” but a “student outcomes problem”.

The transcript of the interview reveals the extent of the dissembling and denial of the obvious:

“CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, the fact remains [Australia] is one of the most equitable systems in the world and there isn’t actually an issue in Australian schools that revolves around equity.

STEVE CANNANE: OK. If there’s not an issue around equity in Australian schools, why is it that the bottom 10 per cent of maths students in Shanghai perform at a level that is 21 months ahead of the bottom 10 per cent of students in Australia?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Because the education system is failing our students.

STEVE CANNANE: But the gap between the highest performers and the lowest performers in Shanghai and in Singapore and Korea is much narrower than in Australia. Doesn’t that show that Australia has an equity problem compared to those school systems you were quoting?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No, it doesn’t. No, it doesn’t show that it has an equity problem. It shows that it has a student outcomes problem. It shows that we are failing our students when they are so far behind our East Asian neighbours, but it’s not about equity, it’s about the outcomes of our poor students who aren’t being given the right education in the first place.

STEVE CANNANE: So isn’t dragging students from the bottom up, isn’t that an issue about equity?

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No, it’s not.”

The facts show otherwise. The results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009 published by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) show that the gaps between the highest and lowest achieving students in Australia in reading and science are much higher than the average for the OECD and less higher in the case of mathematics [pp. 52, 178, 222]. The effect of socio-economic disadvantage on student results is much greater in Australia than the average for OECD countries [pp. xii, 282].

On average, low socio-economic status (SES) 15 year-old students are two to three years behind high SES students in reading, mathematics and science. The gaps have increased since in 2006. Other results from PISA 2003 and 2006 show that low SES students enrolled in schools with a high proportion of students from low SES families are nearly four years behind students from high income families in high SES schools.

Fifteen year-old Indigenous students are 2-2½ years on average behind non-Indigenous students and are three to four years behind high SES students. Remote and very remote area students are about 18 months behind metropolitan students, and are two to three years behind high SES students.

High proportions of low SES, Indigenous and remote area students are performing at the lowest levels. In 2009, 22 to 28% of low SES students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to only 4-5% of high SES students. The gaps have increased since 2006.

Thirty-five to 40% of Indigenous students did not achieve the benchmarks compared to 14% of all students. One-quarter to a third of remote area students did not achieve the benchmarks.

Similar large achievement gaps are also apparent in the NAPLAN results. For example, the 2011 results show that 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.

Statistical analysis of the NAPLAN results published in a research report prepared for the Gonksi review of school funding shows a clear linear relationship between SES and student results across Australia [NOUS Group, Schooling Challenges and Opportunities, p. 26]. The study found that 50% of the variation in average school scores is explained by student background.

It is extraordinary that someone who is likely to be the next Federal Education Minister is so prepared to deny these basic facts about inequity in school outcomes. But, there is a reason for it. The Coalition will not acknowledge inequity because it would undermine a key feature of its school funding policy which is to ensure that funding entitlements for the rich continue. It would be forced to concede that the large part of future funding increases should be allocated to government schools because they enrol the large majority of low SES, Indigenous and remote area students. Census data shows that 77% of low income students attend government schools and the latest enrolment data shows that 85% of Indigenous students, 78% of disability students, and 83% of remote area students attended government schools in 2010.

As the highlights of Australia’s PISA results published by ACER stated “…more must be done to address the level of resourcing in schools that the majority of Australian students attend” [p.21]. This was recognised by the Gonksi review of school funding which recommended an increase of $5 billion in school funding to tackle disadvantage in education, the large part of which would go to government schools and the rest to low SES private schools, not higher SES private schools.

The Coalition rejects diverting resources from the wealthy to the poor. It wants to preserve a funding system that is rigged to support the wealthiest schools in the country. The SES funding model introduced by the Coalition, and which Pyne says will continue under a Coalition government, provides massive over-funding to higher SES private schools and has ensured that Federal Government funding for private schools has increased much faster than for government schools.

It delivers millions and millions of dollars annually to schools that have two to three times the resources of government schools serving the most disadvantaged communities in Australia. For example, about 140 exclusive private schools who serve the richest families in the country will get over $660 million in Federal funding this year. They also get state government funding.

Geelong Grammar, the most expensive school in Australia, will get $5.2 million in Federal Government funding this year plus about $1 million from the Victorian Government. Yet, 73% of its students come from families in the top SES quartile. Its school fees for Years 11 & 12 are $30,820 per student this year.

Sydney Grammar is the most expensive school in NSW. It will get nearly $4 million in Federal funding and about $2 million in state government funding this year. Nearly 90% of its students come from the top SES quartile and its Year 12 fees for this year are $27,324 per student.

In addition, 1075 private schools get $615 million a year more than they are entitled to according to their officially assessed SES score. They are over-funded according to the SES funding model’s own funding criteria. These are the so-called “funding maintained” schools that benefit from the “no losers” guarantee. All this funding goes to medium and high income private schools. None of it goes to low income private schools.

Federal government funding for exclusive private schools and the over-funding of higher income private schools cost the taxpayer about $1.2 billion a year.

The Coalition is committed to maintaining the resource advantage of the wealthy rather than improving the education outcomes of the most disadvantaged groups in our society. The Coalition says that the schools are entitled to this largesse. Pyne defends it, saying that “every child has a basic minimum entitlement for Government support” [Submission to Gonski Review of School Funding, March 2011]. He told the Parliament  last year that it is “the Coalition’s policy to maintain the existing SES funding model” [3 March 2011] and that it supports the continued over-funding for private schools (called funding maintained schools) as part of the SES funding model [4 July 2011].

And, far from winding back this entitlement of the well-off in private education, the Coalition wants to extend it. At the last election, it promised a 50% tax rebate on school fees. This is estimated to cost $1 billion a year. Daily Telegraph columnist, Maralyn Parker, called it “the most blatant offer of middle class welfare I have seen in any election” [21 July 2010]. Pyne re-affirmed the policy in February this year.

While it wants to protect and extend the entitlements of the well-off, the Coalition also says it will strip away some of the funding going to low SES students and schools. At the last election, it said it would make savings of $755 million in the Smarter Schools national partnerships, including taking $330 million from the Low SES School Communities program. This reduction would primarily impact on low SES government schools. New Coalition programs will provide even more funding for private schools rather than be targeted at government schools to improve equity in education.

So, this is what lies behind Pyne’s dissembling and contortions on Lateline. It was a blatant, if clumsy, defence of privilege in education. He denies that equity is an issue so as to continue providing millions of dollars to the wealthiest families and schools in Australia.

Pyne is parroting extreme views being peddled by the Independent school sector. For example, Independent Schools Victoria, which speaks on behalf of some of the richest schools in Australia including Geelong Grammar, actually opposes any additional funding support for low SES students. The reason, it says, is that the relationship between low SES and education outcomes is “weak” and “inconclusive” and that “low SES has a minor influence on student performance” [Submission to Gonski Review on Commissioned Research Studies, p. 9]. It claims that “low SES background students are not necessarily constrained in their ability to achieve at, or beyond that of students with higher SES background” [p. 5]. This outrageous claim ignores a massive amount of research evidence over the last 50 years that shows a strong relationship between low SES and student achievement. It shows the lengths to which the wealthy will go to defend their privileges.

Pyne has clearly signalled that disadvantaged students have little to expect from a Coalition government. Their bleak prospects make it doubly imperative that the Gillard Government deliver on the $5 billion increase in school funding recommended by the Gonski report because it will not happen under a Coalition Government.

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