Social Segregation in Schools Blights Children and Society

Chris Bonnor, co-author of The Stupid Country, and Professor Richard Teese from Melbourne University have raised the spectre of increasing social segregation in Australia’s schools Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July and 8 July]. They have pointed to the increasing social division as more students from richer families attend private and selective government schools while low income students attend other government schools. Australian education is under threat from increasing “social and academic apartheid” according to Bonnor.

Their concerns are well supported by the evidence.

Increasing social segregation in schooling
Social segregation between government and private schools is significant in Australia and it has increased over the past twenty years or more. Government schools are increasingly becoming schools for lower and middle SES families and private schools have increased their enrolments of students from middle and high SES families. There is also evidence of increasing social segregation between schools in the government sector.

According to the most recent ABS Household Expenditure Survey [ABS 2006], 26 per cent of students at government schools in 2003-04 were from low-income households, compared to 17 per cent of students in Catholic schools and 16 per cent of students in Independent schools. In contrast, 26 per cent of students in Independent schools were from high income households, compared to 16 per cent at Catholic schools and only 8 per cent of students at government schools.

Using different definitions of income levels and using Census data, Barbara Preston [2007] found that 40 per cent of government school students in 2006 were from low-income families compared to 25 per cent of Catholic school students and 22 per cent of Independent school students. In contrast, only 27 per cent of government school students were from high-income families compared to 43 per cent of Catholic school students and 53 per cent of Independent school students. About 80 per cent of all students from low income families attend government schools.

Preston also demonstrated that there was an increase in the proportion of students from low income families relative to those from high income families in government schools since 1996. The ratio for primary schools increased from 1.21 in 1996 to 1.35 in 2006 while that for secondary schools increased from 1.34 to 1.62. In contrast, the proportion of students from low income families in private schools has decreased since 1996. In private primary schools, the ratio of low to high income students decreased from 0.59 to 0.52 and from 0.54 to 0.48 in secondary schools.

More generally, several studies show that the shift in enrolments from government to Catholic and Independent schools in Australia since the 1970s has been concentrated amongst higher SES families [Campbell 2005; Keating 2004; Ryan & Watson 2004].

Social segregation between schools also exists within the government school sector. It largely reflects residential patterns. However, de-zoning of schools and greater choice of school creates the potential for some schools to serve higher SES families. Some high demand government schools are able to select their students and the expansion of selective schools, largely in NSW, has led to greater socio-economic segregation in the government sector.

Selective government schools are highly socially segregated. For example, the My School website shows that 17 out of 19 selective high schools in NSW for which comparative data are available have much higher proportions of students from the top quarter of the socio-economic status (SES) distribution than the bottom quarter. For example, 87% of the students at Hornsby Girls HS are from the top SES quarter and none from the bottom quarter. Normanhurst Boys HS has 87% of its students from the top SES quarter and 1% from the bottom quarter while North Sydney Boys HS has 71% from the top quarter and 2% from the bottom quarter.

Only three schools have more than 10% of their students from the bottom SES quarter while 15 have more than 30% of their enrolments from the top SES quarter and 12 have around 40% or more of their students from the top quarter.

In Victoria, Melbourne Boys HS has 47% of its students from the top SES quarter compared with 9% from the bottom quarter while Mac Robertson Girls HS has 40% from the top quarter and 15% from the bottom quarter.

Social segregation between schools has significant educational and social implications. It exacerbates inequity in education and undermines social cohesion.

Increased disparities in learning needs and resources
Socially segregated schools are inherently unequal in terms of learning need and the real resources at the disposal of schools. Increasing social segregation in schooling tends to increase disparities between schools in student learning needs and the real resources available to meet those needs.

Schools with a higher proportion of students from low SES families have higher levels of learning needs and other problems than high SES schools because low SES is associated with lower levels of student achievement. Generally, the resources available to low SES schools are not commensurate with the problems they face.

On average, private schools are better funded than government schools despite their lower proportion of students with higher learning and other needs. According to the National Report on Schooling average total expenditure in government schools in Australia was $10 771 per student in 2007-08, excluding the imputed user cost of capital, compared with $10 826 per student in Catholic schools and $12 745 in Independent private schools.

Low SES government schools are generally funded on the same per capita basis as other government schools, with few allowances for the level of need they have to deal with. The ratio of teachers, counsellors and other staff to the level of education and social need is lower than for other schools.

In addition, low SES schools also often have less qualified, less experienced teachers, and high staff turnover which makes it more difficult to address high levels of learning and other needs. Teachers are also more prone to leave schools serving high proportions of low SES students for more economically and educationally advantaged schools. Talented teachers are often lured to private schools by offers of free or heavily discounted tuition for their children, higher salaries and other perks.

Larger achievement gaps
Social segregation in schooling also tends to exacerbate inequities in student outcomes and may even reduce average student achievement.

It is well established that student achievement in low SES schools tend to be lower in terms of test scores and retention rates to Year 12. While much of this is explained by the different family backgrounds of students in low and high SES schools, there is also a school composition effect. Increasing concentrations of students from low SES families in some schools and high SES families in other schools exacerbate achievement gaps between rich and poor.

Many international studies show that there is a school composition effect on student outcomes associated with high proportions of students from low SES and minority families [see Alegre & Ferrer 2010; Borman & Dowling 2010; Dronkers & Levels 2007; Rangvid 2007; Rumberger & Palady 2005; Willms 2006]. A student attending a low SES school is likely to have lower outcomes than a student from a similar background attending a high SES school. That is, the results for students of all socio-economic backgrounds tend to improve when they attend schools with a larger proportion of high SES students.

There is a “double jeopardy” effect for students from low SES families in that they tend to be disadvantaged because of their circumstances at home, but when they are also segregated into low SES schools they are likely to fare even worse. So, increasing social segregation between schools tends to lead to worse results for low SES students and widen the achievement gap between high SES and low SES students.

There is also some evidence of a “triple jeopardy” effect in that the impact of increased social segregation on low SES students may be stronger than the positive effect on high SES students in high SES schools. In this case, increased social segregation may lead to lower overall outcomes. However, the “triple jeopardy” effect appears to be weak [Willms 2006].

New evidence points to a strong school composition effect in Australia. A recent study using data from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 2003 shows that a low SES student achieved on average 58 more points on the PISA reading scale in a high SES school than in a low SES school [Perry & McConney 2010]. This difference was the equivalent of about one and a half years of schooling. The differences were similar in mathematics and science. Students from high SES families also had similar differences in achievement between low and high SES schools.

The study also confirms existing research that individual family SES matters. For example, in the case of reading the study found that the difference between the average low-SES student in a low-SES school and the average high-SES student in a similar school was 89 points, or over two years of learning. The difference in high-SES schools the difference was 86 points.

The combination of family and school effects has a massive impact. The study found a massive difference between the results of low SES students in low SES schools in Australia compared to the results of high SES students in high SES schools. There was a difference of 143 points in reading, 141 points in mathematics and 152 points in science. These are incredible differences amounting to about four years of learning on the PISA scale.

Reduced social cohesion and tolerance
Education has an important and continuing role in bridging differences and promoting mutual respect, tolerance and understanding between people of different backgrounds, cultures and religions. Historically, the expansion of public education was seen as critical for social cohesion and tolerance.

Diversity in school composition makes possible the interplay of ideas and exchange of views between students from different backgrounds and better equips young people with an understanding of people of different backgrounds. It reduces prejudice and social intolerance and promotes social understanding, co-operation and cohesion. It helps create citizens better prepared to know, to understand, and to work with people of all races and backgrounds.

On the other hand, schools segregated by class, religion and race make it more difficult for children to develop a real understanding of people of different backgrounds and to break down barriers of social intolerance. Socially segregated schools can feed social intolerance and an inability of people from different backgrounds to effectively learn together, work together and live together.

Reducing social segregation between schools and its impact should be a national priority
Governments should be looking to reduce social segregation between schools rather than enhance it as under current policies. It will reduce achievement gaps and improve achievement for students from low SES families as well as promote greater understanding, mutual respect and tolerance between different social groups.

There are two basic strategies for reducing the impact of increasing social segregation. One is measures aimed at decreasing socio-economic segregation between schools. This is difficult to achieve politically, as high SES families have a vested interest in maintaining a selective school system. But, a start could be made by reducing government funding for high SES private schools and re-directing it to low SES schools. The current review of school funding is critical to this.

The other strategy is programs to bolster the achievement levels of low SES schools, including increased funding for those schools, providing more high quality teachers and a range of family and student support services. The current funding program for disadvantaged schools is not adequate to make a significant improvement.

Trevor Cobbold

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Borman, G. & Dowling, N. M. 2010. Schools and Inequality: A Multilevel Analysis of Coleman’s Inequality of Educational Opportunity Data. Teachers College Record, 112 (5): 1201–1246.

Campbell, C. 2005. Changing School Loyalties and the Middle Class: A Reflection on the Developing Fate of State Comprehensive High Schooling. Australian Educational Researcher, 32 (1): 3-24.

Dronkers, J. & Levels, M. 2007. Do School Segregation and School Resources Explain Region-of-Origin Differences in the Mathematics Achievement of Immigrant Students? Educational Research and Evaluation, 13 (5): 435-462.

Keating, J. 2004. School Quality: School Sectors and Places. Paper presented to the Making Schools Better Conference, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 26-27 August.

Perry, L. & McConney, A. 2010. Does the SES of the School Matter? An Examination of Socioeconomic Status and Student Achievement Using PISA 2003. Teachers College Record, 112 (4): 1137-1162.

Preston, B. 2007. The social make-up of schools . Australian Education Union, October.

Rangvid, B. S. 2007. School Composition Effects in Denmark: Quantile Regression Evidence from PISA 2000. Empirical Economics, 33: 359-388.

Rumberger, R. W. & Palardy, G. J. 2005. Does Segregation Still Matter? The Impact of Student Composition on Academic Achievement in High Schools. Teachers College Record, 107 (9): 1999-2045.

Ryan, C. & Watson, L. 2004. The Drift to Private Schools in Australia: Understanding its Features . Discussion Paper no. 479, Centre for Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, September.

Willms, J. D. 2006. Learning Divides: Ten Policy Questions About the Performance and Equity of Schools and Schooling Systems. . UNESCO Institute of Statistics, Montreal.

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