An Education You Can’t Buy

teacher signThe Australian Education Union and the Labor Party, when justifying the additional billions of dollars needed to fully fund the Gonski Report’s school funding model, argue that Australia’s education system is inequitable. Government school advocate Trevor Cobbold from Save Our Schools is also in no doubt that Australia’s education system is inequitable when he argues, “Clearly, Australia is at the bottom end of OECD countries in terms of equality in education outcomes”. Alan Reid, from the University of South Australia, in a report commissioned by the Australian Government Primary Principals Association argues in a similar vein when he says, “Australia is near the bottom of OECD countries in terms of equity and education”.

All argue that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the majority of whom are in government schools, consistently underperform as a result of being disadvantaged and only increased funding will improve outcomes and raise standards. Based on their belief that Australia’s education system is unfair and that government school students are the most adversely affected, both Cobbold and Reid go on to argue that governments must redirect funding from so-called privileged Catholic and Independent schools to government schools.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The reality is that Australian schools do not reinforce disadvantage and, based on research carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, our education system is ‘high-equity’.

The OECD defines equity in education as the relationship between students’ socioeconomic status –s measured by parental qualifications, occupation and wealth — and test results. Education systems where there is a strong relationship between low sacio-economic status and underperformance are considered inequitable.

The OECD’s report PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background notes that in countries such as Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany and Norway there is a weak relationship between social disadvantage and test performance.  Such countries are strong in equity.

The report analysing the results of the 2012 PISA test actually commends Australia’s education system, stating “Australia, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong-Kong-China, Japan, Korea, Liechtenstein and Macao-China achieve high levels of performance and equity in education opportunities as assessed in PISA 2012”. Contrary to the argument that a student’s socioeconomic status determines success or failure, the 2009 OECD report notes that, on average across the OECD countries, only “14% of the differences in student reading performance within each country is associated with differences in students’ socio-economic background”. This figure is in line with research carried out by Gary Marks at the Australian Catholic University who, based on analysis of the PISA data, puts the impact of socioeconomic status on test results at between 10% to 20%.

Instead of being inequitable, Australia’s education system is better able to overcome disadvantage when compared to many other OECD countries.  As noted in the PISA in Focus No 25 it is also the case that between the years 2000 and 2009 Australia was able to strengthen equity in education.

It is also true, based on the 2016 OECD Report PISA Low-Performing Students, that students from disadvantaged backgrounds most at risk in terms of performance are already well resourced.  The report notes, after analysing the results of the 2012 PISA test, “there was no OECD country where large proportions of low performing students attended schools with better educational resources.”

To argue that Australian schools successfully promote equality of educational outcomes does not mean more should not be done to help disadvantaged students.  But, past experience proves that simply investing more without significant changes to the way schools operate and are managed will do little to improve outcomes. Contrary to the argument that the best way to raise standards is to spend more, the OECD’s PISA in Focus No 44 argues, “PISA has consistently found that the amount of resources spent on education – including financial, human and material resources – is only weakly related to student performance”. The McKinsey report How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top draws a similar conclusion when it argues “despite substantial increases in spending and many well-intentioned reform efforts, performance in a large number of school systems has barely improved in decades”.

Giving schools, especially government schools, increased autonomy is a more effective alternative.  The OECD 2009 report notes “the world’s best-performing education systems have moved from a ‘command and control’ environment toward school systems in which people at the front line have much more control”. The more recent 2016 report also argues in favour of autonomy when it states, “school autonomy is beneficial to student performance, which partly explains why education reforms since the early 1980s have focused on giving schools greater autonomy”.

Proven by the example of Shanghai, where students from working class homes are the top performers in the international PISA tests, having a rigorous curriculum, regular testing and schools setting high expectations for disciplined, well controlled classrooms are also essential.  Committed and well-resourced and paid teachers are also vital. Yet, when it comes to noisy and disruptive classrooms, Australia is ranked 34th while classrooms in Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Shanghai are in the top five, with students experiencing minimal, if any, disorder and disruption.  Students in Korea, Macao, Hong Kong and Shanghai, compared to Australian students, are also more resilient.

Resilience, where students are confident and self-motivated, leads to stronger academic performance and over 50% to 70% of Asian students from disadvantaged backgrounds are described in the OECD research as resilient whereas Australian students are just above the average at 30%.

Parents also have a critical role to play.  Primary school students whose parents read to them on a regular basis and are positive and engaged outscore those students in PISA tests who report that their parents take no interest in their education.

Julia Gillard, when education minister, argued that postcode is not destiny and that, just because students came from disadvantaged backgrounds, does not mean they are destined to underperform.  To argue otherwise is to condemn such students to mediocrity.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and Director of Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute.


13 thoughts on “An Education You Can’t Buy

  • Rob Brighton says:

    Resilience via safe spaces?

    Catholic educators amongst others focussing in on regressive left policies and distortions in the class room?

    The feminisation of performance metrics leading to poorer results for our boys?

    Quoting Julia Gillard on anything?

    • PT says:

      Resilience vs safe space…

      I long remember being harassed in my first year in school and trying to tell the yard duty teacher (who was also my class teacher) with the support of an older girl. The response was “this is playtime, not “telling tales time”) – “telling tales” was a euphemism for “lies”. Safe place? Lies! The ECU only cares about what they think classifies as “race based” attacks”. Nor do they want to encourage high performing students early on when it’s needed to encourage good study habits.

  • Jody says:

    Times have changed; it’s time for parents to stump up for their kids in public school education. Contribute on a means-tested user-pays system because universal free education is an anachronism from the early 19th century. We now have a mobile and affluent culture who can actually afford to contribute – so that those at the bottom of the pile can have a fairer bit of the cherry. But, no, the howls of protest will grow ever more shrill if this is suggested; parents reserve the right to spend their cash on “stuff” and expect the taxpayer to stump up. I’m trenchantly opposed to Gonski.

    Consider this: I pay taxes but also pay extra to use hospitals (medicare levy/private health insurance), the roads (petrol excise, registration) and public transport (fares). Free education has to go if this country is ever going to be able to afford anything apart from health and education. The affluent middle class needs to do some heavy-lifting.

    • Rob Brighton says:

      In so far as the % of householders who actually pay taxes are concerned they do stump up.

      One or the other, pay via tax system or cut taxes and let me choose, I will pay market value.

      Having both is why we end up with schools not concentrating on education and some teachers (god knows what %) focussed on using the education system as a orwellian path to their preferred social structure.

      • Jody says:

        As I suggested in my original comments, for many utilities and services we already pay tax AND extra charges. No different for education; time to contribute folks. Otherwise, no complaints when this country can no longer afford anything BUT education, health and defense.

        I also pay user-pays for water, the infrastructure for which comes from State taxes. I’m sure there are many other examples.

        Free education can no longer be justified, except for the people on welfare, low incomes and disabilities. Ironically, the bien pensant actually advocate more taxes for them but I’ll bet you the value of my home they’d resist having to put their money where their mouths are for state education!!

        • Rob Brighton says:

          Shrug I guess I am doing that now paying for a private school for the lads.

          Does the system need more cash? (point in the article unless I am mistaken) it needs better focus on base subjects key to getting work and providing a basis for further education.

          Would still prefer they gave me back my taxes and stopped giving money to schools, let me pay full tote odds and see how sharp education gets when it has to fight for money like any other business does.

          Curriculum adjustments would go a long way to reducing costs in schools, let them focus on education in key areas to prepare students for higher learning or trades whichever way their skills go.

        • PT says:

          Jodie, a better education was afforded in the 1950’s. We, and the west in general, have declined since then!

    • gray_rm says:

      Having just read my daughter’s Year 8 textbook on History and English, and tasks for Science, I am amazed Australian children are performing so well!

      10 pages on the history of England, nothing about the Monastic Revival, then 40 pages on Vikings where Christianity is criticized, then a whole lot more on the Ottoman Empire where – surprise – Islam is lauded and Christianity blamed for the wicked Crusades,the culture, art and wisdom of Islam – and it’s peaceful nature – are all celebrated.
      For science, it’s all about energy efficiency, carbon reduction, climate devastation caused by carbon.
      Macbeth – oh dear. It’s about the indigenous interpretation – how would the Macbeth concept work with Aboriginals.
      I won’t even talk about Maths, and it’s focus on ‘descriptive mathematics’ where instead of abstract concepts, the students study concepts like “Calculate the percentage of wickedness Big Oil has caused” in this pie chart of environmental damage, poluttion, carbon etc. etc.

      How did it get to this? Who was responsible? Is it too late to change? We can report (like the article above) but does it change anything? Will Malcolm Turnbull take the initiative?

      • Jody says:

        I’ll answer your last question first: No! The rest is straight out of the politburo and a major reason I left the teaching profession early. It was straight agitprop and in my classroom such rubbish went right out the door. We’d read the history textbooks alright, but I’d draw up a chart on the board which looked at “possible alternate scenarios” to that provided by the syllabus. You’d be amazed how creative kids could be in finding another reason for behaviour, cultural habits etc. When I taught “Rabbit Proof Fence”, which I regarded as naked propaganda, I prided myself on the fact that one Year 11 girl banged her desk and said “I’m not going to tolerate it, miss”! Yep, that was a good day.

        • PT says:

          It fits right in with the Turncoat ethos!

          • Jody says:

            No, it’s been around much longer than that. So deeply entrenched now it’s impossible to change. At my age – over 60 – I’m not going to be affected by social divisions along identity and cultural lines, resentment of capitalism and grievance. A story in “The Australian” today says a huge number of young people no longer believe democracy is the best form of government. Reading the above, is there any surprise about any of it? But, I’ll be dead and buried and won’t have the worry of it. My husband and I agree (he was born 1943, I in the 1950s) believe we have lived through the absolute best decades of post-war posterity and political stability. Those days are long behind us. I’m so glad I’m not young any more, as Maurice Chevalier sang!!

      • Rob Brighton says:

        No initiative possible, the SJW leftards are running the game.

        The best I have been able to do with my boys is fight a rear guard action to prevent a total loss, at least I have them question everything which is a huge success from my perspective.

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