The 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.