Tackling inequality in Australia through improving education for marginalised learners

Australia’s Public Education Foundation has released a major report that examines the price of educational inequality in Australia’s schools.

What Price the Gap? Education and Inequality in Australia, by the Foundation’s Executive Director David Hetherington examines educational inequality and its cost to Australia. The report estimates that over the six years from 2009 to 2015, “growing inequality cost Australia around $20.3 billion, equivalent to 1.2% of GDP,” and that, “the longer-term cost to Australia is even bigger, because the gap was widening prior to 2009.”

The report states that in the years immediately after the financial crisis, educational inequality “has transformed into a defining national debate.”

“Taken together, the assembled evidence points to several firm conclusions about educational inequality in Australia:

  • Inequality is found in access to teachers, access to resources, access to curriculum and test performance;
  • Inequality for new student cohorts is worsening over time;
  • Inequality increases as students move through their school years;
  • Socioeconomic status and parental education are the main drivers for educational inequality, while Australia performs relatively well on gender and migrant status which are problematic in other countries; and
  • Inequality exists within sectors, as well as between them, with the public sector arguably more unequal due to its more representative coverage.”

My comment:

There is no doubt that equality and educational access – especially to Australia’s most marginalised populations and communities – is now a high priority national issue. Australia’s community education sector already makes a substantial contribution to reducing inequality. In a country riven by growing class divides, adult and community education providers specialise in reaching the most vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals. For instance, in New South Wales almost 70% of government-funded VET activity is directed to the bottom 40 percent of individuals experiencing disadvantage. The report states that “economic inequality reinforces educational inequality”. Australia’s community education providers are in an excellent position to help counter that cycle for adults and school leavers.

The Public Education Foundation Paper

Other selected quotes from the report (complete report – PDF – available here):

“The question of inequality has permeated recent public debate in Australia. From stagnating wages to CEO salaries, from retiring boomers to renting millennials, the widening gaps in our society have come under intense scrutiny. With each passing year, the inequality drumbeat grows louder. What began as a distant ripple from Athens and Zuccotti Park in the years immediately after the financial crisis has transformed into a defining national debate. Australia was sheltered by the commodities boom from the worst distributional effects of neoliberalism, but as that boom has faded, the growing gap between haves and have-nots has become starker.

“There have been many analyses of the causes of this gap, which range from a less equitable tax system to the decline of the union movement. One which has been less explored is the relationship between education and economic inequality – whether changes in our education system have contributed to the growing wealth and income divide. Given that education is acknowledged as the critical determinant of future earning potential (Quiggin, 1999), it’s reasonable to ask how changes in education achievement may be affecting inequality.

“Another feature of Australian education is that inequality widens as children move through their school years. This trend is particularly pronounced amongst children whose parents have low educational achievement. Students of parents with no post-secondary education lag students of parents with a degree by ten months in Year 3. By Year 9, this gap has grown to thirty months.

“A final important point on educational inequality in Australia is that it is entrenched within sectors as well as across them. Much commentary around educational divides in Australia focuses on public versus private schools. However, the empirical evidence shows clearly that it is the socioeconomic background rather than school sector that affects results. Once socio-economic background is accounted for, there is essentially no difference in performance between public and non-government schools. So yes, educational inequality flows through to economic inequality. But there’s another dynamic at play here too.

“The causation also works in reverse: economic inequality reinforces educational inequality. They operate in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

“The first goal of education with regards to inequality should be to narrow the gap between top and bottom performing students by lifting the ones at the bottom up, without suppressing those at the top. It is well established that higher educational performance creates economic benefits and conversely that falling performance incurs economic costs.”

The full Public Education Foundation issues paper is available (PDF) here.

The Public Education Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing life-changing scholarships to students and educators in public education and enhancing the value and reputation of public education.

(I originally placed this post, in a slightly different form, on the website of Community Colleges Australia. I am duplicating it here in order to extend the reach.)

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