Fighting for Equity in Education

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Census Data Reveals High Social Segregation in Australian Schools

Tuesday March 27, 2018

Analysis of the 2016 Census data shows stark social segregation between public schools on the one hand and Catholic and Independent schools on the other. The analysis by researcher Barbara Preston shows that that social segregation in Australia’s schools has increased markedly over the past 40 years. Students from low income families are highly concentrated in public schools while those from high income families are concentrated in Catholic and Independent schools.

Preston also notes that there are issues relating to Census undercounting and non-applicable family incomes and that the incidence likely affects school sectors differently. As a result, the concentrations of low income and other disadvantaged students in public schools, and of high income students in private (especially Independent) schools are probably understated in her analysis.

Income segregation
Preston’s analysis shows that 75% of low income students attended public schools in 2016 compared to 15% in Catholic schools and 10% in Independent schools. Eighty per cent of students in the lowest family income range attended public schools compared to 12% in Catholic schools and 8% in Independent schools.

Preston’s analysis also compares the social composition of public, Catholic and Independent schools. It shows that 43% of students in public schools are from low income families compared to 26% of Catholic school students and 24% of Independent school students [see Chart 1 below]. In contrast, only 27% of students in public schools are from high income families compared to 44% in Catholic schools and 51% in Independent schools.

It is apparent that Catholic schools are similar to Independent schools in terms of family income. Only about one-quarter of all students in Catholic and Independent schools are from low income families and the proportion of students from high income families in Catholic schools is only a little below that of Independent schools. Certainly, Catholic schools are much more like Independent schools than public schools despite claims by Catholic education authorities that Catholic schools are similar to public schools.

The pattern of income segregation is broadly similar across all states and territories. Low income students comprise a much larger percentage of public school enrolments than in Catholic and Independent schools while Catholic and Independent schools have much higher percentages of high income students than public schools [Chart 2]. Low income students comprise 40-50% of students in public schools in all states and territories and about 20-30% of enrolments in Catholic and Independent schools, except the ACT where the proportions are 26%, 12% and 10% respectively The proportion of low income students in Catholic schools is similar to that of Independent schools in all jurisdictions except the Northern Territory where the proportion in Catholic schools is over double that in Independent schools.

High income students comprise 20-30% of students in public schools in nearly all states and territories, except in Tasmania where it is 17% and the ACT with 48%. High income students comprise about 40-50% of enrolments in Catholic schools except in Tasmania where it is 32% and in the ACT with 66%. High income students comprise about 50-55% of Independent schools in most regions except in Tasmania where it is 43%, 61% in the Northern Territory and 73% in the ACT.

Preston’s analysis shows that there has been a significant change in the social composition of public schools since 1976. Students from low income families increased from 35% of enrolments to 43% in 2016 while those from high income families fell from 31% to 27%. In 1976, public schools had only a slightly higher proportion of students from low income families relative to students from high income families – the ratio was 1.16 [Chart 3]. However, the ratio had increased to 1.49 in 2016, only slightly below the high of 1.53 in 2011.

In contrast, the proportion of students from low income families relative to students from high income families in Catholic schools fell significantly between 1976 and 2001 and has been relatively stable since then. The ratio of low to high income students fell from 0.73 in 1976 to 0.56 in 2001 and was 0.55 in 2016.

The proportion of students from low income families relative to students from high income families was very low in Independent schools in 1976 at 0.23. It increased significantly to 0.40 in 2006 and there was a small increase to 0.44 in 2016 but it is very much lower than that for public schools. The increase in the proportion of low income students in Independent schools was largely due to the expansion of low fee Anglican and Christian schools.

Other forms of social segregation
Preston’s analysis also shows that the proportion of other disadvantaged students in public schools is about double that in Catholic and Independent schools.

Indigenous students comprise a much higher proportion of public school enrolments than in private schools. In 2016, they constituted 6% of public school enrolments compared to 3% in Catholic schools and 2% in Independent schools [Chart 4]. More than two thirds (68%) of all Indigenous students in public schools were from low income families compared to around half of all Indigenous students in Catholic and independent schools.

The analysis also shows that 81% of all Indigenous students attended public schools, 12% attended Catholic schools and 6% attended independent schools. Eighty-six per cent of Indigenous students from very low income families attended public schools, while just 8% attended Catholic schools and 5% attended independent schools.

The proportion of disability students in public schools was nearly double that in Catholic and Independent schools. Disability students accounted for 4% of all students in public schools compared to 2.1% in Catholic schools and 2.4% in Independent schools.

Preston notes that the ABS Census definition of disability is particularly narrow. Adjusting the Census data by the definition and data from the ABS Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, estimates of the percentages in some specific categories who have a disability are: 11.5% of public school students, 6.0% of Catholic school students and 6.9% of Independent school students.

Students who speak a language other than English and do not speak English well or at all made up fewer than 1% of all students in 2016. These students were most likely to be from low income families and be attending public schools. They comprised 1.1% of public school enrolments compared to 0.4% in Catholic schools and 0.6% in Independent schools.

In 2016, 5% of students in public schools did not have access to the Internet at home compared to 2% in Catholic and Independent schools. There are also higher proportions of students from one income families, students who have less secure housing tenure and students who move schools more often in public schools.

Conclusion
The report concludes that across a range of student characteristics, in 2016 public schools had greater concentrations of those students whose schools require extra resources to provide them with equal educational opportunities. These are students with lower family incomes, and also students with disabilities, students who do not speak English well (or at all), students who cannot access the internet at home, students who have less secure housing tenure, and students with greater geographic mobility. Moreover, the public sector’s share of enrolments has fallen from 79% to 64% since 1976 and the concentration of students from low socio-economic backgrounds has increased.

Trevor Cobbold

Charts on Social Segregation in Australian Schools.pdf

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