Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

How Has it Come to This?

Friday March 31, 2017

For a country that prides itself on the egalitarian ethos of a ‘fair go’ for all, the latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are a distressing reminder that many are not getting a fair go in education. The egalitarian label is a self-indulgent delusion. It doesn’t fit in education, and it hasn’t fitted for some 40 years or more.

Two simple charts from PISA 2015 tell the story of where we are as regards social justice in education.

The first (see below) shows that about one-third of low socio-economic status (SES) students and remote area students did not achieve the minimum international standards in reading, mathematics and science in 2015. Forty to fifty per cent of Indigenous students did not achieve the standards. In contrast, only 7-8% of high SES students did not achieve the standards.

The second shows the huge disparity in human resources between low SES and high SES schools. The percentage of students in low SES schools facing shortages of teaching staff and inadequate or poorly qualified staff is six times that of students in high SES schools. About one-third of students in low SES schools face shortages in teaching staff and poorly qualified staff compared to only 6% and 5%, respectively, of students in high SES schools. There are also large differences between the percentage of students in low SES schools and high SES schools facing shortages of assisting staff and poorly qualified assisting staff.

Similar large differences in physical resources also exist between low and high SES schools. For example, nearly one-quarter of students in low SES schools face shortages in educational materials and poor quality educational materials compared to only 4% and 3%, respectively, of students in high SES schools.

The education reality is totally at odds with our self-professed egalitarianism. We have it completely upside down in terms of the resources available to disadvantaged and advantaged students.

This has been the case since the Whitlam Government tried to legislate the recommendations of the Karmel Report to increase funding for under-resourced public and private schools, phase out funding for the wealthiest private schools and reduce funding for other private schools with resource levels exceeding that of public schools. It was immediately stymied by the Fraser-led Coalition which amended the legislation to ensure all private schools received government funding, even the wealthiest and most privileged. Ever since, all private schools have been assured taxpayer subsidies irrespective of need.

They were given a huge bonanza under the Howard Government’s so-called SES funding model for private schools which replaced Labor’s Education Resources Index scheme in 2001 with the proviso that no school would lose a dollar. Funding for private schools was dramatically increased under the ideology of promoting school choice.

Total government funding per student in private schools, adjusted for inflation, increased by four times that in public schools between 2001-02 and 2014-15 – 25% compared to only 6% – even though over 80% of low SES students and 85% of Indigenous students attend public schools. Catholic and Independent schools are in clover. Their average total income per student now exceeds that of public schools (and by a very large margin in the case of Independent schools) with the support of taxpayer funding even though they enrol relatively few disadvantaged students.

The Gonski review of school funding changed the nature of the debate. It highlighted the vast inequity in student outcomes and the resourcing of schools. It proposed a major re-alignment of funding to better support disadvantaged students and schools. Egalitarianism in education came to the fore, much to the dismay of private school organisations.

But, once again, implementation of a more equitable funding scheme was corrupted by special deals for private schools, this time by a Labor Government which guaranteed that no private school would lose a dollar and that Catholic and Independent schools would maintain their existing share of public funding as generated by Howard’s SES funding model. This was then compounded by the refusal of the Abbott and Turnbull Governments to fully fund the plan. State and territory governments were also released from their commitments to maintain their share of school funding with the result that they continued to cut funding to public schools in real terms.

As a result, millions of taxpayer funds continue to be diverted to subsidise well-funded private schools in Australia, including those serving the wealthiest families, instead of reducing disadvantage in education. Australia now has a highly segregated school system, continuing stagnation or decline in average student results and high proportions of disadvantaged students not receiving an adequate education. Not only is it an affront to social justice, but it brings substantial economic costs in the form of lower productivity and economic growth, high social costs in terms of health, welfare and crime, and growing social intolerance and disharmony.

We are at another fork in the education road as the new funding arrangements from 2018 are being negotiated between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments. The key issue is whether the defence of privilege continues to trump egalitarianism in education. Reducing disadvantage in education demands a radical change of path. Phasing out funding for the wealthiest private schools and reducing funding for other private schools with income levels exceeding that of public schools is fundamental to reforming our education system to give the most disadvantaged schools the resources they need to improve the learning and life opportunities of their students.

Trevor Cobbold

Charts on Students Below Minimum Standards & Staff Shortages.pdf

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