Maggie Callingham. Top schools ‘top’ because someone has to be bottom.

Jan 3, 2015

Across Australia Year 12 students are collectively holding their breaths to see what results they’ve achieved and, consequently, what their futures hold.

Only hours after their release, many secondary schools proudly display their best results on billboards for passers-by to see. Newspapers select high-achieving students to profile. As schools promote these glowing results, it’s worth highlighting that many have had the invisible slave of the disadvantaged schools working for them.

That is, the high-profile academic success of some schools has occurred as a result of social stratification – the increasing gap between students into schools of low socio-educational advantage and schools of high socio-educational advantage – as well as differential funding arrangements. Around Australia, some condone these arrangements in the name of “school choice” while others condemn them in the name of “school equity”.

School choice

Australian states and territories each have their own version of one or more senior secondary certificates that promote pathways for their students – usually into some form of further education or the workforce. Victoria, for example, has the academic, university-oriented Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), as well as the practical, vocationally-oriented Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL). However, the relatively high public profile of VCE results can incline schools seeking an academic reputation to offer only VCE – and in some cases, the even more prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB).

Schools that promote their academic orientation and excellence usually do so to attract predominantly upper or middle-class families, or those aspiring to such classes. In addition to using expensive advertising to recruit their students, many academic schools provide scholarships to entice high-achieving students away from their neighbourhood schools. The pressure on these schools to maintain reputations for strong academic scores can motivate them to focus more on grooming their star academic learners and less on affirming their applied learners, or on catering for students from disadvantaged backgrounds requiring additional support.

In pursuing such a strategy, academic schools privilege a select group: conforming, middle-class, elite-performance students. As a result, students and families that do not fit into the compliant, middle-class, academic profile of the school may find they are overtly or covertly encouraged to seek another school. The actual wording of this encouragement may be couched in language that indicates the student needs to find a new school “to suit his or her needs”, but the subtext is clear: the school is safeguarding its academic reputation and status. The outcome for these schools is an increasingly homogenised and advantaged school community.

School equity

In contrast, Victorian schools that offer both VCE and VCAL pathways meet an equity principle under which VCAL was introduced in 2002, to ensure that all students are able to access a senior secondary program of study. Schools prepared to take all-comers may find themselves catering not only for bright local students who haven’t been tempted elsewhere, but also non-academic students other schools have chosen to ignore or reject.

As a result, these schools can be perceived as less successful than their high-achieving counterparts because their outcomes are likely to be skewed toward non-university pathways such as apprenticeships, traineeships, vocational courses or employment.

These are each valid pathways, but as the Australian government acknowledged when it looked into youth transitions in 2009, much work is required to promote vocational pathways so they are seen as equal first-choice options. Unfortunately, five years on, little has changed in Australia regarding this public perception.

One reason disadvantaged students are more likely to choose a less academic pathway such as VCAL can be found in Australia’s national and international testing results. Both NAPLAN and PISA results reveal that the lower the social class of an Australian student, the lower his or her test scores.

It seems reasonable, therefore, that students who have been disadvantaged from an early age, the time when they learn foundation skills such as reading and writing, will be less inclined to pursue the reading and writing-oriented VCE. It is also not surprising that VCAL might better appeal to young people from economically disadvantaged families who then seek job-related pathways as a means to gain crucial financial independence or contribute financially to their families.

School funding

It’s no secret that schools don’t operate under similar funding conditions. Recent researchreveals funding increases from 2010 to 2013 across the three main school sectors are inversely proportionate to the socio-educational advantage of their student populations.

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This growing social stratification and inequitable funding between advantaged and disadvantaged schools represent a critical equity issue for Australian schooling. While recommendations from the 2011 Gonski review of school funding attempted to address this inequity, it clearly continues.

At a time of year when many advantaged schools celebrate their students’ high scores, it’s important to point out the contribution that disadvantaged schools have played in their success. It’s also timely to highlight the growing number of flexible learning programs in Australia that teach diverse student populations, including those with complex needs related to their disadvantage.

These schools and programs too have valid stories to tell of their students’ successful academic and vocational results obtained under far less advantageous conditions. Unfortunately, these achievements are unlikely to appear on billboards or in newspaper articles.

Maggie Callingham is a PhD candidate at the Victoria Institute for Education, Diversity and Lifelong Learning at Victoria University.

This article first appeared in ‘The Conversation’ on 15 December 2014.

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