“Our last, best chance”: How our schools must change to help the most disadvantaged 

Sep 14, 2023
Rear view of group of multiracial high school students in class using laptops while teacher marks exams.

Without reform, Australia’s schooling system threatens to create a lost generation of young people.

Teddy is a Kamilaroi university student who dreams of making a difference to educational outcomes of First Nation peoples.

Growing up in regional New South Wales was fraught with challenges related to disadvantage for Teddy, but the amazing teachers who supported her through these struggles have inspired this desire to give back.

Teachers inspire young minds every day but in our post-COVID world, the schools supporting the largest proportions of students living in poverty are battling to recruit educators in a highly competitive market.

The latest NAPLAN results are a reminder that our schools are struggling. For students from low socio-economic backgrounds, around 25% need additional support to meet the minimum literacy and numeracy standards.

First Nations students and students from regional and remote areas are among those most impacted. Clearly, without significant change, we will fail some of the most disadvantaged young people in our community, with real consequences for our nation.

The government currently has three education reviews underway: one for early education, one examining our school system, and one with a focus on higher education.

As far as schools are concerned, Education Minister Jason Clare has acknowledged that an Expert Panel’s review of the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) due to be completed next month, is “our last, best chance to get this right”.

The Expert Panel is due to report on October 31. So, what must be in this report?

Firstly, with more than 80% of disadvantaged students attending government schools, we must ensure these schools are adequately funded and that additional funding is given to schools where there are large number of disadvantaged students.

This would give the most disadvantaged schools the ability to attract and retain the best teachers. And we know how important teacher quality is to student outcomes.

Recent Grattan Institute research shows that children who start school behind are, on average, four years behind in maths and more than five years behind in reading by the time they reach Year 9.

A skilled teacher can turn that around, and they play a critical role in helping disadvantaged students catch up, keep up and complete their education.

Secondly, provide targeted support for students who fall behind at school.

Catch-up tutoring is an effective way to help. The Smith Family has been trialing our Catch-Up Learning program (one-on-one and small groups tutoring) since late 2020. The evidence shows clear benefits, with two out of three students making much greater progress in numeracy and literacy than would otherwise be expected.

Thirdly, implement a national digital strategy to ensure all young people are digitally included – those with financial means, and those without.

This isn’t just about laptops and reliable internet access, digital skills also need to be enhanced across the board.

Effective schooling must measure the development of these digital literacy skills, and this should be tracked and assessed regularly in future NAPLAN testing.

These three priorities alone will help keep students engaged with their learning, but more is needed.

Every day of schooling a child completes leads to better life outcomes, improving their ability to contribute economically and socially.

But COVID has compounded a decline in Australian school attendance to its lowest level in years, with students in need disproportionately missing key educational milestones and outcomes.

The gap between achieving their potential and the actual educational attainment of a student experiencing disadvantage, threatens to create a lost generation of young people who will carry that burden with them throughout their lives.

All states and territories collect data that would identify students who could benefit from intervention. But this data is not yet being used to target those who need the most help and stop them from falling through the cracks.

And it is not just what is going on in schools that affect educational outcomes – but also what happens beyond the school gate.

Encouraging parents to be involved is vital. Decades of research shows parental engagement with their child’s education leads to better academic and social outcomes.

Additionally, engagement of schools with the wider community is also important, especially for schools serving students experiencing disadvantage. This engagement provides students with access to complementary learning opportunities, as well as role models and networks for life beyond school.

Enabling educational systems to work more effectively with other services in the community such as health, community services, NDIS and housing, will also have a direct and positive impact on students’ ability to achieve educationally.

Education is more than just acquiring knowledge; it’s the key to a better future. Our public school system must be designed to set up more students like Teddy to dream big and achieve and inspire a love of learning in the next generation.

In the coming months, Australia has the chance to map a path to get public education right, particularly through the NSRA review. If we do, we will be well on our way to designing a system that supports all children, no matter their background, to succeed in a fast-changing world.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!