New evidence shows that education resource gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in Australia are among the largest in the OECD and the world. This is a shameful record for a country that regards itself as egalitarian.
The new data come from a supplementary report from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018. It shows that students in disadvantaged, rural and public schools in Australia are being denied equal opportunities to learn because they face far more shortages of teachers and material resources than advantaged, city and private schools. The resource gaps are largely unchanged from PISA 2015.
Disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more shortages in education staff (teachers and assistants) and more shortages in, or inadequate, material resources (educational materials, buildings and grounds) than advantaged schools. Advantaged schools are far better equipped to provide opportunities to learn.
The extent of the gaps is appalling.
Australia has the largest gap in shortages of education staff between disadvantaged and advantaged schools of the 37 OECD countries and the 7th largest of 79 countries/cities participating in PISA 2018. Only Cyprus, Hong Kong, Peru, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Uruguay have a larger gap than Australia. In contrast to Australia, disadvantaged schools in several countries such as Finland, Poland and Lithuania have fewer staff shortages than advantaged schools.
The shortage of education staff in disadvantaged schools in Australia is slightly less than the average for the OECD while the shortage in advantaged schools is far less than the OECD average. Indeed, the staff shortage in advantaged schools in Australia is the smallest in the OECD apart from Denmark and Poland.
Australia also has the third largest gap in the shortage or inadequacy of educational material and physical infrastructure between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in the OECD. Only Colombia and Mexico have a larger gap. The Australian gap is the 11th largest out of the countries/cities participating in PISA 2018.
The shortage of material resources in disadvantaged schools in Australia is slightly less than the average for the OECD while advantaged schools have the smallest shortage in the OECD.
Rural schools in Australia also have greater human and material shortages than city schools. The gap in the shortage of education staff is the second-largest in the OECD. The gap is also the third-largest of all countries/cities participating in PISA 2018. Only Colombia and Uruguay have a larger gap. The gap in material resources between rural and city schools is the third-largest in the OECD and the 10th largest of the countries/cities participating in PISA 2018.
Public schools face much greater shortages of educational staff and material resources than private schools. Private schools are far better equipped in terms of human and material resources than public schools. The gap in the shortage of education staff between public and private schools is the 10th largest in the OECD. The gap in shortages or inadequacy in educational materials and infrastructure is the fifth-largest in the OECD behind Mexico, Greece, Colombia and New Zealand
The OECD analysis of the PISA results found that Australia is one of 21 OECD countries where shortage of education staff is strongly associated with lower student achievement in reading. The reduction in student learning in Australia is equivalent to about six months of learning and is the equal fifth-largest of the 21 countries.
In addition, Australia is one of 15 OECD countries where shortage of material resources is strongly associated with lower student achievement in reading. The impact on student learning in Australia is equivalent to more than six months of learning and is the equal second largest of the 15 countries.
The effect of human and material shortages on student learning is greatest in disadvantaged schools. The shortages in advantaged schools are very small by international standards and the OECD analysis shows that the impact of the shortages on student learning is much reduced when the effect of student and school socio-economic background is taken into account.
As the preface to the OECD report notes, disadvantaged students in education systems such as Australia’s “face a double disadvantage: one that comes from their home background and another that is created by the school system” [p. 4].
Australian governments are effectively discriminating against disadvantaged, rural and public schools in terms of their access to resources. They have failed to ensure high quality teaching and physical resources in these schools while advantaged schools have among the most and best quality human and material resources in the OECD.
The relative lack of teaching and physical resources in disadvantaged schools in Australia contributes significantly to lower achievement by disadvantaged 15-year-old students and to the very large achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students of about three years of learning. This has deleterious effects on many individual lives, the economy and society.
As the Secretary-General of the OECD says, improving equity in education is imperative:
“While students from well-off families will often find a path to success in life, those from disadvantaged families have generally only one single chance in life, and that is a great teacher and a good school. If they miss that boat, subsequent education opportunities will tend to reinforce, rather than mitigate, initial differences in learning outcomes….
Achieving greater equity in education is not only a social justice imperative, it is also a way to use resources more effectively, increase the supply of skills that fuel economic growth, and promote social cohesion.” [p. 4]
Lifting the results of disadvantaged students requires better targeting of teaching and material resources to disadvantaged schools as many studies show. It is imperative that Australian governments – federal and state – do more to provide adequate resources for disadvantaged schools if the large achievement gaps are to be reduced.