Equity in education must be clearly defined, measured and reported

Jul 1, 2022
The Australian flag drawn in chalk on a classroom blackboard
Equity in education outcomes should mean that all children receive an education that enables them to fully participate in adult society in a way of their choosing. Image: iStock

Equity in education has long been a key national goal for schooling. Most recently, it is one of the key goals in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration of national goals. However, it has never been clearly defined. This deficiency has resulted in a variety of interpretations, inadequate target, limited reporting and lack of accountability for improving equity. Equity in education should be well-defined in order to effectively guide education policy and funding, measure equity and monitor progress in improving equity.

The Productivity Commission inquiry on the National Schooling Reform Agreement (NSRA) offers an opportunity to correct this longstanding deficiency. The Commission has been tasked to assess the effectiveness of the policy initiatives of the current NSRA and the appropriateness of the measurement framework in measuring progress towards achieving the outcomes of the NSRA. It is also asked to make recommendations to inform the next reform agreement between the Commonwealth and state governments and to improve the National Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia.

The current NSRA sets out a range of national and state policy initiatives to achieve agreed objectives, outcomes and targets. The objective of the Agreement is that Australian schooling provides a high quality and equitable education for all students. The Agreement states:

“Parties recognise the critical importance of supporting and facilitating the achievement of priority equity cohorts, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students living in regional, rural and remote locations, students with a disability and students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.”

However, what constitutes an equitable education is nowhere defined in the Agreement. This must change if the next Agreement is to provide any real guide to improving equity in education. Continued absence of a clear definition enables governments to avoid accountability about improving equity. 

The goal of equity in education should have regard to both the minimum levels of achievement expected for all students and the comparative education outcomes of students from different social groups.

First, from an individual perspective, equity in education outcomes should mean that all children receive an education that enables them to fully participate in adult society in a way of their choosing. We can refer to this as an adequate education. Second, equity in education also means that students from different social groups should achieve similar average outcomes and a similar range of these outcomes. We can call this social equity in education. This definition and the case for it is detailed in a paper by the authors published in the Journal School Leadership and Management. 

The first principle of equitable education is that all children receive at least a minimum level of education that gives them the capacity to function as independent adults and to participate effectively in society. It means that all children have the right to high quality education that equips them with the knowledge, understandings, and skills to create their own meaning in the world, to choose their own path in society as adults and to take an active part in shaping the development of society. This is a matter of justice for all individuals. In today’s society, this requires all children to complete Year 12 or its equivalent.

In failing to ensure an adequate education for all, society incurs lost opportunities for its own advancement and human development that, in turn, is often associated with growing inequalities in societies. These include higher youth unemployment, lower earnings, lower productivity and economic growth, higher health care and crime costs, lower tax revenues and higher welfare expenditure.

It is not reasonable or realistic to expect that education policy should aim to ensure that all children achieve the same education outcomes because, as individuals, they have a range of abilities and talents which lead to different choices in schooling. However, it is reasonable to expect that these different abilities and talents are distributed similarly across different social, ethnic and gender groups in society. We should expect that female students as a group achieve similar average and range of outcomes as male students. The same expectation should apply to other social groups: Indigenous and non-Indigenous; low and high SES; rural, remote, and metropolitan. The goal should be to close the gaps in educational attainment measures between such groups.

A further issue is that broad social groups that are historically discriminated against in education comprise sub-groups where there are also large differences in achievement. For example, large achievement gaps exist between immigrant students from East Asia and those from the Middle East, Africa, and the South Pacific. There are also large differences in school results between Indigenous students in remote and urban areas

Large disparities in education outcomes mean that the social group individuals are born into strongly affects their life opportunities. Large disparities in school outcomes according to different social backgrounds entrench inequality and discrimination in society. Students from more privileged backgrounds have greater access to higher incomes, higher status occupations and positions of wealth, influence, and power in society than students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

A dual goal of equity in education is eminently justifiable. It guarantees a threshold level of education for everyone and a fair or equitable distribution of the benefits of education for all social groups. It should be a key national goal of schooling. 

This definition of equity also provides provide the framework for policy making and a clear measurable approach to assessing progress towards achieving equity in education. It sets targets to be achieved – what proportion of students complete Year 12 or tits equivalent and what are the achievement gaps between advantaged and various cohorts of disadvantaged students.

However, the targets set in the current NSRA are deficient. While several equity groups are nominated in the Agreement, targets are set only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait students. No education targets are set for educationally and socio-economically disadvantaged students, students living in regional, rural and remote locations, or for disability students. The next Agreement should set clear achievement targets for a range of equity groups.

Reporting on progress in improving equity is also deficient. The annual reports on the implementation of the NRSA and the progress reports by state and territory governments refer only to the implementation of the policy initiatives. They do not provide any data on progress towards the outcomes targeted by the Agreement. Nor do they include any data on progress on achievement by equity groups identified in the Measurement Framework.

These reports should include data to enable an assessment of the success of the national policy initiatives in meeting the objectives of the Agreement. In addition, the reports should provide sufficient data to assess progress in improving equity in education.

There are several data sources to draw upon in reporting on the target outcomes. For example, the Australian, Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority reports on NAPLAN results by sex, Indigenous status and location, Language Background Other Than English (LBOTE), parent education and occupation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports retention rates to Years 9, 10, 11 and 12 by sex and Indigenous background in Schools and the Report on Government Services reports Year 12 attainment rates by socio-economic status and location.

However, there are significant gaps in reporting on outcomes by equity group at the end of schooling. Year 12 outcomes are the ultimate measure of the success of schooling. Data collections need to be upgraded to adequately assess the effectiveness of policy initiatives and progress in improving equity in education.

A clear definition of equity in education is fundamental to making real progress towards it. Not only would it clarify expectations about equity but it is necessary to set clear achievement targets for students from different social groups and monitor progress in achieving equity. It is equally necessary to ensure government accountability for making progress on equity.

This article is a summary of a submission to the Productivity Commission inquiry on the National Schooling Reform Agreement by Pasi Sahlberg and Trevor Cobbold. Pasi Sahlberg is Professor of Education at Southern Cross University and Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor of Save Our Schools.

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