Disadvantaged students in Australia are being denied equal opportunities to learn because they have less access to qualified teachers and material resources than advantaged students. The gaps in access to education resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia are among the largest in the world.
Data from the Programme for International Assessments (PISA) 2015 published by the OECD show that disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more teacher shortages, higher teacher-student ratios and more shortages or inadequacy of material educational resources than advantaged schools. Advantaged schools are much better equipped to provide opportunities to learn.
The extent of the gaps is both startling and shocking.
Australia has the largest gap in teacher shortages between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in the OECD and the 4th largest of the 70 countries/regions/cities participating in PISA 2015; only Buenos Aires, Peru and the United Arab Emirates have a larger gap of all the countries participating in PISA.
Inequity in the allocation of educational staff between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in Australia is the highest in the OECD according to the PISA measure of equity in the allocation of staff and the 3rd highest of the 70 participating education systems. Inequity was greater in only Peru and Buenos Aires.
Australian is one of only seven OECD countries where disadvantaged schools have a higher student-teacher ratio than advantaged schools and the gap in Australia is the equal 2nd largest. Australia’s gap is the equal 12th highest of the 70 participating systems.
Australia has the 4th largest gap in the shortage or inadequacy of educational material and physical infrastructure between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in the OECD, and is only exceeded in Mexico, Turkey and Spain. The Australian gap is the 18th largest of the 70 participating systems.
Inequity in the allocation of material resources in Australia is the 5th highest in the OECD according to the PISA measure of equity in resource allocation and the 15th highest of the 70 participating systems.
Private schools are better equipped in terms of human and material resources than public schools. Public schools have greater shortages in teaching and material resources and higher student-teacher ratios than private schools.
Provincial and rural schools also have greater teaching shortages than city schools. Australia has the largest gap in teacher shortages between town and city schools in the OECD and one of the largest of all countries/regions participating in PISA. The gap in the shortage of teachers between rural and city schools in Australia is the 5th largest in the OECD.
A feature of the latest PISA results is continuing high inequity in education outcomes in Australia. High proportions of disadvantaged students don’t achieve international minimum standards in reading, mathematics and science and they are three or more years of learning behind advantaged students. High proportions of students in provincial and remote area schools are also below minimum standards and are 2⅟2-3 years behind advantaged students.
These inequities are not new. They are a longstanding feature of Australia’s PISA, and of other national and international test results. In fact, the percentage of disadvantaged students and students in provincial and remote area schools below international minimum standards has increased significantly in the last 10 years.
The OECD report shows that the distribution of human and material resources between disadvantaged and advantaged schools matters for student achievement in education systems. It found that: “In countries and economies where more resources are allocated to disadvantaged schools than advantaged schools, overall student performance in science is somewhat higher” [p. 189].
Australia must provide more resources for disadvantaged schools if the large achievement gaps are to be reduced. As the OECD report states:
Achieving equity in education means ensuring that students’ socio-economic status has little to do with learning outcomes. Learning should not be hindered by whether a child comes from a poor family, has an immigrant background, is raised by a single parent or has limited resources at home, such as no computer or no quiet room for studying. Successful education systems understand this and have found ways to allocate resources so as to level the playing field for students who lack the material and human resources that students in advantaged families enjoy. When more students learn, the whole system benefits. This is an important message revealed by PISA results: in countries and economies where more resources are allocated to disadvantaged schools, overall student performance in science is somewhat higher. [p. 233]
A similar report on PISA 2012 results showed that the extent and quality of human and material resources in secondary schools influences student achievement. It found that: “High-performing countries tend to allocate resources more equitably across socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools” [p. 17].
Australia is clearly still failing in this. Federal and state/territory governments have not provided disadvantaged schools with the human and material resources necessary to reduce the proportion of students not meeting international standards in reading, mathematics and science.
The latest PISA results show that about one-third of low socio-economic status and remote area students, 40-50% of Indigenous students and around one-quarter or more of provincial students are not achieving international minimum standards in reading, mathematics and science. The percentages below minimum standards have increased significantly for all these groups since PISA 2006.
Many academic studies show that better targeting of teaching and material resources to disadvantaged schools improves the results of disadvantaged students. Improving the results of low SES students alone to match the current Australian averages would lift Australia into the top 10 countries in the world in reading and science and substantially improve Australia’s position in mathematics.
The Gonski funding model was designed to redress the inequity in resources between disadvantaged and advantaged schools. Its sabotage by the Federal Government, combined with reduced funding by state/territory governments for public schools, will mean continuing disadvantage and social inequity in education in Australia. The forthcoming meeting of the national education ministers’ council must ensure future funding arrangements that support increased resources for disadvantaged schools.
Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor, Save Our Schools. http://www.saveourschools.com.au