Australia - the lucky country?
The Learning Press EXCLUSIVE
My children were going to succeed at school before they ever picked up a pencil.
Born to white, middle class, university-educated parents, they won the lottery the moment they emerged into the glare of the delivery room.
I didn’t realise it at the time and could have saved myself any worry about tests and milestones.
Because a raft of new reports show that getting ahead in Australia today is not about being smart, but about being lucky.
Three major reports over the past six months have all highlighted that inequality is on the rise - the advantaged are doing better and the disadvantaged are doing worse.
There are 602,604 children in the lucky country living below the poverty line according to UNICEF.
The United Nations says the gap between rich and poor is at its highest level in three decades across developed nations, while the burden of poverty has been shifting from the elderly towards the young since the 1980s.
Social and economic situations are reflected in educational outcomes, with the Mitchell Institute research group finding 40 per cent of disadvantaged Australian children leave school early compared with 12 per cent of the most advantaged.
“Young people who are not fully engaged in education or work are disproportionately female and from low-SES backgrounds, located more often in regional and remote locations, and Indigenous,” its latest report states.
Children like mine with financially secure, educated parents living within touch of cities generally show high academic achievement and school completion rates and go on to enjoy rosy job prospects.
Those living rurally, those from a low socio-economic backgrounds, those with less educated parents and those born into Indigenous families do not.
The idea of the ‘fair go’ defines what it is to be Australian, which is why needs-based school funding has become such a big conversation issue in the run-up to this year’s General Election.
But is funding really the magic bullet for a problem which runs far deeper than classroom achievement?
Dr Glenn Savage, a senior lecturer in education policy at the University of Melbourne, says: “There’s decades of research which suggests the number one factor in deciding educational inequality is social inequality.
“The broader social and economic inequalities in society play a major part in determining the inequalities that we see in schools.
“But at the same time, schools can play a really important role in mediating some of those social and economic inequalities.
“Many schools have played a really important role, particularly in the post-war era, in giving opportunities to young people who wouldn’t have opportunities if it weren’t for a strong public education system.
“There is absolutely no doubt that schools can, and do, play a really important role in mediating the problems of inequality.”
Media science guru Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is someone whose post-war public education was transformative - taking him from a poor childhood as the son of migrants to glittering academic achievements.
He said: “When I was growing up, education was seen as the way out - if you got educated, you could leave your present horrible, dire circumstances.
“So if you had very poor parents but were smart, being educated meant you could become wealthier and have a better life.
“Education was seen as investment, whereas now education is seen as something that should be subject to supply and demand forces.”
Dr Peter Goss of the Grattan Institute is currently touring Australia leading forums discussing how to tackle the widening inequality gap.
He says targeted teaching - through which teachers rigorously assess and focus on the specific learning needs of individual students - is the key to educating kids coming from furthest behind, as long as it’s supported by health and welfare professionals addressing out-of-school needs.
“Schools need to be instruction led and welfare supported rather than welfare led and ‘we’ll get around to instruction when things are calm enough’,” he said.
“Because there is a never-ending need in some communities.
“You can’t neglect the welfare needs and well-being needs of the children, but if teachers have that as their primary focus it will soak up all of their time.
“On the flip side, if you can get teachers to focus on the instruction, and we’ve seen this in numerous schools, then you get into a very different space.
“Suddenly there’s a bit more hope that the children will learn at school and if they learn at school, they will have greater possibilities and they can help rebuild faith in the education system where often in deeply disadvantaged communities, there’s not much there.
“By having kids learning at a more appropriate level, it’s more engaging for them.
“You see repeatedly that when the focus moves to instruction at the right level, classroom behaviour issues go down because a large number are caused by kids who are bored and disruptive or lost and disruptive.”
While there are thousands of health and education professionals out there engaged in fighting disadvantage on the front line, the very nature of our education system may be responsible for fostering inequity.
The Mitchell Institute’s Professor Stephen Lamb points out that disparities between students from different backgrounds are far wider in Australia than in developed nations like Canada and New Zealand.
"High levels of segregation of students in Australia, due in large part to residential segregation and the sector organisation of schools, tend to reinforce patterns of inequality and strengthen differences in school performance,” he said.
Dr Savage agrees: “We don’t have a true needs-based system in Australia - we have multiple funding systems in states and territories and then we have a federal funding system.
“All of them claim to be needs based, but with the Gonski reform as it was introduced under Labour and as it continues under the Coalition, the Government promised that no school would lose a dollar.
So we essentially have significant amounts of money flowing to already advantaged and wealthy independent schools.”
Australia’s unique approach to private education is at the heart of the equity debate.
It’s subsidising of private schools has created of one of the most diverse education systems in the world, but one which gifts millions in taxpayer dollars to top private schools each year while some state schools struggle for basic resources.
Advocates argue that subsidising private schools saves the Government millions in school funding because per-student funding is far lower than for public schools.
Professor Savage acknowledges that if the Government was to withdraw funding for private schools, there would likely be a chaotic influx of students into the public system which would put pressure on an already overburdened system.
“That could potentially spell an economic disaster that no one is prepared to deal with at this point in time,” he said.
“The other side of the argument, though, is that if we do adopt a needs-based funding model that’s more aligned with what the Gonski report actually argued for, then we could reduce the funding to private schools but not remove it completely so that the funding actually reflected the need of those schools.”
Federal education minister Simon Birmingham says that greater spending does not directly equate to better student outcomes and we should focus more on teacher quality, parent engagement, school autonomy and a new curriculum as improvement drivers.
He points to the fact that despite spending increasing sums of money on education, Australia’s international academic achievement rankings continue to slide.
He says Australia needs “to focus education reform conversations on how to lift standards, not a simplistic debate about how much we spend”.
Dr Savage agrees that debate on the Gonski reforms has focussed too much on how much money schools get rather than how it is being spent, but he disputes the minister’s assertion that other factors are more important than money.
“Birmingham keeps repeating the claim that funding is of less importance than other features of schooling such as curriculum, teaching quality and school autonomy but there’s a body of international evidence which suggests quite the opposite,” he said.
Peter Goss adds: “I am deeply concerned that the federal level narrative, particularly at the moment from the Coalition, is that money doesn’t matter, it’s all about having great teachers without really defining what that is and that if we just give each school enough autonomy then they will find the best ways of doing things.
“What we need is new ways of supporting teachers where we build up teacher professionalism, where the teachers are enabled to take responsibility and where they are able to be responsive to individual kids.
“Rhetoric that money doesn’t matter and every school should figure it out on their own, is not helping.”
Asked if he considered our education system equitable, Senator Birmingham told the Learning Press: “Overall, yes, but there are parts of the system that we can improve.
“The latest international assessment by the OECD found Australia to be ‘highly equitable’, providing students from all socioeconomic backgrounds with similar educational opportunities.”
Previous education minister Christopher Pyne made similar assertions, stating in 2013: “The OECD says that we are a high equity nation in terms of our students…I don’t believe there is an equity problem in Australia.”
Yet just two weeks ago, the UNICEF Fairness for Children report quoted OECD figures putting Australia 24th out of 37 member countries for education equality, with national children's commissioner Megan Mitchell saying she was alarmed by “the widening gap between children at the bottom and those in the middle”.
While OECD figures are used to present contradictory views, what’s indisputable is the growing chasm between the outcomes of advantaged and disadvantaged students and there is a recognition among educators about the need to tackle it early.
The preschool sector is under reform, with millions of dollars earmarked to secure early years education for all four-year-olds, and industry calls for improved enforcement of quality benchmarks.
A new centre at Sydney University is purely devoted to tackling obesity in pre-school children through targeted help for families of children at risk.
And though he may talk up the fairness of Australia’s school system, Simon Birmingham acknowledges there is work to do in schools.
“I know that there is still a gap for some students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he said.
“It’s why we fund education in a way that is targeted to those schools and students that need it most and why in everything we do there are special measures to support, for example, students with disability, low socio-economic schools, Indigenous students or regional schools.
“The Turnbull Government is resolutely committed to continuing such needs-based support.”
By failing to support the final two years of the expensive Gonski reforms, though, Senator Birmingham is in danger of being seen as the enemy of needs-based funding.
The review has cemented in the Australian consciousness the idea that our education system has for many years been fundamentally unfair and the way to fix it is to concentrate spending in areas of greatest disadvantage.
Gonski is hugely popular in the community because it cuts through politics - people understand that social and economic hardships will always drive disadvantage, but schools can mitigate its effects.
Dr Savage says: “The funding debate is central to debates about inequality in Australian schooling.
“In terms of what schools can do, in terms of programs that they can provide for young people in disadvantaged communities, funding is vital to being able to drive those kinds of interventions.
“As much as politicians can tell us that funding doesn’t matter, anyone who works in a school or goes to a school knows that without funding for equity-based programs, you simply can’t provide those things that young people need.
“It’s not the only thing, it’s not the magic bullet, but it’s definitely a really important one - and one of the few things that can mediate the sorts of inequalities that exist within Australian society and which unfortunately are getting worse.”
Dr Goss has experience of schooling in some of the most remote and disenfranchised communities on the planet, including Aurukun in north Queensland .
He says: “It does cost money to make the sorts of change that I’m talking about - the expert support to refocus the school and train the teachers from the ground up and enough funds for non-teaching staff to make sure the welfare and wellbeing needs of the kids are actually being met.
"In NSW over the last two years they’ve been directing Gonski money to deeply disadvantaged primary schools through a program called Early Action for Success.
“This is in the bottom 20 per cent of NSW government primary schools - 300 schools.
“They put an instructional coach into each school, they use a progression for literacy and numeracy, they show the teachers how to understand and get the evidence for where each student is at and what to teach them next and they do this very rigorously to catch the data.
“The teachers say ‘our jobs are better now, we feel we are accountable for making sure every student is progressing’, but accountable to the student, not to the principal or the head office - and that’s a professional responsibility that the teaching profession wants to take on.
“They know whether what they’re doing is working, so it’s not just feeling responsible but they are able to act on it.
“I’m optimistic that there is a growing number of examples of taking this broad type of thinking, which is really nothing new, and putting it into multiple schools rather than leaving each school to do it on its own.
“If we capture the evidence around those and what it takes to make them work and scale them up, then that is highly encouraging and will at least partly address the issues of disadvantage.
"Is Gonski funding enough? Yes, I think it is if it’s used wisely.”
The trouble is, the Federal Government is preparing to cut Gonski funding to a quarter of what was previously agreed for 2018 and 19, and spread the remainder more thinly over an extra year.
My kids will be fine - but three equally beautiful and deserving children from Aurukun might not.