The more school options, the better it is for all of us
One of the major criticisms of Catholic and independent schools advanced by those arguing that government funding should be cut is that choice and diversity in education lead to inequality.
Critics like the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the Canberra-based Save Our Schools pressure group argue that non-government schools should not be funded as, supposedly, they are elitist and privileged and because they promote an education system where state school students from low socioeconomic communities are further disadvantaged.
As argued by the AEU President, Angelo Gavriolatos, “At the heart of the equity problem is the increasing concentration of students from wealthy families in private schools and those from low SES (socioeconomic status) families in public schools – a segregation that is the direct result of the market reforms of successive governments”.
Whether students are destined to failure because of their low socioeconomic status (SES), and whether such students are only concentrated in state schools - given that the Gonski funding review has signalled that equity will be one of the principal factors considered when it makes its recommendations - are vital questions that need to be addressed.
If both contentions are correct then it makes it easier for the federally commissioned review to argue that funding to so-called privileged private schools must be re-directed to less affluent government schools populated by disadvantaged students – an argument put by cultural-left critics like the Greens Party and the AEU.
In relation to the impact of SES on educational achievement Barry McGaw, the head of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority and based on the 2000 and 2006 PISA results, argues that Australia is ‘high quality, low equity’ in that there appears to be a strong correlation between low SES and student underperformance.
Geoff Masters, the head of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), on the other hand, argues the opposite when he states that the 2006 PISA results prove that Australia is ‘high quality, high equity’.
In an ACER enews release dated December 2007 Masters states, “In the popular jargon, Australia is a ‘high quality/ high equity’ country based on our PISA 2006 performance. And again, this observation is made not only in relation to scientific literacy, but also for mathematical and reading literacy”.
In its analysis of the 2009 PISA results it should also be noted that the ACER, while describing Australia as a ‘high quality, average equity’ education system places Australia in the ‘high quality, high equity’ quadrant when comparing how the various other countries involved in the PISA test perform.
Additional evidence that is misleading to describe Australia as low equity relates to the fact that Australian Catholic schools, that educate approximately 20% of state and territory students and based on an analysis of the 2009 PISA results, similar to top performing education systems like Finland are rated ‘high quality, high equity’.
Not only does the Australian education system achieve above the OECD average in relation to equity but also, not all agree that a student’s socioeconomic status automatically leads to educational failure or success. It’s wrong to argue that low SES students are condemned to underperform and that schools serving such communities can do little to improve results.
As noted by the Australian researchers responsible for the 2009 PISA analysis, “care should be taken in interpreting the association between achievement and socioeconomic background” on the basis that “the range of result’s is vast, with a large number of low socioeconomic background students achieving high scores and, conversely, students with high socioeconomic backgrounds achieving very low scores”.
The researchers also imply that there are many other factors that contribute to educational failure and success when they note that only, “13 per cent of the explained variance in student performance in Australia was found to be attributable to students’ socioeconomic background”.
Much of the cultural-left’s attack on non-government schools portrays such schools as only serving the top end of town and representative of an inflexible and inequitable class based society.
Stereotyping non-government schools as being the preserve of the wealthy and privileged is simplistic and misleading. Not only are there many government schools only serving those parents who can afford to live in affluent suburbs but, best illustrated by Catholic parish-based primary schools, many non-government schools also serve disadvantaged communities.
Compared to most other OECD countries, it is also the case that Australia has a high degree of social mobility and education provides a ladder of opportunity. The OECD (2008) report Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, describes Australia as “one of the most socially mobile countries in the OECD” and further states that education helps to reduce “overall income inequality by more than most other countries”.
Instead of contributing to inequality, the reality is that having an education system based on choice and diversity and where Catholic and independent schools are properly funded helps promote a fairer and more equitable education system.
As noted by the German researcher, Ludger Wossemann in a 2007 paper analysing autonomy, choice and equity in education, “private school operation is strongly and significantly associated with higher student achievement and with greater equality of educational opportunity”.
“Contrary to the concerns of many critics of private involvement in education, a large sector of privately operated schools does not reduce equality of outcomes for children from different social backgrounds; in fact, the opposite is true”.
One hopes that the members of the Gonski review, on recommending the best way to strengthen equity in education, give the same consideration to researchers like Woessmann as they do to non-government school critics like Angelo Gavrielatos from the AEU.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and author of Australia’s Education Revolution.
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