'Selection by mortgage' causing unequal school outcomes

By David Donaldson

May 15, 2015

Australia’s educational system is failing to improve and is entrenching inequality, argues a report released by the Mitchell Institute.

In the decade between 2003 and 2013, National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results have shown “some modest gains that demonstrate the potential for improvement”, though overall “Australia has gone backwards”, argues The Shared Work of Learning: Lifting educational achievement through collaboration

While education systems in other countries “have made real progress during the same period … in Australia policy stagnation is combining with growing economic inequality to magnify existing variations in education opportunity and act as a brake on overall achievement.”

Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that year 12 attainment among young people (20-24 years) rose from 70% to 75% between 2001 and 2009, “however, it has not risen among those who are most disadvantaged”, notes the report.

Worryingly, the report finds that “the higher the mean SES [socio-economic status] of a school, the higher the level of academic attainment”. This is reflected in a 10-15% real estate premium price in areas within the catchment of ‘good’ schools, leading to what the authors call “selection by mortgage”.

“For example, 71% of students at Melbourne High School (one of the most popular and highest achieving state schools in Victoria) come from the best-off quarter of the Australian population. That is nearly three times the concentration we would expect if academic success was blind to the advantages created by wealth — or in other words, was based solely on merit.”

Academic research in the Australian Capital Territory found that a 5% increase in school test scores is associated with a 3.5% increase in house prices.

Another example looks at the voluntary fundraising experience of two neighbouring primary schools in Melbourne.

“At Clifton Hill Primary School, the My School website shows that 77% of students come from families in the best-off quarter of the Australian population. This school raised more than $108,000 at its 2014 fete. Just 1.1km south … is St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School. The My School website shows that 70% of St Joseph’s students come from families in the lowest quarter of socio-economic advantage. They held a fete and made $14.36 profit.”

Inequality continues into higher education. Only 19% of young people aged 20-25 in the most disadvantaged areas of Australia had attained or were working towards a bachelor or higher qualification, compared to 54% among the best off areas. Of all university students only 11.9% come from a low socio-economic background.

The report argues that “ideology, institutional fragmentation and simple human fatigue all too often prevent real progress in student learning.”

Overall testing results demonstrate that Australia is failing to improve educational outcomes:

“Australia’s performance since the introduction of the NAPLAN has changed marginally. The 2013 NAPLAN results reveal a moderate improvement in year 3 and year 5 reading (19 and 18 scale points respectively) but almost no change in year 7 or year 9.

“Numeracy results have remained unchanged at every level between 2008 and 2013. Australia has gone backwards in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, reading literacy and mathematical literacy have declined significantly, and scientific literacy remained unchanged between 2003 and 2012.”

“Our over-reliance on competition between schools and competition to enrol high-status students is worsening the problems of inequality and fragmentation”, it argues.

Collaboration is key to improvement

Focusing more heavily on collaboration could help improve student outcomes, though this important aspect receives little investment or measurement compared to other elements of schooling.

The priority for the decade ahead “is to learn how to use collaboration systematically to accelerate improvement in outcomes across diverse, flexible education systems,” it says. “A ‘top down’ perspective is insufficient to do this, but we cannot afford to abandon system-wide ambition.”

“The search for momentum and progress in schooling systems involves questioning how to mobilise whole systems – thousands of teachers, students, parents and community partners – in settings that are increasingly diverse and flexible. Fundamentally, education systems need to learn from the continuous feedback of practice and local knowledge, and to articulate system-wide priorities that reflect both social goals and rigorous evidence about practice and impact.”

To achieve this, the Mitchell Institute sets out 14 recommendations for action across five priority areas:

Priority 1: Identify learning need

  • Identify visible learning goals
  • Dedicate resources to learning need

Priority 2: Build platforms for professional collaboration

  • Every school needs a ‘home group’
  • Every teacher should have a ‘home group’ too
  • Schools should get support to consider ‘twinning’ and ‘federation’ where there is a clear student-led rationale

Priority 3: Grow community voice

  • Dedicate funding for cross-school community workers
  • Include student voice in decision making
  • Develop at least three ‘open access networks’ for every local government area

Priority 4: Share pools of data

  • Remodel public sector data and evaluation structures
  • Build common standards for analysis, data security and categorisation
  • Create data platforms to support sharing between agencies and school in ‘many to many’ relationships

Priority 5: Restructure governance around learning

  • Develop regional collaborative structures — working with health, tertiary education and employers
  • Increase the use of challenge-based funding
  • Encourage Development and Research partnerships
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