Despite pockets of excellence, Australia’s education system is mired in entrenched inequality, a landmark report has revealed.
The landmark study, prepared by the Centre for International Research on Education Systems (CIRES) for the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University, is the first major study to assess Australia’s performance against the comprehensive educational goals in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration.
The Declaration, signed by all Australian education ministers, aspires to an education system that achieves excellence and equity.
The report, ‘Educational Opportunity in Australia 2020: Who succeeds and who misses out?’ found that the system suffers from large gaps in educational opportunity that are failing up to one in three Australian children and young people.
‘The system is failing disadvantaged children’
Major gaps were identified in a wide range of critical skills and capabilities from school entry, with Indigenous children, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and children in very remote areas at least twice as likely as their peers to have a developmental vulnerability.
The Mitchell Institute’s deputy lead of education policy, Sergio Macklin, Australia’s education system “is failing the students who need our support most”.
“The evidence suggests too often the system is entrenching rather than reducing educational disadvantage,” Macklin said.
“Our failure to address educational inequality limits individuals’ choices and employment opportunities in adulthood and is a key driver of poorer health outcomes. It is costing our economy billions and left unchecked, it will put a handbrake on our efforts to recover from the recession”.
Leading children’s education charity The Smith Family said providing targeted and timely support to at risk students before they start school, and as they move through the education system, is critical to them realising their potential.
“This seminal report clearly identifies the groups of students who aren’t achieving the educational outcomes which are important for their long-term social and economic participation,” The Smith Family’s head of research and advocacy, Anne Hampshire, said.
Currently too many young Australians aren’t reaching their potential. Investing in strategies which have been shown to improve educational outcomes is in the best interests of these young people and all Australians, particularly as we work to respond to the impact of COVID-19”.
‘Immediate injection of funding needed’
Australian Education Union (AEU) federal president, Correna Haythorpe, said the Federal Government “continues to ignore” the growing body of evidence that schools are not funded adequately to help those who need it most.
“Unless the government addresses the inequality in school funding and invest in students in public schools another generation of students who are vulnerable or from disadvantaged backgrounds are at risk of missing out on the opportunity to reach their potential,” she said.
“Aside from the existing $19bn shortfall in public school funding, there needs to be an immediate injection of funding for students who have experienced the disruption of COVID-19”.
Haythorpe said students who were already disadvantaged before the pandemic now face a “double disadvantage”.
“Yet there was zero funding made available to public schools in the recent federal budget while continuing to overfund private schools by $1bn”.
‘We simply cannot continue with the status-quo’
Macklin said COVID-19 had exacerbated educational inequality, and urgent action is needed from Australia’s leaders to address the issues identified in the report.
“The children and young people who were being let down by the education system before the pandemic are also the ones facing the greatest educational disadvantage as a result of it,” he said.
Macklin said employment stress in families has dramatically increased the number of vulnerable young people and remote schooling is likely to have widened gaps in achievement, particularly for those in low-income households.
“The report should be a wakeup call to politicians and policy makers, we simply can’t continue with the status quo”.