Equity In Australian schooling

More help needed for vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19 school closures

During lockdowns due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, school closures were hotly debated. Complete school closures were perceived by some as being a way to protect both students and teaching staff. Although initially children appeared to be at low risk for contracting the virus, many families were deeply concerned about the health implications of sending their children to school. Many families made their own decision to keep their children out of school even before the regulatory bodies made the call to close schools and some were slow to return their children when schools reopened.

While a vaccination for the COVID-19 virus may well be available soon, it is possible future outbreaks of the virus will continue to force school closures or partial closures across Australia well into 2021 at least.

We were interested in the educational, psychosocial and emotional repercussions of school closures, in particular the long-term ramifications for vulnerable or disadvantaged children.

Educationally at-risk children in Australia

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that as of 2019 there were 3,948,811 students enrolled in 9503 schools in Australia, with 2,263,207 primary students and 1,680,504 secondary students. Mass school closures thus have the potential to impact nearly four million students.

A significant proportion of the Australian student population experience disadvantage in some form, with 20% of the school student population, approximately 800 000 students, being in the lowest quintile for family income.

Students come from vulnerable backgrounds for a number of equity reasons, such as the household economic situation (low income or jobless households, financial stress), lack of social support (e.g. social networks), personal characteristics (poor household health, low educational attainment), and race/ethnicity. Many students don’t just fit into one category but rather multiple categories of disadvantage. For these students who are already at an educational disadvantage, the educational gap widens by not attending school.

Over 2020, the Australian schooling sector experienced varying levels of lockdown, with the recent outbreak in Victoria resulting in up to two terms of school closures and a state-wide move to online learning. Until recently there were school closures in South Australia. Such a move to online learning foregrounds educational inequalities that exist within a multi-tiered educational system.

Each state or territory differs in their educational governance, as well as their diverse regional, rural and remote schooling opportunities, across states and within states educational participation may not occur on an equal playing field.

Implications of school closures

We undertook a deep dive into the emerging literature and existing knowledge to consider what implications there might be for long-term school closures for students in more vulnerable contexts.

Whilst remote learning can be challenging for many learners, those from materially disadvantaged backgrounds face a number of additional barriers to learning from home. These additional difficulties include, but are not limited to

  • digital exclusion,
  • poor technology access,
  • increased psychosocial challenges, and
  • educational disengagement.

There are inherent issues around the unequal division of resources and support for students learning at home. Some students may have limited access to a computer, some may share a computer with other family members, and with others having limited internet access and if access is available it may be through expensive mobile plans with restricted data.

These issues did not go unrecognised during COVID_19 with many schools and communities implementing innovative solutions to address inequalities – for example

  • loaning out computers,
  • buying dongles for internet plans for their students,
  • supplying paper packages to their homes,
  • having community businesses supply computers and
  •  local prisoners building desks for students  for their home study. 

Although these interventions were innovative, they were ‘band aid’ in nature. Yet they went a long way to mitigate the inequalities of resources for students studying at home.

Despite these interventions, it is estimated that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have learnt at half their usual rate during lockdown, so the longer the students were away from school, the more learning was lost.

Equally, what these responses could not address was the fundamental emotional and psychological difficulties that school closures presented. Many students need structure in order to learn and the school system provides such a structure. Importantly, the school environment provides the basis for the teacher-student relationship to flourish, which is known to be particularly important for student engagement. When students are engaged in their learning, they learn more.

If students become disengaged they are at risk of a range of adverse academic and social outcomes, such as daily absence, disruptive behaviour, and poor school connectedness. Furthermore, for some students, once the physical link to school is broken through COVID-19 disruptions it stays broken, and even though the school reopens they do not return. For these students who continue to disengage, they fall further behind their peers, and for some, the learning deficit won’t be recoverable.

Building capacity and resilience

Moving forward and learning to live with further disruptions, requires future generations to become adaptable to possible changing learning environments, building capacity and resilience for future crises becomes an imperative. Proactive and multifaceted responses and planning for any future crises will best meet the educational needs of our diverse student populations to ensure vulnerable children are not left behind in their learning.

Governments should re-examine resource allocations to schools to ensure all students have equality of access to up-to-date resources, especially technology. The pandemic has shown us that learning online is possible, but if we are to avoid widening existing educational disparities, we must ensure that learning is equitable for all students.

For those who want more, here is our full paper Drane, C.F, Vernon, L & O’Shea, S. (2020). Vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19: A scoping review. Australian Educational Researcher.

Catherine Drane is a Research Fellow in the NCSEHE. Previously, Catherine has worked on large-scale National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) projects across Australia. Catherine’s research interests include adolescent development and public health interventions, and quantitative research methods. Her teaching in the areas of research, measurement, design, and analysis led her being awarded a Murdoch University Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Lynette Vernon is a Senior Research Fellow at Edith Cowan University with the School of Education and an adjunct researcher with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Lynette was a secondary science teacher for over 20 years retraining to complete her PhD in psychology at Murdoch University. She directed the Murdoch Aspirations and Pathways for University project (MAP4U) working with high schools to support students aspirations. Her research interests are in developmental psychology, especially related to technology use, sleep and their impact on academic attainment and wellbeing.

Prof. Sarah O’Shea is the Director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) which is hosted by Curtin University. Sarah has spent over twenty-five years working to effect change within the higher education (HE) sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally funded research studies advance understanding of how under-represented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others. This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty. Sarah has published extensively in the field and has been awarded over $AUD3 million in grant funding since 2009, she is also an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow (ALTF), a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA) and a Churchill Fellow.

2019 REPORT CARD for Australia’s national efforts in education

It’s the end of the school year and school reports are being sent home. Let’s imagine every Australian household received a report on Australia’s national efforts in education. This is what it might look like based on the latest  OECD Education at a Glance 2019  (which covers data between 2010 and 2016 and compares statistics across 42 countries).

(For those not familiar with the Australian A to E school reporting scale: A means Very High Achievement, B means High Achievement, C means Sound Achievement, D means Limited Achievement, E means Very Limited Achievement and there is no ‘Fail’.)

Early Childhood Education     

Result: Below Average [D] Limited Achievement

There has been a surge of policy attention to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) in OECD countries in recent decades, with a focus on children under the age of 3. Enrolment of 3 year-olds in early childhood education and care is still low in OECD countries despite increasing awareness of its importance.

In  Australia the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education, was developed in 2008. It aims to maintain universal access to quality early childhood education programmes for all Australian children in the year before full-time school, that is all Australian 4-year-olds. However enrolment in Early Childhood Education and Care among Australian 4-year-olds is still below the OECD average, although the gap has narrowed.

In 2017, 85% of 4-year-olds in Australia were enrolled in Early Childhood Education and Care, slightly below the OECD average of 87%. Enrolment among 3-year-olds is even worse: only 67% of Australian 3-year-olds are enrolled, well below the OECD average of 79%. 

Teacher remuneration      

Result: Below Average [D] Limited Achievement

It is often claimed that Australian teachers are well paid in comparison to other countries. This on the surface may be true. But Australian teachers work more hours than teachers in other OECD countries and, the distribution of salaries is comparatively flat in Australia, both over the course of teachers’ careers and across educational levels. For example, it takes only seven years for a secondary teacher to progress from the statutory starting salary to the top of the scale, compared to 25 years on average across OECD countries. However, it is at the top of the scale, that Australian teachers lose out as their pay is only 48% more than starting salaries at all levels of education taught, compared to 61-67% on average across OECD countries. Money isn’t necessary viewed as the reason why people go into teaching, as respect and esteem is often seen as equally important.

Class sizes     

Result: Below Average [D] Limited Achievement

Successive ministers have often pointed out the considerable cost of reducing class sizes in Australia, as have conservative education commentators. One minister even wanted class sizes to be increased so as to employ fewer teachers. This isn’t borne out by the evidence from the OECD and elsewhere. Across all schools from 2005, the number of teaching staff per student (an approximate proxy for class size) dropped only marginally, from 14.2 to 13.9, a negligible 2.2 per cent change. According to the 2019 report since 2005 average class size in Australia has fallen from 24 to 23 students only. At the primary level, the average class in OECD countries has 21 pupils.

Spending on school education    Result: Fail

Australia’s Federal education ministers claim that Australia’s spending on education has never been higher and that expenditure has increased 25% or $10 billion since 2010. This ignores the fact that our student population has dramatically increased requiring spending on new schools, school infrastructures and of course more teachers. $8 billion of the extra funding (or 80 per cent) went to a mix of “everyday” items: rising student numbers, wage increases, and the ongoing costs of increased investments in government school buildings. Student numbers grew by 9 per cent, so the real increase per student was 14 per cent. Educating these extra students cost just under $4 billion, or two-fifths of the overall increase.

While Australia spends just above the OECD average per student on school education, it spends far less than countries like Luxembourg, Norway, Austria and Belgium. Australia ranks 8th in spending on school education as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product in the OECD behind New Zealand, Norway, Israel, UK, Iceland Belgium and Columbia. Australia increased the share of GDP invested in tertiary educational institutions by over 10% but reduced the share invested in school education by at least 5% during this period. Australia’s total school expenditure as a proportion of GDP is just at the OECD average but as a percentage of total government spending on school education Australia spends less than the OECD average of 4.4%.

Equity     Result: Fail

In Australia, 36% of total investment on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) is privately funded compared to only 18% on average across OECD countries.

Australia spends only 40% public money on public tertiary education which is less than any other country in OECD except for England. Only Chile spends less public money on public tertiary education. Australia also “transfers”, that is subsidises, over 21% of public money to private tertiary institutions tertiary education, again only second to England.

However real funding for public schools over that period was cut by $17 per student (-0.2%) while funding for Catholic and Government supported private schools increased by $1,420 per student (18.4%) and for private independent schools by $1318 (20.9%) per student.

Whereas countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland, Luxembourg spend almost no private money on school education.  Australia has the 4th highest “most privatised” school education spending after Mexico, Columbia, Turkey.

Principal’s Comment

The data is clear. Australia seems to be coasting. If she invests more effort and resources she could improve her outcomes immeasurably. Compared to many of her cohort she is not paying enough attention to the things that would make a difference – a good public school in every suburb, resources based on real need, and equity among all schools.

Next year Australia needs to try a lot harder to base her policies on evidence that promotes equity. She needs to do this with some urgency or she will keep slipping behind. Australia is very capable of achieving much more, but only if she puts her mind to it and makes equity a priority.

David Zyngier is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. He is a former school teacher and principal. He spent most of his teaching career in disadvantaged public schools. David’s research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students, but in particular how these can improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage by focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He is on Twitter @dzyngier

What does the post-truth world hold for teachers and educational researchers?

As 2016 draws to an end, I am left with a deep sense that things are going very, very wrong. I waver between fury and frustration, unease and dread. But these feelings are useless without some action.

I presented in a symposium at the AARE conference recently on social justice, and our theme was reframing and resisting educational inequality.

It struck me that there have been some really powerful examples of reframing and resisting this year.

For example, we have seen Nigel Farage and the Brexiteers do a stunning job of reframing the UK; we’ve seen Donald Trump resist every moment of rationality and opposition, instead successfully employing what has been described as a choreography of shame to take the presidency of the US. And here in Australia, we’ve seen the zombie-like rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation from the political dead.

We have seen the TIMSS and PISA results released. Almost unanimously, the Australian media took the line that Australian students are slipping down the rankings and, heaven forbid, we’re even being beaten by Kazakhstan.

Leaving aside the incredible display of casual racism, xenophobia and complete lack of cultural awareness being displayed in the commentary, the fact is that TIMSS and PISA say very little about Australian schooling at all.

Yet, our federal education minister argues this is an urgent wake-up call proving that equity-based funding is unimportant and that instead we need to fix teachers and increase slipping standards in our schools.

Actually, minister, all we really need to do to improve our rankings is make the Northern Territory and Tasmania go away (to New Zealand, perhaps?) and hide all of the students who dare to come from circumstances of social and material deprivation or those who have special learning needs. Watch us rocket up the rankings!

Perhaps the most striking thing for me has been the way that discourses of equity and social justice have been mobilised in a very public and powerful way to argue for more testing, for more restrictions and control over teachers and teacher education, and to push for market models of education that undermine the public for private profit.

In the US, Trump has chosen a billionaire for his education secretary and has already announced a huge investment in turning public schools into charter schools. Similarly, Theresa May has a plan for more Grammar schools in the UK. Both are presented as addressing educational inequality.

Here in Australia, we have a phonics test suggested for our youngest students, modelled on the one the UK introduced a couple of years ago. Again, the argument is that this is needed most for children who are disadvantaged.

Education research is trash-talked on social media and given little oxygen in mainstream media and public discourse and is almost invisible in the policy arena.

The message is really powerful and simple and consistently prosecuted: education is broken because of bad teachers and teachers are bad because of teacher educators who are a bunch of out-of-touch educationalists who don’t know anything about the way the world works.

Of course all of this is complete rubbish.

I wonder about the correlation between increasing systems of surveillance and control over curriculum and pedagogy and the growing number of high stakes testing regimes, audit and accountability technologies, and the narrative of slipping standards, declining outcomes and an education system in crisis.

I wonder about how another set of tests is going to address sliding test results.

I wonder about what it means that we have had conservative coalition governments in control of the national policy agenda in this country for fifteen of the past twenty years.

I wonder about what it means when we have climate denying, market ideologues in control who reframe equity as a problem of teacher quality, who advocate for school vouchers instead of a vibrant public education system, who engage highly politicised and influential free-market think tanks in doing their policy work for them, while education researchers are ignored and teachers, parents, students and entire communities are reduced to those who simply have policy done to them.

I wonder what it means when I see multiple reports of children in the US being told by their classmates and in some cases, their teachers, that they will be locked up or their parents deported and themselves put into orphanages because they are Mexican or Muslim.

I wonder what it means when I read about a 10-year-old girl who says a boy who “grabbed her vagina” said it was okay because “if a president could do it, I can too”.

I wonder what it means when a 13-year-old Queensland boy takes his life because of bullying and the Courier Mail runs a piece calling the Safe Schools program “repulsive” and decrying “the ludicrous notion that most of our subjects nowadays include Indigenous, Asian and environmental components.”

I wonder what it means when Pauline Hanson calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and her fellow One Nation senator, Malcolm Roberts, declares that climate change is a “scam” cooked up by the CSIRO and NASA.

I wonder what it means that we lock up children indefinitely on Nauru, subjecting them to cruel and inhumane degradations, yet when Australian teachers protest, our Prime Minister gets annoyed at their “absolutely inappropriate” behaviour.

I think it’s telling that the Oxford dictionary declared “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. Similarly, Dictionary.com chose “xenophobia” as their word of the year.

So what does a post-truth world mean for educational research, social justice, equity and addressing educational inequality?

What are the ways we can mobilise and fight back against the xenophobe, the misogynist, the racist, the anti-intellectual, the billionaire posing as a saviour for the common person, the rampant destruction of our natural systems on a global scale, and the complete disregard for the future of our planet and all who live on it?

We need to organise, to collectivise and not just to resist and reframe, but to entirely reconfigure how we approach social inequality through our individual and collective endeavours.

We need to grow community-based, regional, national and transnational networks that can stand together and reject the framing of education as simply a problem of bad teaching that completely ignores structural and systemic inequalities and decades-long policy failures.

We need to produce local, situated and deeply contextualised knowledges that are generated with the communities we work with.

We need a radical reimagining of the politics and practices of educational research.

We need to fight.

Riddle copy

Dr Stewart Riddle lectures in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research includes looking at the links between music and literacy in the lives of young people, as well as alternative schooling and research methodologies. Stewart also plays bass guitar in a rock band called Drawn from Bees.

Stewart is a member of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland management committee and edits their journal, Words’Worth.