Australians don’t support educational inequity, so why do we accept a system that creates it?
What is ‘fair’ in education? This is an important question in a country like Australia, where our school system features considerable inequality in resourcing. It is common knowledge that some schools in this country are much better resourced than others, especially those which charge high fees.
But does this matter? If parents wish to spend more money on their children’s schooling, is it fair enough that they should be able to do so? Or does it depend on the outcome of this additional spending?
What do you think?
In an article recently published in the Australian Educational Researcher, we report on the fairness perceptions of a sample of 1,999 Australian adults who participated in a survey conducted in NSW in 2019. We asked respondents a range of questions including whether it is fair that children of affluent families attend schools with more resources; whether children of high-income earners should receive a better-quality education because their parents pay more taxes; and whether they felt a scenario in which children from high-income and low-income families attended schools with respectively more or less qualified and experienced teachers, performed more or less well on nationwide tests, was fair or unfair.
We found that there was a relatively even split between respondents who believe it is fair and those who believed it is unfair that children of affluent families attend schools with ‘more resources’. However, respondents were more likely to perceive inequality as unfair or very unfair when it comes to educational quality (59%) or educational experiences derived from differences in teachers’ qualification and experience (62%).
Additionally, we found that self-interest (being a parent, or experiencing financial comfort) and neoliberal orientations (favouring policy emphasising individual students’ responsibility, school competition, and performance-based school funding) predicted people’s fairness perceptions, with such respondents more likely to perceive educational inequality depicted in the questions and the scenario as fair.
But overall, our results suggest that Australians are divided about the fairness of parents ‘purchasing’ additional resources for their children; yet the majority tend to consider it unfair when unequal educational opportunities are directly linked to unequal educational outcomes.
And yet, the ‘purchasing’ of a place in a fee charging school is indeed linked to unequal educational outcomes. Enrolling in a private school is not just a matter of having access to a swimming pool or castle-esque library; the differences are not merely recreational or aesthetic. Indeed, the more insidious, and perhaps less commonly understood impact is in the ‘peer effect’ created via socio-economic segregation, as Michael Sciffer explained recently in The Conversation. Allowing students to be grouped into schools based on parental financial capacities has an impact on individual students’ achievements – on both ends of the spectrum. This is not because the students in these groups are more or less talented, but because of the dominant socio-cultural norms and knowledges that the system privileges, and the way in which this is reflected in the particular educational outcomes assessed within it.
So, we wondered: if most Australians do not support such inequity, then why do we continue to have a school system that actively creates it?
Perhaps Australians need a better understanding of how our current school system operates as a mechanism of social reproduction. While school funding may be a common topic of conversation at your local park or pub, perhaps the inequitable effects of a system in which a privileged peer group can be ‘purchased’ via fees is something that needs to be added to those conversations.
This is important because if the public better understood the inequitable effects of our current school system, then our survey data suggest there could be considerable public pressure to change it.
And this, by extension, would suggest that policymakers are not, at present, adequately responding to the views of the public they have been elected to represent. While pursuing fairer funding models is essential, addressing segregation effects created by our differentiated school system should also be a political imperative.
The Australian school system continues to perpetuate socioeconomic inequality, and this appears to contradict the fairness perceptions of most Australians. Policymakers therefore need to respond more effectively to the Australian public’s views.
Meghan Stacey is a lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. Meghan’s primary research interests sit at the intersection of sociological theory, policy sociology and the experiences of those subject to systems of education and is a former high school English and drama teacher. Meghan is on Twitter @meghanrstacey.
Jung-Sook Lee is an associate professor in the School of Social Sciences UNSW. Her research focuses on educational and social policy provisions to break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantages. In 2020, she was recognized as one of the world’s top two per cent of researchers in her field (Stanford’s World Ranking of Scientists).