Ideas@TheCentre

  • Print
  • Email

Overcoming socio-economic disadvantage in education

Jennifer Buckingham | 02 October 2009

Literacy and numeracy are not everything, but they are almost everything. Somewhere between one in five and one in six students are barely literate and numerate, according to recent national literacy and numeracy results. These children are concentrated in particular schools and in particular areas, especially where there are high levels of socio-economic disadvantage.

Although the relationship between socio-economic status and school performance is undeniable, it doesn’t have to be inevitable. As the late, great Australian education expert Professor Ken Rowe showed, family background may establish where children start in life, but it doesn’t have to determine where they end up.

Participants at the CIS’s annual conference Consilium in August this year heard the stories of two extraordinary schools that have defied the odds of socio-economic disadvantage. Bellfield Primary School is a public school in one of the most disadvantaged urban areas in Australia. Yet in the space of 10 years, during which time social disadvantage intensified, Melbourne educator John Fleming transformed the school performance from chronic failure to one of the best in the state.

These extraordinary results were not achieved through increased spending. There was no increase in teacher pay. There were no major capital works or new technologies. Fleming attributes the success of the school to three changes in school policy: implementing a research-based pedagogy; introducing performance-based accountability for students and teachers; and changing the school culture to reflect traditional values and discipline.

The same ‘tough love’ strategy was applied at Djarragun College in Gordonvale in far north Queensland, once a crumbling school with low attendance. Educator Jean Illingworth oversaw its incredible transformation into a well-maintained, high functioning school where children from indigenous communities in Cape York and the Torres Strait are achieving outstanding results.

For many students across Australia, social disadvantage is being translated ineluctably into educational disadvantage year after year. The evidence from Australia and elsewhere is that this need not be the case.

Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and editor of a collection of essays based on the 2009 Consilium presentations titled Educating the Disadvantaged, released yesterday.