With all the talk of the alleged gross educational inequality of late, one would be forgiven for thinking we were mired in Groundhog Day. As host Julia Baird observed on ABC’s The Drum on August 13: “didn’t we just go through all this with the Gonski debate?”
Australians aren’t a class-envious bunch, but the home of the ‘fair go’. Dragging down the top does not improve the lot for those at the bottom. We want a society that lifts those at the bottom.
With all the clamouring, one would suspect some dramatic escalation in inequality had beset us. But that is simply not reflected in the data.
OECD research shows that a student’s socio-economic background plays a smaller factor in their educational achievement at school in Australia than the OECD average. Equity in reading performance has improved, and in science and mathematics it hasn’t worsened. Unlike in our peer countries, students of immigrant background perform comparatively well.
That is not to say we don’t have students that suffer from disadvantage. They are also disproportionately likely to attend a school with fellow disadvantaged students. However, those that manage to attend better-off schools achieve on par with their more advantaged peers.
A relatively high proportion of Australian students with disadvantage are ‘resilient’ — and no, not the trendy 21st century skills interpretation — meaning that they perform better than predicted given their family background.
As CIS research has found, we can celebrate that many Australian students do in fact ‘overcome the odds’ — and it doesn’t require pumping more money into the system.
We may well ask why so many disadvantaged students attend disadvantaged schools anyway? It’s simply a matter of too little rather than too much school choice.
Students of government schools are compelled to attend their local school under catchment area zoning. This means that those residing in less well-off neighbourhoods are likely to attend school locally —clustering disadvantaged students together.
ABS data confirms that by far the major reason those in the government system attend their school is because it is local. A recent survey of parents noted that those with children at government schools faced the greatest constraints to choice — indicating many who enrol to government schools would have preferred an alternative.
Recent research on high-choice cities in the US found three-quarters or more of students attend a public school that is not their closest one. And it also concluded that those students reaped educational benefits. They attend higher-achieving schools, with better chances of graduation, fewer disciplinary issues, and lower absenteeism than in schools closer to home.
In short, school choice is the solution rather than the problem. Those who are not given the opportunity to choose are unfortunately the ones all too often left behind. For more Australians to overcome the odds, school choice must be part of the fix.
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