Educating The Disadvantaged

Jennifer Buckingham
01 October 2009 | IA116
Educating The Disadvantaged

Every child can succeed at school if education providers take the right approach. Educating the Disadvantaged, a collection of four essays, reveals the diverse stories of why some schools are failing to properly educate disadvantaged students.

  • National testing has revealed that somewhere between one in five and one in six Australian children is, at best, barely literate and numerate. These children are not evenly distributed across the population. They are concentrated in particular schools and in particular areas of the country.
  • Children with the highest rates of educational failure are children in jobless households, Indigenous children, and children living in remote communities.
  • Although there is an undeniable relationship between socio-economic disadvantage and low academic performance, it is not inevitable. International research on effective schools and case studies in Australia demonstrate that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are capable of high levels of school performance, given the right educational conditions.
  • The stories of three very different schools in widely disparate parts of the country show that the recipe for success does not involve major capital works and new technologies, smaller classes, or increased spending on special programs. It lies in research-based teaching methods, performance-based accountability, and a school culture conducive to learning.
  • Melbourne educator John Fleming has made this work in practice, transforming one of the most disadvantaged public schools into Australia from a chronically failing school into one of the best performing schools in Victoria. He oversaw a similar improvement in results in one of the wealthiest schools in Australia using the same methods.
  • The largely Indigenous Djarragun College in Far North Queensland has applied the same lessons with outstanding results. But as principal Jean Illingworth reveals, despite the heroic efforts of teachers, Djarragun College is fighting an unrelenting battle against government welfare policies that undermine its work.
  • Jean Illingworth describes payments to Indigenous youth through ABSTUDY when they turn 16 as a ‘sort of warped rite of passage.’ She says that these unconditional payments, intended to help students stay in school, are instead being spent on substance abuse, and the school is helpless to prevent the slide of once-promising students into crime, violence and incarceration.
  • There is a group of forgotten children among the most educationally disadvantaged—neglected and abused children who have been, or should be, removed from their families. Professor Chris Goddard explains that unlike low SES and Indigenous children, there is no national data on the 30,000 children who are in foster care each day. Although it is known that these children have very poor educational outcomes due to personal trauma and frequent school changes, they do not receive the attention they need.
  • New performance reporting and accountability measures introduced by the Australian government will reveal numerous failing schools. The government has promised extra resources for these schools but has not elucidated how long failure will be tolerated and what the long-term strategy might be.
  • CIS research fellow Jennifer Buckingham argues that where public schools have consistently failed, state governments should be more open to non-government providers, following the public charter school model in the United States. Although not all charter schools have been successful, there is an identifiable subset of schools that have been a god-send for thousands of poor and minority students.

Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.

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