Monday, August 27, 2012

Gonski, Inequality and Schools Funding: What the Debate Needs Right Now

Penny Wright gives a Gonski
Penny Wright gives a Gonski (Photo credit: Greens MPs)
by Dr Carmen Lawrence, Director, Centre for the Study of Social Change at University of Western Australia, The Conversation:

Imagine a field of wheat which has been watered unequally. Some parts will grow to their potential, but some won’t. In the end, it’s bad for the whole field’s productivity.

Economist James Galbraith’s agricultural metaphor, almost biblical in its tone, neatly represents the issue of economic inequality and the individual and collective damage it can cause.

In the debate on school funding, he speaks directly to the unequal educational outcomes that result from the structure of our social arrangements.

Ahead of the government’s policy response, it is important to understand the Gonski report’s recommendations in the broader context of the growing inequality in wealth and income in Australia.

Inequality and society

Despite an upsurge of recent interest following the Occupy movement protests, inequality has not been a regular part of Australia’s mainstream political debate. When it has, those with the temerity to point out the growing inequality in our community have run the risk of being labelled “class warriors”.

We are an increasingly wealthy nation, but with steadily growing inequality. The gap between the top twenty per cent and the rest has widened and there has been a hollowing out of the middle - a phenomenon found in many developed economies. What’s surprising though is that most people do not seem aware of this.

Research by behavioural economist Dan Ariely of Duke University and Harvard’s Michael Norton found that people in the United States have a distorted idea about the distribution of wealth, believing it to be more equal than it really is. They found similar results in Australia.

When people were asked what sort of distribution of wealth was ideal, they suggested a distribution roughly equal across all segments of society. When asked what was actually the case, they knew this ideal didn’t reflect reality, but dramatically underestimated the extent of inequality.

There is now a substantial body of research comparing developed countries which shows that the greater the inequality the more social ills a society has, including lowered life expectancy, higher rates of mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, educational under-performance and diminished trust.

There is also strong evidence of the link between inequality and the willingness of societies to invest in social goods, whether in education or health or public housing or conservation. We don’t know the precise mechanisms that mediate this relationship between inequality and these social ills, but it’s likely to include investment in education in particular - and that’s what I want to look at here.

The facts about Australian schools

The Gonski panel relied upon significant original research from both Australian and international sources.

One of the things that we didn’t need to be told was that there has been a drift in Australia toward a greater private provision of education and away from the government sector, particularly at secondary level. This has meant greater segregation in education - segregation by income, parental status and wealth.

Government schools increasingly educate a much higher proportion of students with disadvantages of various kinds - those with disabilities, those from a low socioeconomic background, indigenous children and those from remote areas. As a result, many have come to describe the public system as “residualised”, catering for the the majority of the most difficult to teach children.

This is not true across the whole of the government sector; it is a small proportion of schools who have very high concentrations of disadvantaged students. These are the schools with the really difficult education tasks.

Our educational performance

The first thing to note is that Australia’s educational performance compared with other countries has generally been good. Although I hasten to add, that both the international and national educational measures do not give a comprehensive snapshot of what schools do and how they do it.

In particular, such measures cannot capture the wider social benefits that accrue to a well-educated community, or the creativity of students nor of their citizenship.

With that qualification, while Australia has stood near the top of international rankings, recently we have been losing ground, partly because some countries are performing better on these tests, but also because Australian students performance has been declining in absolute terms.

An increasing proportion of our students are leaving school without having acquired key skills and the NAPLAN results indicate that the proportion of students in the lowest band has increased while the proportion in the the highest achieving group has also declined.

Trends are notoriously difficult to read, and it may be that some of these data won’t stand the test of time, but nonetheless, there does seem to be a suggestion of declining overall performance, both in relative and absolute terms.

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