Education is a critical element of society, serving as a foundation for knowledge, development, and opportunities for the population. Education is single-handedly the key to a healthy stable society where individuals have the potential to succeed while having the knowledge to be good citizens. Despite being one of the most economically developed and wealthiest countries in the world, alongside of priding itself on the egalitarian ethos approach to policy, Australia fails in providing equality in education. According to the UNICEF Office of Research (2018), Australia ranks in the bottom third in education inequality based on factors of inequality in pre-school, primary, and secondary school attendance and reading achievement. The issue is systemic, ranging from funding to government support to assessment programs such as NAPLAN. The concerning nature of educational inequality as a representation of a far wider social inequality highlights the necessity for change and reform in this sector but also presents challenges in implementing them.
Education, particularly public education, in Australia is a in a state of crisis. In addition to the UNICEF report, a recent OECD (2018) report indicates that Australian public schools lack highly qualified teachers, experience general teacher and assistance staff shortage, and up to 35% of students are hindered in the learning process by lack of physical infrastructure. The largest factor contributing to this is the increasing funding gap between public and private schools. In the last decade, income for private schools increased 16.9-19.7% while public schools only saw an increase of 2.1%. Notably, the resource advantage for private and Catholic schools comes not only from fees, but government funding which has increased exponentially in those schools, while public schools received a major $330 per student cut, and some Aboriginal-majority schools saw up to 13.7% cuts from school budgets (Cobbold, 2020).
Socioeconomic status and parent’s education background remain key factors for success in education sector. Students in the bottom cohort are falling further behind because of factors outside of their control, with educational inequality being a major factor. Virtually all socioeconomic classes and levels of student performances have done worse, the bottom cohorts have fallen in performance by almost 50% than those in the 90th percentile (Remeikis, 2018). Those at the bottom of the public education system are commonly the most impoverished socioeconomic classes, particularly remote communities and the Indigenous or other minority populations. This is both a consequence and further exacerbation of the general social inequality as voiced by a key researcher, “Why should this concern us? If education and income are so closely related, is it possible that the growth in economic inequality that has become so prominent is in part driven by rising inequality in education?” (Remeikis, 2018). In the end, the issue of inequality in education is becoming more divisive for Australian society, continuing to perpetuate an unfair system, and cost the Australian economy $20 billion and growing due to the widening gap.
NAPLAN is a national assessment and standardized testing procedure, which is targets primary and secondary school students. It primarily conducts an annual analysis of learners in years 3, 5, 7, and 9 (“NAPLAN,” 2016). The test does not intend to measure individual school quality or performance. There four main domains within the assessment, such as numeracy, language conventions, writing, and reading (“NAPLAN,” 2016). Although NAPLAN is designed for teachers and parents in order to show them their children’s literacy and fundamental skills, there are certain concerns regarding its usefulness. One study claims that the overall benefit of the assessments is limited, and the implications do not justify the total cost (Carter et al., 2015). In other words, the program is highly expensive because it involves preparation and test administration expenses. Therefore, the resources allocated for NAPLAN do not bring significant value.
In the case of social inequalities, the given standardized testing procedure resulted in a number of unintended consequences, which reinforce social inequality. For example, the main issues with NAPLAN are the creation of a preparation industry, narrowing of the curriculum, and the adverse impact of students (Johnston, 2017). The emergence of the sector means that people with low socioeconomic status have fewer resources to allocate for preparing their children to the exams, whereas wealthier children can have access to such services. Social inequality is promoted by the fact that people with higher socioeconomic status can have access to better schools and educators. It is stated that NAPLAN should put a great deal of emphasis on teachers’ criterial knowledge during the testing procedures (Wyatt-Smith & Jackson, 2016). The main reason is that a child’s capability and performance are directly related to the educator’s approaches and techniques, and thus, it is critical to factor-in his or her influence.
Australia faces one major challenge that is partially geographic but partially social, is that the educational system has become two-tiered between the remote/regional schools and the city schools, creating significant disparities in funding. This may soon become a 3-tiered issue as discussed earlier with the private schools. While federal school funding approach has begun to slowly shift in the right direction, it is based on a contradiction. The funding policy promotes unequal resources via a large fee-paying school sector. The consequence of which is a socially stratified system with underfunded public schools and flourishing minority of ultra-rich private schools. The government attempts to mitigate the negative effects with a redistribution through needs-based funding, but the approach is highly ineffective and redundant in addressing the underlying issues of struggling schools.
The proposed solution is multi-fold, consisting of three steps: 1) socially integrate schools; 2) eliminate as many economic and fee-based elements to reduce social stratification; 3) provide proactive, targeted, and intensive support to schools, teachers or students that are starting to fall behind. Social integration is both beneficial for society and the learning process. The schools are less expensive to operate, facilitate interaction between social classes, and will no longer lead to socially biased funding (Kahlenberg, 2004). For Australia this is the most difficult due to geographic constraints, but digital learning is contributing to this, and based on systems in other Commonwealth states such as Canada or UK, there are established standards which lead to much smaller differences in terms of facilities and resources between schools, regardless of where it is located or whom it serves.
This effect was achieved, leading into the second point, by eliminating or reforming the fees-based system. Fees incite social exclusion as the richer schools thrive and serve as barriers to inclusion of poor students who lack the finances. Eliminating this approach and creating a common needs-based fund which seeks to unilaterally equalize the public schools in the country can be effective (Australian Human Rights Commission, n.d.). Furthermore, the government can supplement spending on elements such as NAPLAN preparation where private students and schools will excel since it is a separate industry in itself. Addressing the concept of NAPLAN itself can be viable as standardized education has oftentimes proved ineffective, and divisive. Overall, the government can introduce a variety of policies and programs with equity considerations including provision for financial incentives of enrolling disadvantaged students, include diverse distributions of students, and provide vouches to make high quality schools available to poor families (OECD, 2012).
Finally, targeted support to students and schools when they fall behind is critical to ensure as the system undergoes reform, that no one gets left behind, and there is no disparities again. A system in Finland, focusing on almost 30% of its students results in specific and targeted interventions which enhances performance and promotes inclusive education at all levels (Graham & Jahnukainen, 2010). The United States which experiences similar problems in terms of inequality in education, has led to some states of creating reform projects also known as ‘empowerment zones’ where a struggling cluster of schools are given more autonomy from the district, and in collaboration with the state government, transformational changes are made to improve the performance of the school in key indicators (Belsha, 2019). On a macrolevel, this will have a strong effect similar to targeted interventions for students and allow to extend a helping hand to those institutions that are falling behind, to ensure that equal learning conditions and infrastructure are present similar of that in successful schools.
Discussion and Conclusion
Inequality in education can take on many forms as this paper found, but it is an issue because it effectively stunts the potential and eliminates opportunities for young people in whole segments of the population. Inequality is not just dollar amounts, it amounts to supporting teachers, providing infrastructure and materials, and reducing segregation. Low educational outcomes that are a consequence of these inequalities have far reaching negative social consequences such as unemployment, social exclusion, crime and incarceration, and inequality in other aspects of adult life such as health. Addressing educational inequality is key to beginning to target other societal issues in Australia. While undoubtedly poverty, limited rights for minorities, and other socio-economic disadvantages contribute to the degrading state of many public schools and the widening gap, it is an inherently vicious cycle. Targeting education which has both the significant influence on young people and a foundation of socioeconomic trajectories of students doing forward, is the most logical and potentially most plausible since it is a clear, well-researched and founded sector of society. Fewer financial, physical, and human resources create a multitude of challenges on a strained Australian educational system, targeted policies can instigate meaningful change and benefit society in the long-term.
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