Educational opportunity in Australia – who succeeds and who misses out?

This critical question about our schools is the title of a new report commissioned by the Mitchell Institute. It is a thorough, timely and outstanding contribution to our understanding of disadvantage in schooling. The report, produced by Victoria University’s Centre for International Research on Education Systems, compiles data from a variety of sources to answer the ‘who succeeds and who misses out’ question. And they do this by investigating four stages of education: beginning school, Year 7, senior school and at age 24.

The report draws together existing information – something which adds to its value and significance. Cutting a long story very short, it concludes that only six out of every ten students succeed across the four identified stages. School works well for these students. As for the others, the report helps us know who they are and why they are falling behind. No surprise here: they are overwhelmingly the socio-educationally disadvantaged. The good news is that, with the right interventions, these young people can recover and succeed at the next milestone – as long as the school is properly funded to make the required difference. Yet another timely plug for the full Gonski.

Notwithstanding the quality of this report I have an enduring hope that this is surely as far as we need to go in analysing the problem. It follows over a decade of research with the same message: if we want to lift student achievement we need to lift the disadvantaged. Stephen Lamb, the team leader for this report, told us that years ago. His submission with Richard Teese to the Gonski review, along with the NOUS report for Gonski, reinforced the message. More recent reports, including by Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow, show that our framework of schools is dysfunctional. Bernie Shepherd and I have found that Gonski’s findings have been strongly supported by data since Gonski reported.

A few matters arising out of the Mitchell Institute report are worth a mention. If six out of ten students are well served by our schools, then what strategies are needed for the other four? In a partial answer the report devotes attention to the problem of student disengagement, something which lies at the heart of underachievement.

But there seem to be at least two underlying assumptions. The first is that the extent of student disengagement is something that the available data, including on attendance, retention and completion captures. Margaret Vickers is one who has challenged this in the past – and teachers are well aware of students who stay the course, but also stay below the radar and jump through the hoops without really achieving their best. For all the talk about lifelong learning, the school experience of many young people ensures that their learning life ends when they finally walk out the door. This contributes to the scale of the problem identified by the Mitchell report for young people at age 24 years.

The second assumption seems to be that students are disengaged from schools. Many successful interventions proceed on information that suggests that it is the other way around: that the way we do school itself is disengaging and needs a rethink. The experience of Big Picture schools, to cite one example, is that students from a range of backgrounds (and for a range of reasons) have switched off mainstream schooling. Injecting a shopping list of ‘reforms’, including doing conventional school harder and longer – even with better teachers – isn’t the answer. Investigations into disengagement suggest that we should be having serious conversations with the young people and rethinking how we can tailor their learning.

And we need to do this thoroughly and soon, with organisations such as the Mitchell Institute taking a leading role. We need to investigate authentic interventions which are making a difference, switching kids back onto learning and achievement for the long term, right now – and support the people who are doing it while planning how to scale up such success. If we don’t – and if we only just restate the problem – then we vacate the solutions field for all those intent on recycling solutions that just don’t work. The Mitchell Institute report has appeared in the same week that the media reported on Simon Birmingham’s apparent flirtation with school vouchers. Are we going to have to endure the useless reform fetishes of yet another federal education minister?

To conclude: full marks to the Mitchell Institute and the authors of Educational opportunity in Australia. What a terrific start. Just don’t stop now!

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and a Director of Big Picture Education Australia. 

This post first appeared on John Menadue’s blog Pearls and Irritations