Equity in the Australian school system - Education Matters Magazine
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Equity in the Australian school system

Renowned author and educator, Dr Pasi Sahlberg, visited Australia this year and spoke about the need to value teachers, the ‘excellent’ Gonski model and why it makes sense to invest in equity. During his visit he spoke with Education Matters magazine’s Kathryn Edwards.

In your opinion, what caused Australia’s education system to lose its equity? 

Let me say first that many education systems are losing equity, including Finland. This may be due to overall increasing income inequality in almost every nation. Inequality often affects education in negative ways as research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book Spirit Level shows. Equity is often defined as it is eloquently described in David Gonski’s Panel Report as how much children’s learning in school is determined by their family background, in other words their parents’ education, occupation, wealth and some other aspects. More equitable education systems are those that are able to weaken this association of socio-economic situation and learning achievement in school.

Equity in the Australian school system is still a bit above the OECD average. But OECD’s latest PISA survey found that Australia is the only country where differences in learning mathematics between advantaged and disadvantaged students are large, while the strength of the relationship between students’ achievement in school and their family background is weaker than average. This indicates that there is an equity problem in Australia rather than a genuine lack of quality in its public schools.

International evidence suggests that adoption of market-based education policies that rely on school choice and competition between schools over enrollment often leads to segregation of children into different schools according to their socio-economic background, race or parents’ awareness of educational opportunities. This, in turn, more often than not is harmful for equity of the education system. This is what has happened in Australia more rapidly than in any other OECD countries. Up to a third of all students in Australia now go to non-government schools based on choice. So, one could say that the price you pay for greater school choice is weaker equity. Global evidence suggests that the most successful education systems are those that combine equity with quality. Declining equity seems to be dragging also quality of the system down. Whether there is an equity problem in Australia is like asking is there a climate change problem in affecting Australia. Denying the former is like turning a blind eye to the latter.

What future could Australia’s education system face if the full Gonski recommendations are not implemented and the current segregation continues?

I think that the Panel that David Gonski led did extraordinary work in bringing more light into the issue of why equity matters in Australia and what it takes to get equity back on growth track again. Gonski’s key finding that fair allocation of resources to schools is the key condition of more equitable education is not actually new or revolutionary. Same appeal of investing more resources in schools with more difficult conditions and therefore more special educational needs has been repeated by commissions and reviews in the US, Europe, and also in Finland.

Well, I often say that successful education is not primarily about how much money is spent but how it is spent. Indeed, there is a weak negative correlation between cost and quality of outcomes among OECD countries. There are several education systems that spend far more money in schools than Australia but get less quality out of the system that is also less equitable. But as Gonski’s Panel notes Australia’s public school system is underfunded compared to most other OECD countries. It also raises a question of how non-government schools should and could be funded within a fairer school funding scheme.

It is adequate to conclude, from international perspective, that the most disadvantaged schools, especially those serving large proportions of aboriginal children and other children with special needs, should be much better resourced if equity is to be enhanced in Australia. Those claiming that the best way forward for Australia is more choice for parents and further privatisation of public education simply speak more from an ideology and mythology standpoint than from available evidence and facts.

We know now enough about how further segregation of children is not only jeopardising principles of equity and equality, but is also harmful to the overall quality of education systems. Australia is in a unique situation, compared to many other countries, with its previous joint agreements that provide excellent frameworks for the betterment of education for all Australians. The clearly articulated and widely shared idea of Educational Goals for Young Australians in the Melbourne Declaration provides a basis for development that other countries can only dream of.  The Declaration proclaimed that the Australian governments “must ensure that socioeconomic disadvantage ceases to be a significant determinant of educational outcomes”. Gonski’s recommendation for fairer funding of schools clarifies how to accomplish this important national goal. From an outsider’s perspective it would be unfortunate if either or both of these would fail because of lack of political will and appropriate funding that Australia as one of the wealthiest nations surely can afford. It would almost certainly mean that raising the learning outcomes of Australian students in international comparative surveys would not happen even if investments in ‘quality’ would significantly be increased.

Despite striving to be the best, PISA results show that Australian students are being outperformed. What advice do you have for the government and education professionals with regard to standardised testing?

First of all, my advice would be not to aim to be among the best in PISA in the first place. Such a goal often derails policies from focusing on strengthening equity and learning opportunities of all children instead of following the race-to-the-top mentality. Interestingly, none of the current leaders in PISA within OECD countries have had a goal to be in Top 5, and furthermore, none of those who have set such a goal have succeeded to get to the top. There are much smarter national goals than being in the international Top 5. One such goal is to have great school for every child.

Standardised testing can be a good servant but it certainly is a bad master. This is a clear lesson from many countries that have over-relied on such tests in recent decades. As a natural scientist I have always be excited by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that, roughly speaking, says that in the quantum world exact simultaneous values to the position and momentum of a physical system cannot be assigned. These quantities can only be determined with some ‘uncertainties’ and thus cannot be determined exactly simultaneously. In the world of education the Uncertainty Principle could mean that due to these uncertainty relations the act of observation (or a standardised test) affects the quality of the object (student learning) of education. In other words, the more precisely one tries to test what a student has learned, the more uncertain the quality of that learning becomes.

This said, in national testing policies we should have a smart balance between census-based standardised testing and sample-based standardised assessments. When teachers report that they cannot teach their students as they think this would be the best for them because of standardised tests in the horizon, I think we have a problem. Similarly, if students complain that there is too much studying-to-the-test in school, we should rethink current testing policies. Authorities should keep in mind that some of the most valuable outcomes of schooling – deeper understanding, critical thinking, creativity, teamwork or empathy – are beyond standardised tests currently employed in Australia and other countries.

The Australian Government is pushing for greater school autonomy and ‘school choice’. Do you believe this is the right approach? Or is it simply just a matter of how the Government can better distribute funds across the sector based on student needs?

Again, international evidence suggests that greater autonomy for schools is often associated to better learning outcomes. The question is, however, what do we mean by ‘autonomy’ here? In Australia and many other countries schools have recently received more autonomy to manage their budgets, hire and fire staff, and even select their students. This autonomy almost always comes with tight bureaucratic accountability not only in terms of checks and balances but also holding teachers and schools to account of outcomes through standardised test scores. Such administrative autonomy rarely enhances teachers’ access to the most critical judgments of their work – curriculum, teaching, and assessing students’ progress.

OECD that reports the findings of tri-annual PISA surveys concludes that education systems that grant more autonomy to schools to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments tend to perform better than systems that don’t grant such autonomy. So, what is my answer? If the Government grants more administrative autonomy to schools without increasing teachers’ access to the most essential part of decision making regarding their work, it is likely to remain just a bureaucratic change. But if school autonomy means more flexibility at school level to think of and react on the needs of the community by crafting curriculum, teaching and assessment so that they benefit all children, then I think more autonomy can really enhance both quality and equity of education. At the end of the day, improving education is about how empowered teachers and students are in school to do what they desire for the best of themselves and one another.

Pasi Sahlberg is Finnish educator and scholar. He worked as schoolteacher, teacher educator and policy advisor in Finland and has studied education systems and reforms around the world. His expertise and research interests include global education reform movement, future of schooling, and teaching and learning. His best-seller book “Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland” (Teachers College Press, 2011) won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award. He is a former Director General of CIMO (Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Science in Helsinki and currently a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA, USA.