Non-government schools promote equity and success
26th November 2010

In the article below and on the ABC's The Drum I argue that Catholic and independent schools deserve government funding as they are so successful at overcoming educational disadvantage and promoting equity and success.

As the saying goes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

One of the myths spread by Catholic and independent school critics is that because such schools only serve wealthy and privileged students they don’t deserve government funding.

A second myth is that a student’s socioeconomic background is the most influential factor determining educational success or failure. Put simply, working class and migrant students, through no fault of their own, fail to perform as well academically as students from wealthy homes with well-qualified parents.

It’s not only long time critics, like the Australian Education Union and Canberra-based Trevor Cobbold, that use such myths to attack funding to Catholic and independent schools.

In a recent piece in the Sydney Morning Herald the education reporter argued that Australia’s education system reinforced disadvantage as, “Social advantage continues to be the greatest determiner of a child’s performance at school in this country, more so than many other developed countries”.

The Australian’s education reporter, when detailing changes to the way the MySchool website defines a school’s socioeconomic profile, also identifies a student’s socioeconomic background as crucial when she describes it as having a, “major effect on school performance”.

Given that the Commonwealth Government has established a committee, headed by David Gonski, to review funding, debates about equity and educational disadvantage are more than just academic.

If it is true that a student’s socioeconomic background determines success or otherwise and non-government schools reinforce privilege as they only serve the top end of town, then the argument that Catholic and independent schools should lose funding becomes more persuasive.

Reality check. Instead of Australia’s education system being inequitable and guilty of reinforcing disadvantage, research suggests that our schools, especially non-government schools, are more successful in providing a ladder of opportunity.

After analysing the results of the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Geoff Masters, the head of the Australian Council for Educational Research, concludes that Australia’s education system, compared to other OECD countries, is “high-quality/high-equity”.

He states, “Another indicator of the world-class nature of our education system is the observation that the relationship between socioeconomic background and student achievement in Australia is weaker than the OECD average.”

Such a positive view is reinforced by a 2008 OECD study titled Growing Unequal?: Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, that states:
“Australia is one of the most socially mobile countries in the OECD.”

A third example of research supporting the argument that Australia’s education system is successful in overcoming disadvantage is an OECD study analysing the relationship between educational outcomes and students’ migrant background.

Once again, based on an analysis of the PISA results, the researchers conclude:

“School systems differ widely in terms of their outcomes for immigrant children, the report makes clear.  In some countries, such as Canada and Australia, immigrant children perform as well as their native counterparts.”

One of the reasons Australian schools are successful in promoting equity, contrary to what non-government school critics argue, is because a student’s socioeconomic background is not the most significant factor in determining success or failure.

Gary Marks, also from the Australian Council for Educational Research, after analysing students’ results in the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) tests and their Year 12 results, concludes that academic success, “can be only partially attributed to socio-economic background”.

In response to the argument that non-government schools outperform government schools because they only teach students from wealthy and middle-class backgrounds, Marks also makes the point that Catholic schools, that make up the lion’s share of non-government school enrolments, have a socioeconomic profile much like government schools.

In a 2004 paper analysing school sector differences in tertiary entry Marks comments in response to the above argument:

“This argument is not sustainable. First, the generally higher levels of performance of Catholic school students found in most, if not all, studies cannot be attributable to the socioeconomic background since the socioeconomic backgrounds of Catholic school students differs little from Government school students.”

Marks argues that equally as important as socioeconomic background are a student’s motivation and previous academic record. In addition, factors like teachers having strong expectations and schools having a disciplined and academically-focused environment benefit students.

In explaining the strong performance of non-government schools in international tests the European researcher, Ludger Woessmann, makes a similar point when he concludes that such schools are successful because they are academically focused and, compared to government schools, have a greater degree of autonomy in areas like curriculum and staffing.

While critics want Catholic and independent schools to lose funding and be absorbed into the government school system, a system centrally controlled, inflexible and bureaucratic in nature, Woessmann also argues that successful school systems are characterised by well-funded and autonomous non-government schools free of government interference.

Critics like the Australian Education Union and the Australian Secondary Principals Association are mounting a strong and concerted campaign to convince the committee reviewing school funding, chaired by David Gonski, to reduce funding to non-government schools.

The argument is that as socioeconomic background is the major factor deciding educational success or failure and only government schools enrol disadvantaged students then funding should be re-directed from so-called privileged Catholic and independent schools to state schools.

The reality is otherwise, not only do many non-government schools, especially Catholic schools, have a similar community profile to government schools but, in addition, research concludes that socioeconomic background is not the most important factor explaining success and failure at school.

Instead of critics attacking and demonising non-government schools, given that they are so successful in lifting student performance, especially amongst disadvantaged students, an argument can be put that such schools deserve increased funding and not less.


Responses to this Post

Irena says:

I wonder why, in your article 'Non-government schools promote equity and success' you would refer to the 2006 PISA results, which, as you say, found Australia's education system to be high quality and high equity, rather than the more recent PISA results of 2009, which actually found Australia to be high quality and low equity?

And indeed, in 2009 we scored 10th worst out of 64 countries in assessment of the gap between high and low socioeconomic backgrounds!  Furthermore, 2006 was the only year in the 2000's in which we scored high equity.

The statistics you choose to use are a little biased, wouldn't you say?

Winthrop, WA



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