Clarion call for equity


7 August 2023

In short

  • There exists significant disparity in educational outcomes throughout Australia.
  • Funding for education must be prioritised to deliver inclusive, quality public education for all.
  • The AEU and Youth Development Australia are working to bridge the divide.

Free, inclusive, quality education for all is a noble aim and if evidence from the OECD is any indicator, countries whose education systems combine quality with equity are the highest performers.

In Australia, governments promise a fair go, meaning that everyone will have the opportunity to succeed in education and beyond. But that’s not necessarily the case, says author and Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, professor of educational leadership at the University of Melbourne.

Indeed, the confusion between rhetoric and delivery could come down to semantics.

“We need to be clear about what we mean by equity in education, because my experience here is that people have very different views. Some think we can enhance equity by broadening educational opportunities, making more choice available,” says Sahlberg.

“But the basic principle for me is what we often call ‘social equity’, which means that educational outcomes, however they’re measured or defined, should be similar across different social or equity groups.”

In Australia, that simply isn’t the case.

There is great disparity in educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children from low socioeconomic groups, those for whom English is not their first language and children who live in regional, rural and remote areas.

If the goal for every child in this country is to accomplish an agreed level of education — to achieve social equity and equality of educational outcomes — that takes money.

Political will

David Edwards, Education International (EI) general secretary, says there is plenty of money out there to address this inequity should governments choose to prioritise it.

“Funding is available when it comes to subsidising the fossil fuel industries polluting our planet. It’s available when it comes to war or giving tax breaks to the rich and corporations. What is lacking is the political will to truly make education a priority.”

EI’s Go Public! Fund Education campaign is a global initiative to unite 32 million educators from 383 member organisations in 178 countries to fight for publicly funded education systems able to deliver inclusive, quality, public education for all.

“Education status tells us so much about a country,” says Edwards. “The prospects for children, the health status of the population, the income and civil rights of women, the likelihood of innovation and entrepreneurship, and a country’s ability to respond and adapt to crises including conflict, climate change and natural disaster.”

Globally, the statistics are grim. Edwards says 220 million children are not in school, 450 million students in school are not learning at their expected grade level, and there’s a worldwide shortage of 69 million teachers.

“We need to turn this tide, to meet all students where they are, address their needs, and help them overcome the obstacles they face. For that to happen, we need well-funded public education systems and well-trained and well-paid educators that have the trust, tools, and time to deliver quality, inclusive and equitable education for all,” says Edwards.

Commitment needed

According to Edwards, education financing has fallen in 65 per cent of low- and middle-income countries and in 33 per cent of upper-middle and high-income countries since the start of the pandemic, leaving educators everywhere without the resources they need to help students heal and make up for lost time.

In addition, widespread policies driving uncompetitive pay, unsustainable workloads, and growing precarity are driving teachers out of the profession they love and making it impossible to recruit and retain the teachers the world needs.

“We’re demanding that governments commit to education,” says Edwards.

“Large corporations and wealthy individuals can no longer be allowed to leverage the financial system for speculation and short-term profitmaking while raising prices, hiding assets, and undermining state revenue collection.

“Billions in uncollected taxes must be marshalled for the extensive investments in the public good like public education and to build economies that provide sustainable and broad-based growth.”

A rare sight

After a 20-year teaching career in Queensland primary and secondary schools, many of them in rural and remote areas and on Country, Kamilaroi woman Melitta Hogarth has seen the difference that resources and proper funding can make. But, she says, it is a rare sight.

Hogarth, now an associate professor in Indigenous education at the University of Melbourne, says for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to achieve the same educational outcomes as non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, schools need to receive funding that addresses the inequities that currently exist.

“That became evident during COVID when students who were already struggling were detrimentally affected because they didn’t have the financial resources for access to the internet. So issues that were already apparent to teachers before COVID became more pronounced,” she says.

“A lot of people talk about equity in terms of equality of opportunity rather than recognising that everyone does not have the same starting point,” Hogarth says.

Smooth transitions

Australia’s education system is, in many ways, grinding to a halt in terms of its relevance to and in support of students, says Keith Waters, executive officer at Youth Development Australia (YDA).

Waters has experience in helping young people – especially those out of the juvenile justice system or home care settings – make the transition from secondary school into work. He’s also a single father of nine, all of whom attended public schools.

He says Australia is not resourcing schools to enable teachers the tools to keep pace with the rapidly changing world of work and the skills required
to participate in it.

“It is abundantly clear to me in all of my experience, which has spanned public and private schools, that public schools struggle under the weight of a pure lack of resources, whether that’s the overall funding levels or capital investment,” says Waters.

He’s staggered by the number of schools he sees that are in disrepair and not fully functional because governments don’t make the necessary investments: “The significantly growing numbers of disengaged young people comes down to a lack of resources in public schools to provide the teaching and support that those students need.”

Early school leavers are disadvantaged when it comes to participation in the workforce and are at higher risk of becoming homeless. With the cost-of-living crisis biting many families, those living hand-to-mouth can find it difficult to make education a priority, says Waters.

“There’s a whole range of other risk factors,” says Waters, “so it’s really important to invest in ensuring that all young people have a quality education. But, in particular, to give young people who experience disadvantage, every opportunity to complete their education and to fully participate in the labour market.”

That places even more pressure on already under-funded schools and governments need to address that.

“The burden [that schools] have to carry to try and keep those kids engaged is really difficult. And with that often comes other issues of disadvantage, so it just compounds.

“There’s a geographical inequity: what you get depends on where you live. And that’s something that’s got to be addressed also.”

But it’s not just local geography. Waters, whose youngest son is African, says schools can’t adequately assess children, especially new arrivals, from different diaspora.

“The resources just aren’t there for schools to be able to assess the educational level these kids are up to and how they’re best supported. A student at 13, who should be in Year 7, might have the academic skills of someone in Year 3.

“That’s not the school’s fault, that’s not the teacher’s fault. The resources just aren’t available,” Waters says.

Bridging the Divide

The AEU and Youth Development Australia will hold a two-day Bridging the Divide Summit to examine equity in education.

Discussions will consider models for economic investment, political capital, initial teacher education, decolonisation in the classroom, wellness, student-led learning, teaching culture, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community connection, supportive practices and inclusion.

Tickets are available for in-person attendance on 30 and 31 October 2023 at Melbourne Park or for individual sessions online.

Above and beyond

For disability advocate and Inclusion International council representative for Asia Pacific, Stephanie Gotlib, equity is about inclusion and opportunity and the specific resourcing required to achieve that.

Gotlib’s son Adam, now 23, lives with intellectual disability and autism. He has high communication and behaviour support needs.

When Adam was starting school, Gotlib was asked why she wanted him to learn to read. “For me, it’s about every child getting a fair go and having access to an education that enriches and values them and gives them opportunities. If we deny that to kids, particularly kids with disability, the community misses out,” says Gotlib.

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Winter 2023