Educational Disadvantage – Why We Must Do More

The prevalence of educational disadvantage in our country is well documented. Such is the disparity in Australian education outcomes that an analysis of recent NAPLAN results showed the average performance of year five students in wealthy areas to be better than that of year nine students in poorer ones. This problem isn’t breaking news, but it’s worsening and is something that we must address.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Australia has one of the highest quality education systems in the world, but it is also one of the most inequitable, lagging far behind other countries in the OECD. On average, geographically isolated, Indigenous and socioeconomically disadvantaged students perform much worse than their ‘more fortunate’ counterparts. This education outcome gap means that these students are about three years behind their peers, and sees them failing to meet expected international proficiency standards.

Overseas, Finland has one of the most successful education systems, both for its results and equitable outcomes. It has developed a decentralised system where the national curriculum is only used as a guide, and testing is de-emphasised. Finland’s teaching framework is also well supported by its government. University graduates are encouraged to enter the teaching profession through fully funded grad-school, and also receive stipends while they continue their education and training. It’s a system where resources are allocated to those who need them the most, where teaching is a respected career which requires three years of grad-school training, and where education is continuously evaluated to further the development of students and teachers.

In Australia, the Federal Higher Education Department’s 2012 statistics on university offers to year 12 students show that teaching is not a popular career for high achievers, with just five per cent of students who scored above 90 in their ATAR entering the field. Almost 22 per cent of tertiary teaching course offers were made to students with an ATAR below 60. This is a trend that has increased over the past decade, highlighting the decline in popularity of teaching among high achievers and a broader loss of respect for the profession, which is often branded as the job ‘anyone can do’.

In May 2012, the Federal Government released its report on Australia’s school workforce through the Productivity Commission, and found that low salaries drive high achievers away from teaching. The report suggested that the comparatively low pay for such demanding working conditions is an important influence. Moreover, the report found that there is significant difficulty associated with finding ongoing teaching positions, particularly with fixed term contracts. The consequent lack of job security became a major factor in high attrition rates amongst teachers.

We need to look at how we attract high performing graduates to teaching. Real change must start at the core of the problem. The status of the profession needs to improve, and this begins when education policy stops being a game of political football. Perhaps Ted Baillieu following through on his pre-election promise to make Victorian teachers the highest paid in the state would have gone some way towards reaching this goal.  Greater respect for the teaching industry will attract higher quality teachers into the field. Prestige could also be increased through raising the selection criteria for tertiary education courses. In countries such as Singapore and Finland, where entry requirements are rigorous, educational outcomes and the quality of teachers are excellent.

There are also initiatives which aim to bridge gaps in equality, such as Teach For Australia (TFA), a highly selective grad-program which fast tracks outstanding graduates through a post-grad teaching degree and places them into disadvantaged schools.  Graduates teach through an apprenticeship model while they continue to study, and receive support from colleagues and mentors.

While TFA is a program that has received some criticism, its principles are based on successful international models such as Teach First in the UK, which in 2010 was the fourth largest graduate recruiter behind PwC, Deloitte and the Army. Although the Australian program is still only three years old, initial results of an independent review by the Australian Centre for Education Research suggest it could grow to be part of the solution.

TFA teachers have made a significant difference to some of our most disadvantaged schools. In some cases, students have achieved outstanding VCE results and improved their literary standards by two years in the space of one.

But when it comes to teaching and impact, there’s an additional factor that isn’t as tangible and easily measured as test results and outcomes: inspiration. Many of our most disadvantaged students come from families where no one is in paid work and education is not valued. The result of this is that the cycle of poverty is further entrenched. More than ever, the industry is in need of high quality teachers who can not only improve results, but also inspire students to want to learn and extend themselves.

Bridging the educational inequality gap in Australia is crucial. This process must start with the improvement of the status of the teaching profession, and be maintained through government support for the industry.  The end result will be better teachers, ensuring higher standards of education across schools and better outcomes for all, especially the most vulnerable.

Jacqui is a Teach For Australia campus ambassador. 

Applications close August 19th 2012.

Jacqueline Duong

The author Jacqueline Duong

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