Falling through the cracks

8 December 2020 | Posted In: #137 Summer 2020,

A landmark study into educational opportunity in Australia shows that disadvantaged children are being left behind. Author Sergio Macklin shares the reports findings. 

This report comes at a time when the Australian economy is reeling under the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. More than at any other time, young Australians need to be prepared to face an uncertain economic and social future. The uncertainty they face increases the importance for education and training in Australia to foster the development of a broad range of knowledge and skills. To meet the challenges of the future, Australians must grow up resilient, adaptable, and well-informed.

Prior to the COVID crisis, Australian governments had already reaffirmed the importance of promoting a broad base of learning, and in doing so aimed high. The 2019 Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration commits Australian governments to providing all young Australians with the opportunity to reach their full potential where they become successful lifelong learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed members of the community. According to the goals set out in the Declaration, every learner in Australia — irrespective of where they live or who they are — will develop the knowledge, skills and attributes that will lead them to become personally successful, economically productive and actively engaged citizens.

A test of the effectiveness and condition of education and training systems is how many people do not acquire the full range of desired skills and attributes and get left behind. It is important to know who they are and what it is that hindered their progress. The results show that our systems are working well for a number of young Australians and teaching the skills needed for contributing effectively to modern workplaces and communities.

However, about one-fifth to one-third of young people are behind or missing out, that is, not acquiring the lifelong learning skills and not mastering the knowledge and skills needed to become creative and confident individuals and active and informed citizens. It shows that Australia must do better not only to lift academic learning at all stages of the education system, but also to develop the broader skills that young Australians need.

These figures translate to large numbers of learners missing out at each stage, for example: 21.7 percent of 5-year-olds, or 70,308 of the population nationally, are not developmentally ready on entry to school. In Year 7, in the middle years, 24.8 percent of students, or 72,419 students nationally, do not have the desired literacy and numeracy skills expected at this point. Among senior year students, 27.8 percent or 88,314 15-year-olds do not meet or exceed for their age the international benchmark standard in mathematics, reading and science. Among 24-year-olds, 28.1 percent or 110,410 individuals nationally are not mastering the skills to become confident in themselves and the future, while 38.1 percent or 145,056 are not actively engaged in the community.

More troubling than the actual numbers is the information on who is struggling and missing out. The results in this report reveal that young people from poorer families, those living in rural and remote parts of Australia, and Indigenous Australians are being left behind. On the measures of learning, for example, large gaps are evident from the early years to adulthood based on socioeconomic status.

The gaps exist across all domains, across all skill areas, and are even larger at later stages of school and into adulthood. The results are consistent with research that has demonstrated that social background is too often a key predictor of educational and future success; and that these gaps are unusually wide in Australia. Moreover, the performance gaps manifest in the earliest years of children’s lives and are difficult to bridge in the years that follow, such that children who start behind too often stay behind.

The Alice Springs Declaration states that as a nation we have a collective responsibility to ensure that steps are taken to deliver on the educational goals for all young Australians. It will require major work involving strategies such as reducing the effects of poverty and better supporting affected families and communities. It will also require improving early childhood education, making schools more learner friendly, and reducing the effects of social segregation which are comparatively large in Australia by world standards. Any strategies to improve performance will need to be multifaceted, begin at birth and address differences in need across all stages of education.

Poring over the results presented in this report gives rise to the sense that for many in the population Australia’s education and training systems are working well. On a range of measures, many of Australia’s young people show that they are relatively good at mastering the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the modern world. They enter school with strong foundations laid before school, and make good progress in the middle and senior years of school in developing the skills they need to complete school and successfully transition to fulltime
study and work, and gain post-school qualifications at university or in vocational education and training.

Our systems, for many young Australians, are providing the skills for contributing effectively to modern workplaces and communities. In international comparisons, some Australian learners are top performers — up there with the world’s best — and as they progress to become adults the communities they live in and the world more broadly will benefit from their contributions. Those who are doing well achieve all that the national goals say will be achieved.

There is another sense, however, that also stands out from the results of this report: our education and training systems are dogged by inequality. No matter which way you turn, which measure you use, parts of our population are missing out and falling behind. There are very uneven levels of academic learning across different groups of young Australians and wide gaps in achievement as learners progress from stage to stage. For these Australians, our systems are not functioning well, raising a question about the quality of education and the capacity for meeting the needs of all young Australians.

The results are at odds with the very first goal expressed in the Alice Springs Declaration which commits Australian governments to promote excellence and equity in education and provide “all young Australians with access to high-quality education that is inclusive and free from any form of discrimination”, and “recognise the individual needs of all young Australians, identify barriers that can be addressed, and empower learners to overcome barriers”. Excellent systems are those that both raise and level the bar in promoting skill development and outcomes. That is, they lift standards of achievement and ensure that the standards are shared evenly across young people from different backgrounds.

The concept of levelling the bar means delivering strong outcomes for all. It is clear from the results of this report that education systems in Australia are not achieving this. As a result, not all Australian students are achieving their potential, and overall Australia is falling short. Our failures undermine our pretensions to be called world leading. You cannot be considered excellent without having equity, otherwise the concept of excellence is hollow: leading systems are meant to deliver on both fronts.

The Alice Springs Declaration indicates that as a nation we have a collective responsibility to ensure that steps are taken to deliver on the educational goals for all young Australians. It must start from birth and address differences in need and opportunity across all stages of learning. While it may not be easy, it is critical that we set ourselves the task of achieving our national aspirations for education. Success can form the foundation of Australia’s future prosperity, through generations of intelligent, confident, creative, and engaged citizens.

Sergio Macklin is deputy lead of education policy, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University. Source: Educational Opportunity in Australia

You can read Inner Sydney Voice magazine in full here in flipbook and PDF formats