Education inequality

Today’s AFR has a letter of mine on education inequality. What follows is an extended version of the letter, drawing on material from my other writings.

The current passionate crusade by Howard Ministers to weed out the so-called “left-wing” bias of the education establishment is creating federal/state tensions and diverting precious Ministerial time from much more pressing education issues. On most international benchmarks, Australia has high education standards. Where we lag behind is in equalities of access and outcomes. The OECD puts us in the “high quality/low equity” box in its international comparisons of education.

Governments should be seeking to remedy the following problems:

(i) The long-standing neglect of pre-schooling.

Participation in preschool programs in Australia is very low compared with other OECD nations and so too is total public expenditure for pre-school education. Yet we know that early childhood education and care contribute greatly to children’s emotional and cognitive development, economic well-being and health. Narrowing the gap between the child-care stage and the first year of compulsory education by targeting disadvantaged children would yield benefits not only to the children but to society at large (through lower welfare dependence and crime and higher national productivity):

(ii) The growing disparity in per student funding and outcomes between our public and private schools.

We are seeing a growing academic segregation in Australian schools. As the Productivity Commission has shown, the total government (federal and state) subsidy per student is growing at a faster rate for non-government than for government schools. As well, parents are stepping up their investment in private schooling. As a result, we are seeing a widening gap between the total education resources (public and private) deployed on rich children relative to poor children. There is also a physical deterioration occurring in school buildings and this does make a difference to the perception the public has about the value placed on schooling.

(iii) The uneven access to adult training and lifelong learning.

For some time, we have been seeing a trend decline in levels of participation in vocational education and training (VET) by some disadvantaged social groups. Declining participation has been a consequence of a relative decline in government funding and deliberate decisions by employers in the public and private sectors to invest less in in-house training whether due to outsourcing, fiscal stringency or an increasing focus on short term financial performance in a more competitive market. Low apprentice wages may also have deterred able applicants and the attrition rate is high. At the same time, hours of training have been tending to decline with the replacement of apprenticeships by short term traineeships.

Young people who miss out on VET tend to have a history of parental unemployment, come from non-English-speaking backgrounds and live in rural and remote communities.

Adult learning programs targeted at low-skilled or older workers, including individual learning accounts, vouchers and allowances, produce good participation outcomes and positive economic spin-offs. After examining the evidence, a recent OECD report concludes that measures such as these lead to “a more equitable distribution of skills” and this in turn has “a strong impact on overall economic performance” and is “important for productivity”.

(iv) The large and growing digital divide.

There is a chasm in opportunities between those who have and those who do not have access to the internet and related computer-based information technologies. Children and youth living in low socio-economic homes have less access to information and communication technologies, especially if they live in outer urban and remote communities. With the development and spread of digital connectedness based on faster broadband technology, the digital divide may intensify in the future.

If the technological performance of the lowest achievers (those scoring at level 1 or below on the combined reading literacy scale) can be enhanced, there would be positive economic as well as social returns because of the important role that such skills play in providing access to good jobs in modern economies and because they can be used as a tool to improve learning skills and the motivation to learn of low achieving students.

(v) The geographical disparities in education standards (both within urban Australia and between urban and rural/remote young people).

Country students are less likely to finish school and perform more poorly than urban students and they have a more restricted choice of subjects. Education performances is also relatively low in almost all outer suburbs of the major cities because of the more limited choice of schools available.

(vi) The growing socio-economic divide in access to our universities

While HECS has generally contributed to wider participation, the rising cost of university education is creating two classes of university student those able to buy a place and those who can’t. A recent report by the Centre for Population and Urban Research finds that fewer than 20 per cent of year 12 students went to independent schools in 2003, yet they received about one-third of all university offers up more than 4 percentage points from 2000. The study notes that ‘the government sector is no longer serving as a ladder of educational opportunity for aspiring students from low socioeconomic areas’. As well, there is evidence indicating that low incomes and the stress of combining studies with long hours of paid work seriously hamper the education efforts of poorer Australian university students.

These inequalities of educational opportunity are causing a huge waste of potential human capital. They are also an affront to the deep-rooted Australian belief that people of equal intelligence should have an equal chance in life if they are prepared to study and work hard. This belief is a key part of the glue that holds us together as a society.

Federal and State governments are belatedly nibbling at problems such as in training. But while Canberra remains preoccupied with cultural wars, there will never be a cooperative assault on education inequalities.

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Damien Eldridge
15 years ago

Fred,

Before raising a couple of questions, let me just state that I am broadly in agreement with you in terms of the desirability of equality of opprtunity with respect to education in Australia. However, I do have a couple of questions.

First, I wonder whether equality of opportunity at the school level wouldn’t be better served by getting rid of public schools altogether and directing all public funding of school education to parents (or guardians) of each student in the form of a voucher. If desired, the vouchers could potentially vary by student to account for socio-economic disadvantage, learning difficulties and other factors that might vary among students.

Second, it is not clear to me that disallowing full-fee places for Australian students who don’t meet the cutoff for a course of their choice actually harms poor students. If the number of HECS places is fixed, then it doesn’t result in a poor student missing out on a place. Furthermore, it potentialy frres up a HECS place in another course (that would otherwise have been used by the student who accepted the full fee place). I suspect that Andrew Norton has written more about this issue somewhere (I seem to recall reading something by him on this issue).

Regards,

Damien.

Damien Eldridge
Damien Eldridge
15 years ago

Sorry Fred. I should have read your post more carefully. I see that you are referring to discrepencies between uni admissions based on high schools rather that full fee places versus HECS places. While my second point does not address this, maybe my first point might help alleviate any problem that might exist with respect to private schhool versus public school beckground when it comes to university admissions.

Regards,

Damien.

Tom N.
Tom N.
15 years ago

Fred,

You say that “[A]s the Productivity Commission has shown, the total government (federal and state) subsidy per student is growing at a faster rate for non-government than for government schools.”

That’s true, but of course total funding per student in public schools is still higher, so contrary to your point (ii), there is not a “growing disparity in per student funding … between our public and private schools”*, unless of course by ‘total funding’ you mean the funding provided by governments plus the fees paid by parents.

Is that in fact what you mean and, if so, do you think it is equitable for governments to cut back funding to the schools of children whose parents choose the pay higher fees to even this up, thereby effectively ‘punishing’ those parents who choose to invest in their children’s eduction?

Tom

* The omitted words are “and outcomes”. There might be a growing disparity in outcomes of course, but I want to explore your thoughts on addressing equity of funding.

Tom N.
Tom N.
15 years ago

Woops! – rather than ‘total funding’, the phrase Fred used was ‘per student funding’. (This does not alter the point of my question).

Oz
Oz
15 years ago

A good post Fred.

Damien, a problem that I’ve seen is that full-fee paying places start to replace funding of universities by the government and will start to replace HECS places. At my university I’ve known courses under threat not because they’re unpopular, just that not many full-fee paying students do the course. The high cost of doing a full-fee paying degree really is a disincentive when you’re not from an affluent background.

On vouchers, the management of such a system really would be wasteful. I’d see so much bureaucracy necessary for such a system. I think The Australia Institute did a paper on the voucher idea earlier this year. While it may ensure that parents have a choice about where funding for each pupil goes, I don’t see how it’ll guarantee access. Sure, each student’s parent will get the same amount of money but they’ll probably have to top it up with private contributions to get into a good school.

skepticlawyer
15 years ago

Sorry to go OT, but this is just to let Troppodillians know that the reason your site is getting swarmed a bit just now is because Catallaxy is having a server problem. To all our readers & friends, We are working on it!

whyisitso
whyisitso
15 years ago

Surely you don’t mean Troppo only gets traffic when the cogniscenti can’t access Catallaxy, Helen? Actually I thought your site had been jammed by Birdie spamming the comments section on the ABC post.

Sorry Fred – back to your topic!

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
15 years ago

Taking up Damien’s mention of me, there is no evidence that a major reason that the difference between kids from government schools and private schools in university attendance is the cost of going to university. The main reason is, as the report Fred cites says, the poor marks received by those at government schools. Unfortunately studies of university admission rates rarely (if ever, I cannot think of one offhand) control for marks, but in a system that rations by marks clearly they are the crucial variable.

Oz – You have a rather mixed message there, saying both that full-fee places are necessary for the viability of some courses and that they are a ‘disincentive’. Are they good or bad? Any disincentive effect is an irrational one, since as Julie Bishop keeps pointing they are only about 3% of all Australian u/g enrolments.

skepticlawyer
15 years ago

No, I don’t mean that (evil grin) whyisitso. I only realised there was a problem when I got to work this morning to discover various irritated readers had figured out my Justice Dept address and decided to email me. Personally. About how annoyed they were.

Then to make things work the JAG spamfilter decided that ‘Catallaxy’ was a swear word and wouldn’t let me have some of the emails without me contacting the IT help desk in Brisbane. Since I didn’t know who they were (and it later turned out one of the emails was from Jason, and I needed to read it), I had to get them to manually send the mails through to me, one by one. I was not very popular. And on the seventh day of a murder trial too.

skepticlawyer
15 years ago

Apologies Fred, back to your topic.

Oz
Oz
15 years ago

To clarify Andrew, my point about the viability of some courses relates to university management and the structures that were used in some Faculties to determine how much funding a course got. The problem is as government funding of the tertiary sector has decreased, universities have become more reliant on full-fee paying and international students as a main source of funding. My view is that the amount of full-fee paying students shouldn’t determine the amount of funding a course gets but rather the needs of the course itself. So simply put, I believe they are bad.

Jonno
Jonno
15 years ago

This is an excellent post! There is far too little focus on education in the public debate.

The widening gap in our school system applies not only to the public/private divide, but is becoming clearer within the public system. I would guess that the difference between say Balwyn High and Broadmeadows Secondary College is far greater today than 30 years ago and yet education is far more important today. There are unlikely to be any simple answers, but the focus should be on outcomes for students, rather than on whether or not parents are being ‘punished’.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
15 years ago

No, Oz, what you are trying to say is that all university places should be properly funded. Given that they are not, full-fee places make the situation better than it would be otherwise.

Oz
Oz
15 years ago

Yes, full fee places make the situation better than it would be otherwise if there was no additional government funding to replace the funding that they bring in. In general, more funding for education is usually good. However in my opinion they are bad because full-fee paying places by their very existence have been used to replace proper government funding. They prevent university places being properly funded by the government. Without full-fee paying places, university places would be more likely to be properly funded.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
15 years ago

Thx for the post Fred. And for mining that rich load of policies that can improve efficiency and equity simultaneously. Still I think Tom N does have a point – at least a semantic one. Personally I’m happy if we direct more to education of those who are not doing very well, most particularly in early childhood. But you only get a ‘growing disparity’ in government funding by taking the first derivative.

Ken Parish
Admin
15 years ago

Another great Fred Argy post chock full of serious issues. I also want to take up the public/private school university entrance disparity mentioned by various other commenters.

First, is the disparity increasing, decreasing or staying about the same over time? It seems to me it would only be a significant worry in equality of opportunity terms if it was increasing.

Secondly, I assume the independent schools include all those in the Catholic system, which means the disparity may not be as great in socio-economic equity/access terms as it seems at first blush.

Thirdly, you would expect some disparity in favour of private schools even if the public schools in fact provide as good or almost as good an education, simply because the public schools almost by definition include all or nearly all children of parents who have little or no interest in their children’s education and provide them with little encouragement or motivation. Such parents (and they certainly exist) are hardly likely to pay to send their kids to a private school if there’s a free alternative. Given that parental encouragement/attitude is a not insignificant factor in a child’s success in education, it seems likely that this factor may account for a fair part of the uni entrance disparity.

Fourthly, I can recall seeing figures that suggested that, although private school graduates did better proportionately on university entrance, they had higher attrition rates thereafter. It suggested that private schools cram their students to maximise their UAI/TER score, but that this cramming doesn’t equip them very well for the much more self-directed learning at university. Again, if that’s the case the uni entrance disparity may not be as much of a concern in equity terms as appears at first blush.

Finally, on education vouchers mentioned by several people, I have an open mind but I’m a sceptic. If the vouchers are of equal value, surely they would function just like any other government subsidy to an industry, and schools would still charge whatever the market would bear in addition to the voucher value. Such a system would do nothing at all to increase choice among lower socio-economic families. OTO if the value of the vouchers were to vary in proportion to socio-economic and other need factors, I can’t see how one could avoid it becoming impossibly intrusive, expensive and complex to administer. I’d be interested in Andrew Norton’s answer to this, as I believe he is a voucher proponent.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

Do you think it is equitable for governments to cut back funding to the schools of children whose parents choose the pay higher fees to even this up, thereby effectively ‘punishing’ those parents who choose to invest in their children’s eduction?

I am glad you put the silly and emotive word “punishing” in quotes. Whenever governments rearrange spending priorities there are losers and winners. The losers are not being “punished”

Jc
Jc
15 years ago

Chris says:
“These are private businesses for God’s sake! Giving subsidies for NEW private schools, say for 10 years while they get on their feet, might at least make some economic sense.”

Chris, but the voucher or assistance is not offered to the school as such. In the present it is offered to the school per unidentified student- albeit on a block/special grant basis. Under voucher it would be offered directly by the student’s parents to the school in question. In both regards the school’s books are irrelevant.

It is worth considering that the rich should have some rights not to be discriminated against seeing they are the ones who are paying the largest share of taxes. Every tax dollar has an assumed carry through link to educating kids and so they also have a right that money is used to educate their kids. That’s fair. Otherwise ignoring this principle is simply a tax hike through stealth.

melaleuca
15 years ago

I think that a voucher scheme would simply aid the flight from public education to the private sector and reduce public education to a residual rump for the poor.

There is some evidence that public school students outperform private school students in university where they have equal year 12 results. For this reason, as well as equity and reversing the flow out of public education, I would like to see equalisation of year 12 results between the public sector and elite high performing private schools. Such a scheme could be likened to Affirmative Action.

A mulitcultural society where nothing is shared and where the different groups effectively live in parallel universes is likley to split into incommensurate tribes. Universal, or at least near universal public education, is a way of promoting social cohesiveness and must be presevered for that reason.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
15 years ago

The research on private vs government school students at university shows that the latter do better than the former *who received the same ENTER score*. The research is widely interpreted to say that goverment school kids do better, but this is not correct because their average ENTER is so far below that of people who went to private schools. Also, unfortunately, most of the research is on first-year students who tend to be a bit all over the place anyway. Certainly my uni marks went up very significantly in my later uni years. People who went to private schools (as I did, though a poor one) may have more trouble adjusting to an entirely self-directed learning style than government school kids who had less help during their secondary education, but I think most probably do.

I don’t actually think school vouchers are a top priority, mainly because a fully-fund voucher scheme would cost an extra $5 billion and would not necessarily achieve enough in itself to justify spending so much money. It’s more important to focus on the supply side than the demand side at this stage, ie giving schools more autonomy over staff, curriculum and other matters.

nasking
nasking
15 years ago

Thirdly, you would expect some disparity in favour of private schools even if the public schools in fact provide as good or almost as good an education, simply because the public schools almost by definition include all or nearly all children of parents who have little or no interest in their children’s education and provide them with little encouragement or motivation.

What a ridiculous generalization!…plenty of parents who send their children to public school are interested in their children’s education & welfare. Many even pay for after- school tutoring.

Public schools provide a diversity of disciplines, resources, opportunities”

Ken Parish
Admin
15 years ago

nasking

Your response indicates that you misunderstood what I was saying. I’ll be charitable and assume that perhaps the words you quoted were inadvertently ambiguous, at least if read in isolation rather than in the context of the comment as a whole. I certainly didn’t mean that all, or most, or even very many, of the parents of state school kids can be characterised as uninterested in their children’s education (which is how you appear to have understood my comment), but simply that such parents do exist and to the extent that they exist are almost certainly sending their kids to public schools. Thus the presence in the public system of more children (albeit no doubt a minority) whose parents don’t provide them with educational encouragement may skew the university entrance figures as between public and private schools. You would have understood this if you had read the whole comment rather than taken the bit you quoted in isolation, because the very next sentence to those you quoted began: “Such parents (and they certainly exist) …”.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

STOP PRESS: This morning I received a letter from Camberwell Grammar School. The fees next year with be k$17! This is up from k$14.5 three years ago. Yet at the last election the school magazine ran a scare campaign that Latham reducing subsidies would lead to increased fees. I wrote a letter to the school magazine firtly decrying their use of the school newsletter for political soapboxing and secondly pointing out that the subsidy does not go to parents and predicting that if Howard won fees will still go up at the same rate they would have anyway. Surprise, surprise. They did not print it.

The school charges what the market can bear. It is at full capacity with no plans to expand. Is it not clear the effect of the subsidy in such circumstances? JC: Even though (as you say) the subsidy is per student, when the school is at full capacity it becomes just a gift to Camberwell Grammar Pty Ltd. And I must say that your comment “The rich should have some rights not to be discriminated against seeing they are the ones who are paying the largest share of taxes” is beneath your usually decent standard.

We live in a market economy largely. If you think that the government has removed so much incentive that it is not worth working hard, then stop working hard. Or go to Hong Kong for a few years. It is not a matter of discrimination. It is a matter of thinking through the marginal incentive effects of policy.

whyisitso
whyisitso
15 years ago

“public schools almost by definition include all or nearly all children of parents who have little or no interest in their children’s education” …Ken Parish.

“plenty of parents who send their children to public school are interested in their children’s education & welfare” … Nasking.

Both statements are manifestly true. Nasking has gone off completely half-cocked in his (lack of) logic here.

whyisitso
whyisitso
15 years ago

Oops, I composed the comment 23 after reading through this whole thread and before refreshing the page, so I didn’t see Ken’s response to Nasking. Please feel free to moderate it out as superfluous.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

WIIS: A good point is always worth making at least twice. It’s the old conditional probability error. The probability of being black given you are a criminal is high. The probability of being a criminal given you are black is low. Ken expressed it carefully and correctly and was misinterpreted.

nasking
nasking
15 years ago

I certainly didn’t mean that all, or most, or even very many, of the parents of state school kids can be characterised as uninterested in their children’s education (which is how you appear to have understood my comment), but simply that such parents do exist and to the extent that they exist are almost certainly sending their kids to public schools.

cool…i’ll retract & take your word for it…upon rereading, I get yer gist…;)…put it down to a misunderstanding on my part. In this day & age, public school teachers can get fairly hairy-chested when it comes to possible criticism &/or generalisations regarding the public school system. The myths & lies promoted by our Federal Govt. have had quite an effect. Pleased to read that you aren’t a part of that weasly campaign Ken…:)

Jc
Jc
15 years ago

Chris
Fees moving from $14.500 to $17,000 is an inflation rate of 5.44% compounded over that period. You bloody know that with your math background anyway- you’re numerically too smart not to understand that. That level of inflation is a perfectly plausible rate in that industry. That said, the school’s scream of pain as a result of the Latham’s tax hike throughy stleath is certainly very credible as your fees would have been much higher in addition to the 5.5% inflation increases you see annuallly.

“The school charges what the market can bear. It is at full capacity with no plans to expand. Is it not clear the effect of the subsidy in such circumstances?”

You need to look at its operating expenses and then compare that to the fees and dues intake along with the government transfer to see if the school is making do with just the fees alone. I bet it isn’t.

“And I must say that your comment “The rich should have some rights not to be discriminated against seeing they are the ones who are paying the largest share of taxes”

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
15 years ago

These days, I see my main role as one of “pot stirrer”

Bring Back EP at LP
Bring Back EP at LP
15 years ago

JC is just another person who wants middle class welfare.

Private schools are only private if they do not get money from the Government.

Cmon JC don’t desert your principles

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

JC:

You are correct that the fees are going up at 5.5% per annum. But inflation is lower than 3% and economic growth is lower than that. So it is a real increase. When I enrolled my Son in 1996 the fees were k$7.5 which is 8.5% compound.

“I see any removal of transfers to government schools as a tax hike through stealth.”

Bring Back EP at LP
Bring Back EP at LP
15 years ago

actually Latham got support for his education policy according to the polls.

At least his middle class welfare went to middle class schools and not to upper class ones.

As Oscar Wilde might have said the only thing worse than middle class welfare is upper class welfare

nasking
nasking
15 years ago

don’t actually think school vouchers are a top priority, mainly because a fully-fund voucher scheme would cost an extra $5 billion and would not necessarily achieve enough in itself to justify spending so much money.

Well it would achieve a more competitive system…the PR machines in schools would be ramped up, education would become more of a business than it already is.

We’d probably see proposals to build more mega-religious schools as the various denominations, particularly the ‘business nouse’ Evangelical & Fundamentalist ones elbowed each other in the race to accumulate student’s vouchers & tax exemption. The Secularist state wobbling as it is already, would become more divided.

Imagine the Corporate media distortions of public school results in order to scare parents off these so called ‘failing public schools’, directing stressed parents to their mates’ ‘Private Collegiate Efficiency Institute’…not too posh, all glitz & cheap hi-tech…stacked w/ coke & CC vending machines.

We’d have performance pay & Workplace reforms implemented in these private institutes that would ensure teachers could be sacked on the spot for querying Government motives & policy, or mentioning the term ‘vegetarianism’ & consequently offending the President of the Parent Committee who just wrangled the school a cosy deal w/ Southern Fried Chook.

Gaia forbid! if anyone forgot to put an Aussie flag & plaque of the Ten Commandments on their classroom wall”

whyisitso
whyisitso
15 years ago

Is education funding welfare? Homer thinks it is. If it is welfare then funding of a very large proportion of students in the public school system is middle class welfare. If it is welfare, or simply a tool to increase equality of outcomes then perhaps there should be severe means testing of the freeloaders in the public school system. This would have included myself two and three decades ago when our family had the good fortune to reside inside the catchment area of three of the best non-selective public schools in NSW when I was earning a multiple of average weekly earnings. I can’t see why high income earners who send their children to private schools should be economically discriminated against because of their education choice. Let’s be consistent.

Bring Back EP at LP
Bring Back EP at LP
15 years ago

scratch a so-called conservative and you will find a socialist.

Education is provided by the State because all children need it.

If you earn the big bucks to put your children through a private school then good luck to you but don’t go cap in hand to the taxpayer to assist you.
Perhaps you need explaining on what the private sector is?

whyisitso
whyisitso
15 years ago

It’s the State’s role to insist that all children are educated and to provide a framework of education standards and regulation to ensure that this happens. Regulators shouldn’t be providing the services they regulate.

Of course education must be State funded. What we have to decide on is whether those funds are to be applied regardless of wealth or on a means teated welfare basis. At the moment it’s neither. In fact it’s capriciously applied.

Bring Back EP at LP
Bring Back EP at LP
15 years ago

what rot.

If any entity believes they can make money providing educational services then good luck to them but why should they get any money from the State.

You are merely arguing for subsidised fees

Jc
Jc
15 years ago

Homer says
“JC is just another person who wants middle class welfare.

Private schools are only private if they do not get money from the Government.

Cmon JC don’t desert your principles”

Homer, You’re hijacking terms and meanings. Middle class welfare has nothing to do with the fact that we pay a portion of taxes to educate little barbarians(most of the time I think the money is wasted but that’s beside the point). We all pay in money to fund education without an assumption of means. If you wish to change it then that’s a new social compact that needs to be discussed.

Middle class welfare? Come off it, homes.

whyisitso
whyisitso
15 years ago

“what rot”

What a devastating intellectual critique, Homer. Completely unanswerable of course. The last word in fact. I hereby award you the bogmeistercommenter award of 2006. Your years of blog shit-stirring have had a transforming effect on the blogosphere. Transformed it from a promising method of intellectual discourse to a 2000s version of the CB world of the 1990s. (I mean blogmeistercommenter of course!). Arise Sir Homer.

Bring Back EP at LP
Bring Back EP at LP
15 years ago

here is the reason why Australia loves Government.

Here are two people who profess to want a smaller government sector but put their hands out with the best of them to get to the public purse in this matter.

In this they are far worse than the misguided people at LP

Charles Bradley
Charles Bradley
15 years ago

Thank you for your post, Fred.

My main obsession, in fighting “a rearguard action to retain a degree of universalism, especially on merit goods like health and education”