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Equity in schools – let's not forget the quality

By Scott Prasser - posted Friday, 6 May 2011


Equity is one of the main polarising issues between public and private school supporters.

Opponents of public funding for non-government schools like the Australian Education Union, argue that the increasing growth of the non-government sector – one in three children across Australia now attend either Catholic systemic or Independent schools – has led to poorer overall education results and greater inequality. ACT has the highest proportion of primary and secondary students attending non-government schools at 42.9 per cent.

Many of their arguments are based on misuse of funding data and selective examples portraying the non-government sector as the preserve of privilege and the social elite.

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Nothing could be further from the truth or more out of step with the evidence.

The latest evidence convincingly shows that non-government schools provide a significant return on the public's investment in this sector in terms of quality education, equity and contributions to national well-being.

It is the particular characteristics of the non-government sector – clear focus on quality and achievement, the flexibility to respond to the educational needs of each individual student, its strong systems of accountability to parents and government and a capacity to recruit high quality staff – that lead to quality education outcomes that in turn contribute to greater equity.

Here is the evidence.

OECD studies have found that, after controlling for socioeconomic intake, these attributes of accountability, autonomy and choice contribute to greater equity and higher achievement and reduce the dependence of student achievement on socio-economic status. Overcoming social disadvantage through education is more effective when government provides per capital funding to schools and allows them autonomy and flexibility. By providing public funding, governments ensure that schools operate in the national interest.

The problem in discussions about equity in education is a confusion about what equity means in practice and where its fits with a nation's need for quality education.

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Some see equity in terms of not just of equal access, but in terms of the same outcomes for all. A more useful approach to equity would focus on education quality, removing barriers to access and addressing disadvantage and then working with individual students to achieve their full potential. The best means of improving equity in our society is to improve the quality of education. In other words, better quality of education overcomes social disadvantage. This is also what the evidence says.

More spending on education is not the answer for government. Governments of all political colours have been taking that approach for years, yet Australia still has a significant equity problem with "long tail of underachievement" associated with being Indigenous, living in rural and remote regions and from a socially disadvantaged background.

The evidence shows that resources aimed at improving the overall quality of education is the real answer to improving equity, to really tackling the education disadvantage. Improve an individual's education performance and you improve the person's life chances. This is real equity reform aimed at disadvantage.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on April 15, 2011.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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