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Postcode is not destiny

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Wednesday, 20 November 2013

There's nothing new in Trevor Cobbold's just released research paper mistakenly arguing that the only reason Catholic and independent schools outperform government schools is because they enrol privileged students from wealthy backgrounds.

Cobbold, the Convenor of Save Our Schools, is also wrong to criticise Christopher Pyne, the Commonwealth Minister for Education, and his plans to give government schools greater autonomy in an effort to strengthen schools and raise standards.

As Melbourne-based Gary Marks details in Education, Social Background and Cognitive Ability, the belief among policy makers, academics and activists that "socioeconomic background largely determines educational and subsequent occupational and economic backgrounds" has long been accepted by the cultural-left as beyond doubt.


During the early to mid 70s the sociology of education movement gained ascendency in education faculties and teacher training both here and overseas with advocates arguing that education in Western capitalist societies, instead of providing a ladder of opportunity, perpetuated inequality and disadvantage.

Academic success, so the argument goes, has nothing to do with merit, ability, hard work or a disciplined classroom environment, high expectations, effective teachers and a rigorous curriculum – rather success or failure is determined by postcode.

In England, as argued by Peter Hitchens during his recent visit to Australia, the result of this levelling down, anti-elitist argument was the closure of Grammar Schools - the one avenue that had provided thousands of working class children the chance to achieve academic success.

In Victoria the socialist inspired education minister, Joan Kirner, closed the technical schools and reduced education to the lowest common denominator by arguing that diversity and choice in education exacerbated inequality and unfairly privileged non-government schools.

As detailed by Gary Marks in his recent book, in addition offering nothing new, the argument that socioeconomic background determines success or failure ignores the mounting research proving that other factors such as students' cognitive ability and school culture are equally, if not more, important.

Marks writes "arguments that the reproduction of socioeconomic inequalities across generations is strong and enduring and that cognitive ability is irrelevant are simply not true" and that "education policy should not be based on the premise that the bulk of inequalities in education can be attributed to socioeconomic background".


When explaining why Catholic and independent schools, compared to government schools, achieve stronger Year 12 results a 2013 analysis carried out by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research arrives at a similar conclusion.

The researchers write "the average socioeconomic status of students at a school does not emerge as a significant factor, after controlling for individual characteristics including academic achievement from the PISA test".

Not surprisingly, the researchers note that a school's culture and classroom environment are important factors and that as "academic school quality increases, individual socioeconomic background becomes less relevant in relation to the probability of completing Year 12".

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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