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Want more poor kids for uni? Let me try to help

By Chris Bonnor - posted Wednesday, 18 March 2009

It is hardly surprising that the Deputy Prime Minister wants to pressure universities to enrol more of the poor. It is not only about equity - it makes sense to tap into talent wherever it exists.

Gathering up the poor and pointing them towards university won’t be an easy task but let me help: after the last couple of decades of choice and competition between schools at least we know where the poor are located - we’ve increasingly dumped them together.

Most are in public schools - in fact, 40 per cent of the enrolment of public schools consists of low income families. For Catholic schools it is 25 per cent and for Independent schools, 22 per cent. The ratio between low and high income families in public schools has also worsened over time. And these figures are averages - the real difference between schools in some communities is much greater.


But why stop at the poor? Maybe the universities might like some at-risk kids, maybe a disability or two, indigenous kids - you name it, we have them in some schools far more than in others. Inequity is rife in and amongst our schools.

How do we know? Even a cursory glance at HSC results, the main entry ticket to university, reveals that our schools have evolved into hierarchies which have more to do with sifting and sorting enrolments than much else.

In New South Wales the top of the HSC ladder is dominated by the (ever increasing) academically selective schools, both public and private, followed by high-fee private schools, then public schools in middle class areas and lower fee private schools, dominant regional schools, then some more distant rural schools, followed by the rest. In Victoria the only public high schools in the big league are middle class urban schools or schools located so far away that no one else can pilfer their aspiring kids.

In spite of all that is written about choice it is schools that substantially choose students, leaving many schools stripped of their achievers and battling against increasing odds. It makes the problem of lifting up the bottom - so essential to student success, community-building and even productivity and economic growth - much harder to achieve.

It is getting worse. Allowing for differences in location, high achieving students used to be reasonably well-distributed between schools of different types. Not any more - in rural NSW for example, private and dominant public schools now snare almost two-thirds of high-end HSC results. The rest are parceled out to other public schools and those Catholic schools still genuinely serving their historical mission to the poor.

In urban Australia, studies show that the school reforms driving the growing diversity in schools over the last decade have intensified the gaps between schools serving the rich and those serving the poor.


Sure, some schools are genuinely better than others, but the students who enrol, and what they bring to school each day - prior learning, family culture, aspiration and money - is critical to the profile and the apparent success of any school. A few decades of the free market has meant that the kids and schools with existing advantages get a much bigger head start on the others.

While not alone, Julia Gillard seems to skirt around this problem - preferring to point to the need for parents and schools to work harder to raise the bar for kids. Indeed they must, but raising the bar is always easier if there is a critical mass of achievers to set the pace and show how it is done.

To make a real change to the profile of students attending university Julia Gillard now needs to turn the equity blowtorch on schools. She already has the script. While it will take more courage than rhetoric she needs to reverse policies and funding which worsens our divides. She can’t talk about narrowing the gap without tackling policies which widen it at the same time.

She could make a start by rewarding schools which enrol a wide range of students, not just a preferred slice of the population chosen by tests, ability to pay, aspirational culture or anything else. This means going much further than filling empty boarding school beds with Koori kids - to use Rudd Government clichés, it means “evidence-based” and “root and branch” reform.

Not only would this deliver more of the poor to university, it would begin to repair much of our community and social fabric which decades of the free market has torn away.

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About the Author

Chris Bonnor is a former principal and is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. His next book with Jane Caro, What makes a good school, will be published in July. He also manages a media monitoring website on education issues

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