The role that education plays in issues of social equity and justice cannot be undervalued. It is acknowledged by the United Nations as a human right, 'Everyone has the right to education’ (United Nations, 1948) and as outlined in the Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians 'As a nation Australia values the central role of education in building a democratic, equitable and just society— a society that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse, and that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures as a key part of the nation’s history, present and future.’ (Barr et al, 2008). Such lofty assertions of the importance of education as a right and national value should be sufficient to ensure that all Australians have access to an education of the highest standard with equitable outcomes for all, the reality is that this is not the case and the reasons for this remain complex, divisive and politically entrenched. Discourses of equity, power and societal expectation play a part in helping us understand how access to education and disparities in the quality of outcome experienced shapes Australian society and advantages some to the detriment of others.
The connections between socio-economic status and education are intertwined such that a deficit in one is linked to a deficit in the other. 'The persistent social and economic marginalisation of individuals and groups within society has significant detrimental direct and indirect impacts. Such marginalisation tends to create a “vicious cycle” of disadvantage, limiting access to educational opportunities, which in turn leads to poor labour market outcomes and low earnings.’ (Lim, Gemici, Rice & Karmel, 2011 p570) The connection between socio-economic status and educational achievement is made clear by Professor Tony Vinson whose study of factors resulting in disadvantage and its distribution across Australia states that 'The report highlights the particularly strong link between intergenerational poverty and low educational attainment.’ (Vinson, 2007 p1) Vinson’s study outlines how disadvantage on measures such as education, health, criminality, access to services, employment and community services is unevenly distributed and 'finds that just 1.7 percent of postcodes and communities across Australia account for more than seven times their share of top rank positions of the major factors that cause intergenerational poverty’ (Vinson, 2007 p1).
Vinson reveals the complexity of the interconnections between aspects of disadvantage and the complexity that exists as one tries to describe its causes or identify solutions. 'Poverty, low parental education and single parent family structure are not simply proxies for a single underlying disadvantage but have additive effects on the life chances of children.' (Bauman, Silver and Stein, 2006 p1326) While implicated in many studies as a factor (Connell & White 1991)(Lim, Gemici, Rice & Karmel, 2011)((Vinson, 2007 & 2015)(Bauman, Silver and Stein, 2006) (OECD, 2012), equity of educational outcome alone can not explain the distribution of social disadvantage and measures to minimise its influence will not be achieved through educational reform alone. As Connell and White assert ‘Poverty and education is an issue no one likes to own. It is complicated, it is frustrating, and it does not lend itself to grand gestures’. ‘In fact the issue is both welfare business and school’s business’. (Connell, Johnston & White 1991 ch2 p 1)
'The observation that children reared in socio-economic disadvantage experience developmental delays and intellectual deficits raises basic questions to do with appropriate social and welfare policies.' (Najman, Bor, Morrison, Andersen & Williams, 1992 p833) This finding by Najman et al reveals a connection beyond academic achievement and indicates a connection between low-socioeconomic standing and attainment of normal developmental milestones. This research indicates that more needs to be done to redress the influence of socioeconomic standing than improving schools as there are broader health issues implicated in this study. A discourse of school blaming or school failure oversimplifies the reality of the situation but is a common element of analysis. The OECD when addressing ‘Equity and Quality in Education’ writes that 'Educational failure also imposes high costs on society. Poorly educated people limit economies’ capacity to produce, grow and innovate. School failure damages social cohesion and mobility, and imposes additional costs on public budgets to deal with the consequences – higher spending on public health and social support and greater criminality, among others.’ (OECD 2012 p3) The implication in the phrasing ‘poorly educated people’ is that the remedy lies within the school and the quality of education received, broader societal issues that impede the capacity of the school to achieve equitable outcomes for students are overlooked in such a simplistic analysis.
Understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of the issues causing and impacted by socio-economic disadvantage allows individual elements to be addressed singularly while not ignoring their relationship with others. As Foucault warns 'we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies.' (Foucault, 1990, p. 101) Such an approach is useful within education and for those operating within educational systems. Identifying the multiplicity of discourses connected to power and policy that influence the trajectory of social endeavours such as educational reform is essential.
By Nigel Coutts
In Part Two we explore definitions of Equity and in Part Three Pedagogical response.
Full references will be published with Part three